Don’t despair on climate change

Image of Harry Eyres

I have a respect bordering on veneration for the FT’s chief economics commentator Martin Wolf (even if I can’t make head nor tail of his charts and graphs), but I beg to differ with a powerful but despairing piece he wrote a few weeks ago entitled “Why the world faces climate chaos”. Much of what he wrote is incontrovertibly true: all the talk, the international conferences, the protocols, the promises, the commitments to tackle climate change have resulted in nothing, or less than nothing. Global carbon emissions are not just rising relentlessly but rising faster than ever. There is now a bat’s chance in hell that we can keep global warming below 2C – a figure considered far too high for safety by many scientists – not least because all the calculations supporting this limit are based on the assumption that global CO2 emissions have peaked already, or will have peaked by 2015.

What I want to challenge is Wolf’s political pessimism. His despair comes not just from the grim findings of the scientists, but from a complete lack of faith in the ability of politicians to act ahead of public opinion in the long term global interest; in the interest not just of their electors over the next few years, but of their children and brothers and sisters and their children’s children, of other species and of the continuing viability of life more or less as we have known it on this planetary home of ours for generations to come. Wolf’s pessimism is exacerbated by his recognition that many if not most politicians in the west are in the grip of an extreme free-market ideology; the belief, in the teeth of all countervailing evidence, that markets are omniscient and should therefore be omnipotent; that any interference in their perfect workings by government regulation is doomed to failure.

Expecting any sort of altruism, not to mention leadership, from politicians has come to seem a tall order. But it is absolutely necessary and not impossible if imagined as a series of steps, starting with some which are feasible. Why not, for a start, introduce a speed limit of 50 miles (80km) per hour on all major roads and 20mph in towns? Fuel consumption and therefore carbon emissions would be reduced significantly, as would road accidents and fatalities. Sure, some journey times might be slightly longer (though slower, steadier traffic would avoid some jams), but my admittedly anecdotal experience limiting my speed on journeys to and from the family home in the Chilterns suggests the effect is quite negligible, and in any case a very small price to pay for the benefits.

In case you were becoming nauseated by my aura of sanctity, I can tell you that my self-imposed speed restriction did not arise primarily for the altruistic reasons outlined above, but because of my elderly VW Polo’s obstinate overheating problem, mentioned before in this column. I found that the engine temperature remained fairly stable if I did not exceed 3,000 revs, so the Polo and I have been chugging quite happily along in the most literal of slow lanes.

The “quite happily” part is significant. I used to find the idea of driving at 50mph on a motorway intolerably boring; but the reality turns out to be rather pleasant, and certainly more relaxing than driving at 70 or 80. Driving fast brings thrills and spills; why not have relaxed pleasure without the danger? In any case, pace Jeremy Clarkson and his fans, boyish irresponsibility should not govern transport or environmental policy.

“Most people believe today that a low-carbon economy would be one of universal privation. They will never accept such a situation.” Here is the nub of Martin Wolf’s despair, and the gauntlet thrown down to environmentalists and others who would challenge it. I have referred before to the maverick ecologist and historian Ivan Illich, and his insistence that breaking our addiction to the “slave energy” of fossil fuels would make us happier, more creative and more free. Now Illich has a contemporary champion, the irrepressible Andrew Simms, whose Cancel the Apocalypse offers a cornucopia of alternative policy options to defy inertia and despair.

These are not just the starry-eyed proposals of a policy wonk, but in some cases schemes which have been successfully tried and tested. In the Netherlands, for example, the option of a four-day working week has been offered by many employers, including government, for some years. The shorter week has an approval rating of 96 per cent, has contributed to equalising the pay of men and women, and has cut carbon emissions. In Utah, in response to the recession of 2008 and shortfalls in state revenues, a Republican governor introduced a four-day week, which reduced absenteeism and cut carbon emissions by 14 per cent (although the five-day week was reintroduced in 2011).

Many environmentalists have given up altogether on central governments, pointing to successes at local level. I think they are wrong; we need strong, guiding messages from the centre as well as work at the grassroots.

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