But it’s no use just blaming pusillanimous politicians. They should frighten their countries witless with the inconvenient truth – but there is a limit to how far ahead of their people any leader can go, elected or not. NGO protesters make much-needed noise, but they wouldn’t have to if most people were already with them.
Consider the political problem here in the country we know – then multiply it by the world’s 193 sovereign states, all with their own internal rivalries and external foes. The question is whether governments have the power and consent to do the draconian things required. It is hard not to despair.
Britain’s pollsters find people don’t list climate change among their top concerns. Many think the science is still in dispute. Why wouldn’t they when the maverick billionaires who control most of our press keep pumping out climate change denial day after day? The Mail, Express and Telegraph are unrelenting: “100 reasons why global warming is natural”; “EU and UN bosses have embraced environmentalism because it gives them the chance to undermine the nation state”. Ian Plimer, Richard Littlejohn, Lord Lawson and Christopher Booker churn out denial. This week the Taxpayers’ Alliance adds its own dose of Copenhagen poison, with tendentious allegations of green “rip-off” taxes costing £26bn. So how do you persuade only averagely interested voters that the mighty weight of scientific opinion believes calamity is almost certain?
News editors yawned as Copenhagen failed: the good news that everyone can fly BA over the Christmas period knocked it off the lead. “Heavy snowfall causes disruption” took top slot above global warming talks yesterday on the BBC. So bored was the BBC with Copenhagen that an injunction not to give children watered-down wine knocked the talks off the top all Thursday.
Walk around any supermarket noting the vegetables from Africa and South America. Feel the open fridges freeze you in the heat of the warm emporium, and it’s blindingly obvious that all this is not sustainable. Not the flying, not the city warmth billowing out so my geraniums no longer die in winter, nor the cars, nor the Christmas squandering and the sheer excess everywhere. Our grandchildren will not live like this – if they and their children survive. But cutting back looks beyond the power of politics.
If politicians ask voters, “Do you sincerely want the planet to survive?” the answer is by no means obvious. Eat, drink, fly and be merry, hope for the best, cling to the comforting deniers. Imagining three generations ahead is a stretch. If voters cared about people drowning in Bangladesh, more aid would have been sent decades ago. If 20 million climate refugees arrive in boats, fend them off.
Incoming Tory candidates when polled want less not more green action and less foreign aid. Hillary Clinton can promise £100bn a year by 2020 – but the OECD reckons that £23bn of the £50bn promised by rich to poorer countries at Gleneagles in 2005 will now never be paid. Cameron talks a bit green but with no sign of green taxes. Ed Miliband‘s seriousness has been admirable, saying openly that energy prices must rise. But Labour wasted most of its 12 years doing virtually nothing: neither Blair nor Brown as chancellor gave climate any priority.
Look how hard it is to persuade our own country to change its ways. There are plentiful solutions. Energy prices should rise to make renewables profitable – but credits would have to go to half the population who couldn’t afford to heat their homes. Personal carbon trading was briefly promoted by David Miliband when in charge of environment, until slapped down by Chancellor Brown. That would be fair and transparent, giving every citizen a carbon quota to spend as they choose on heating, flying or driving.
The well-off could buy unused carbon quota from the half of the population that never flies, so money passes from richer to poorer. The price would rise every year, as the quota shrank to limit emissions. Sensible, fair and redistributive, it would be easy to implement with plastic cards for energy and transport bills, compared with wartime rationing of everything all done on paper. But it would require a gigantic collective will to action and a will to redistribute to make it happen. No country as unequal as the UK, let alone the US, can have a collective will when citizens’ interests are diametrically opposed to one another. Inequality between and within nations may be the death of us.
Fixing the climate is not a practical conundrum, it is a purely political problem. We could build the windmills, the solar, the nuclear and whatever it takes to be self-sustaining with clean energy for ever if we wanted to. But enough people have to want to change how they live and spend to make it happen. So far they don’t, not by a long chalk. What would it take? A tidal wave destroying New York maybe – New Orleans was the wrong people – with London, St Petersburg and Shanghai wiped out all at once. But cataclysms will come too late for action. Just pray for a scientific wonder or that Lord Stern is right and the market can fix it, as green technology becomes more profitable than oil and coal. As things stand, politics has not enough heft nor authority. It would take a political miracle to save us now.