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Climate change? We’re simply not bothered

Climate change? We’re simply not bothered

Hugo Rifkind

Published at 12:01AM, October 1 2013
Humanity’s feeble inability to rouse itself in the face of clear and alarming evidence should shame us all

Last week, a few days before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its latest report, the man who was once Britain’s first Secretary of State for Climate Change made a speech in which he envisaged a conversation with his kids.

“In 20 years’ time,” he said, “they’ll say to me: ‘Were you the last generation not to get climate change or the first generation to get it?’?”

And do you know what he did next? Friends, I’ll tell you what he did next. He proposed a two-year price freeze on energy bills, so that the people of Britain could keep using just as much electricity as they do today.

This, of course, was Ed Miliband. Five years ago, he was the guy who brought in the Climate Change Act. These days, like everybody else, he has other priorities. Back then, you’ll recall, David Cameron was the guy who went husky-sledding to Norwegian glaciers. “Vote Blue, go Green”: remember that? Instead they all went yellow, and didn’t even go red. The political will has melted away like Arctic ice.

Why? Some would tell you that faltering politics have followed faltering science, but that’s either wishful thinking, lazy thinking or both. As almost everybody now knows, the world has not warmed as expected since 1998, and climate scientists are not wholly sure why. This does not, however, point to a collapse in the science. Contrary to what Matt Ridley so eloquently argued on these pages on Saturday, the IPCC’s latest report is, if anything, more bleakly alarming than the last.

There has been no great retreat in scientific confidence. Sea levels are still said to be rising, and that rise is said to be accelerating. Ice sheets are still melting. Extreme weather is still considered likely, and in some places very likely. Droughts in areas that host some of the planets most vulnerable populations are still expected. The oceans grow ever more acidic, which is predicted to continue. Human influence is asserted with more confidence than ever before.

What has changed, chiefly, is that this has become a message nobody wants to hear. These days, you are probably more likely to know that the Arctic has more ice on it this year than last year (and you have perhaps been itching to tell me this since I made that earlier crack about melting) than you are to know that this is probably because last year was precisely the sort of extreme weather event the IPCC is so keen to warn us about. Overall, the Arctic has lost 75 per cent of its summer sea ice in three decades. Think about that. It’s a lot of ice.

For the same reason, you probably know more about the IPCC scientists’ acknowledgement of this unexplained pause in rising temperatures than you do about all the other things on which they have given no quarter. That’s just the stuff that sticks in the brain. Arguably the globe’s failure to get simplistically hotter in a manner observable by blokes in pubs has been useful cover for humanity’s great collective inability to grasp the nettle.

Speaking of humanity in such terms might sound grandiose, and probably is quite. But I don’t really know how else to say it. We have revealed ourselves to be poor at complexity and poor at long-term thinking. We are dismally — arrogantly, perhaps even chippily — unwilling to trust those who understand things that we do not. Frankly, it’s a failing that defines our age. Had this threat loomed up fifty years earlier, world governments would probably have colluded quite undemocratically to combat it, curbing this, banning that and threatening sanctions on upstart countries that didn’t play ball. Fifty years from now, by contrast, maybe we’ll have learnt to be more discerning in the information we absorb and less easily swayed by a zinger of a take-down in a website’s comments section.

Armchair bloggers who sneer at scientific consensus (or near consensus; don’t write in) and declare it a fifth column for global socialism are at least fairly straightforward in their failings Even among those less inclined to make their headgear out of tinfoil, however, there has been a creeping and lazy acceptance that the threat of climate change entails a straight choice between either an environmental apocalypse that might not happen or an economic one that surely will if we try to do anything about it. And this, mark you, before we even have tried to do anything much about it.

Nobody admits they’ve given up, though. That’s the thing. Our politicians still pay lipservice to meaningful carbon dioxide reduction, while seeming to tacitly accept that it’s simply never going to happen. Yes, fracking should make a difference, and nuclear, too, but the carbon dioxide arguments on both are wheeled out as afterthoughts to the economic ones, supporting policies that most of those in favour would have favoured anyway. Anything that actually costs us, anything that has an impact on our life to the tiniest degree, and we run a mile.

Right now, the world feels a bit like a smoker relying on the evidence that he hasn’t yet got cancer to justify an unspoken belief that maybe he never will. How feeble is that? What has happened to the confidence with which the likes of Mr Miliband and Mr Cameron used to make their case? Everybody used to know that combating climate change would require some sacrifice; not a huge one, not ditching your fridge, but something. Wind farms, wave farms, solar farms, nuclear power, all of that. How did it all get so tangled up in cynicism, politics, website comments and the exploitation of poorly drafted subsidy laws? Looking into the future from 2008, how sickened would we be if we could see ourselves today?

I actually happen to believe that Matt Ridley is right and that a new middle ground does need be forged between the absolutism of the “live in your own compost heap” brigade and those who believe that anybody who calls themselves a “climate scientist” is by definition a charlatan. But it’s not a lack of confidence in the science that makes me think this. Not at all. Rather, it’s a lack of confidence in us.