Furthermore, volcanic eruptions are flashes in the pan. They have been happening regularly for aeons, with no discernable effect on global temperatures. When, in a few days, weeks or months, Eyjafjallajokull returns to its state of slumber and our skies are once again choked with aircraft, we will have returned to a way of life that neither our planet nor our economy can support in the long term. Although the current crisis is expensive – airlines are reported to be losing around £130m per day, and stranded travellers are shelling out further millions for accommodation, car hire and extortionate seats on Eurostar – the effects of climate change will cost a lot more. Lord Stern has warned that failing to invest 1-2% of GDP now in the fight against climate change could end up costing us more than 20% of the world’s GDP.
Had we taken steps already to redesign our economy according to the principles of sustainable development, the grounding of our air fleet would have been far easier to take. There would already be affordable, high-speed direct rail links between all major European cities. Businesses would be equipped with state-of-the-art videoconferencing facilities and making fuller use of the formidable communications and information resources of the internet. Aircraft would be more efficient. Airlines would be paying duty on fuel in the same way that car drivers do, changing the economics of travel in a way that favoured more sustainable alternatives. Citizens would be used to holidaying closer to home. Only those with enough money and pressing reasons to fly would be inconvenienced.
Sadly, these more fundamental questions are largely ignored, especially in the runup to the general election. As David Blunkett recently told me at a post-budget breakfast, and as a senior member of shadow cabinet confirmed to me in confidence, voters have become more sceptical and less concerned about climate change, while scientists are more concerned and convinced than ever that it is both real and damaging. Concerns over short-term economic performance, and some blunderous decisions by climate scientists at the University of East Anglia, have allowed our politicians to sweep this important issue under the carpet.
Little wonder, then, that some environmentalists are indulging in a certain amount of schadenfreude. Their argument: if we insist on closing our eyes to the threat of climate change, if we insist on making the wrong choices in our business and personal lives, if we deny our addiction to air travel and fail to develop better solutions, then we deserve to suffer when the airports are closed.
I don’t share this sentiment. No one benefits from this temporary chaos, and few people will overhaul their lifestyle just because they can’t fly for a week or two. But I fear for our future when I see that, no matter how much evidence we gather about our effects on the climate, water, biodiversity and our own wellbeing, we cannot bring ourselves to find a better way to live.
By definition, what is unsustainable cannot go on indefinitely. If we need to change, as we do, then we need to start right away, and we need this change to be deep and lasting. We could start by electing politicians who are prepared to present honestly both the exciting opportunities and the occasionally painful changes required to bring about a fulfilling, rewarding, healthy and lasting future for our species. We could reconsider our obsession with growth fuelled by consumption; as the respected economist Kenneth Boulding said: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” And we could begin a serious debate about how to limit the size of our population without undermining the right of people to choose how many children they have. All of these are vital issues, all of them present economic opportunities, and none of them is being adequately addressed by our political leaders.