For the next 50 months: climate change isn’t special

Please wait for green man, Joe Smith, Kings Cross 2012

Today the Guardian publishes a joint letter I signed that states: ‘On current trends, there are around just 50 months left before we cross a critical climate threshold. After that, it will no longer be ‘likely’ that we will stay on the right side of a 2 degree temperature rise’.
Andrew Simms, who put together the letter and kicked off the 100 months campaign, asked what the signatories thought they would do differently to respond to the urgency demanded in the letter. My answer appears below. First though, a qualification. The 100 months campaign is brilliantly clear and eye-catching. Free of the weaselling and procrastinations of the academic seminar room. But I will tuck in a line or two of weaselling here in this quiet corner of the blogosphere in any case. I don’t think the science of climate change allows us to put a number on when a critical climate threshold has been passed. Rather I see the work of the 100 months campaign as being a political device, and I see any definition of ‘dangerous climate change’ as a political act not a scientific fact. That doesn’t make it any less urgent. Indeed politics is the right place for urgency once the science has provided a pretty robust risk analysis (it has).

I’m going to start a swear box – I’ll put £1 in every time I find myself thinking ‘crisis’ instead of opportunity, or suggest that climate change is a ‘special’ problem. No. It is an every day problem. Yes, society needs to cut emissions and prepare to cope with unpredictable changes in climate that are almost certain to come. But insisting on these things in exclusion from everyday concerns has been counter-productive. Environment specialists have failed to explain that climate change isn’t something that can be bumped down the to-do list until you’ve fixed the economy.

So I’m going to stop suggesting climate change is special. It is just one item on a list of societal risk management problems. We’ve had such problems before and we’ll have them again. It is admittedly a risk management challenge on a grand scale in terms of geography and time, but it is one that can probably be diagnosed and treated. I’d recommend starting by focusing on the global price of carbon.

Our buildings, streets, vacuum cleaners, electricity networks, sewage plants, trouser presses and mobility systems have all grown up in an age of low cost coal, oil and gas. But along with glorious freedoms the era of cheap fuel has brought with it hidden ugliness and cost. Drafty, damp and cold housing for many of the poorest and oldest; miserable and time consuming commutes in routine traffic jams; unrepairable products that break down when a small component fails; the collapse of businesses and loss of jobs as low cost freight constantly undermines locally rooted economies.

Here’s a simple action that will boost robust and more resilient locally focused economies worldwide and get everyone recognising that the economy and the environment are inseparable.  Put all of the political energy that in the past has gone into the Kyoto mechanisms into pursuit of a global carbon tax. Let individual countries resolve precisely how it is raised and spent. I’d argue that the UK should cut a good slice off income and corporation tax. This will help spark a rush of economic development that is ‘carbon-wise’. Keep a slice back to ensure that the poorest have good access to comfortable housing and public transport; keep another slice back to support those communities near and far who are vulnerable to the worst effects of climate change in the present. Not special action, just wise.

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