Dead Men Left

Monday, December 12, 2005

Climate change and the necessity of politics

Jarndyce, at his spangly redesigned blog, wonders whether the climate change march will really make any difference. His reckoning that, at this stage in proceedings, its main benefit will be in stirring the pot, and keeping the issue on the boil, is probably about right. Ten thousand protestors is good – far bigger than anything before on the issue – but it’s not yet enough to start really shifting the issue politically.

This is rapidly turning into a problem, because – having fought for years against the lunatic idea, tragically supported by at least one powerful government, that climate change either isn’t happening, or doesn’t matter – the environmental movement is facing something of a dilemma. There’s a consensus that climate change is happening and does matter, regardless of a few recidivists’ beliefs, but that it can be treated like any other policy issue.

In the neoliberal world, this means reducing it to an issue of management. Targets can be fixed, competent administrators found to work towards them, and all will be well. Oliver Letwin, the Tories’ former shadow environment minister, has floated the classic technocratic fix: set up an independent committee to monitor progress towards targets, allow markets to work their magic, and don’t let messy political wrangling get in the way. We have the technology, you see, and it doesn’t really matter what that technology is, including nuclear power.

Except nuclear power – as discussed elsewhere – is not carbon-neutral, but is fanatically expensive and demonstrably unsafe.

Moreover, even if we swapped, overnight, all our current fossil-fuel power generation for nukes, the relatively slight, one-off reduction in carbon emissions would be overwhelmed, in a few years, by increased emissions from transport. Taking climate change seriously means addressing transport use in the UK (PDF): greenhouse gas emissions from all transport (including aviation) were 47% higher in 2002 than in 1990, compared to a 10% reduction in emissions from all other sectors. This increase is entirely due to private transport use: emissions due to public transport have fallen 8% - at the same time as passenger-miles have risen. (This ONS Excel file has the raw statistics.)

Either the Tories are prepared to hand over transport policy to this independent emissions monitor, or it will be a drowned duck. Quite clearly they won’t, since it would interfere with their longstanding commitments to ”ending the war on motorists” and accelerated road-building. This is leaving aside the anti-democratic founding principle of the proposed commission: that it should be "independent", and hence free of politics.

Any solution here will be, of necessity, holistic: neither the market alone, nor narrow-minded government policies, will resolve the issue. That is part of the reason why a politically-minded mass movement is needed; it’s the only way to keep the issue out of the hands of the technocrats.