Azara Blog: Our Easter Island Moment: is it already too late to save the environment?

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Date published: 2010/06/07

Sarah Mukherjee gave a Centre for Science and Policy Distinguished Lecture late this afternoon. Mukherjee was an environment correspondent for the BBC before taking voluntary redundancy earlier this year. The CSP is an attempt to foster connections between policy makers and scientists and engineers. It's headed by David Cleevely, one of the city's movers and shakers, and its executive committee has the usual sorts of suspects, so it ought to be influential, although it remains to be seen if it will be.

The title of Mukherjee's talk was "Our Easter Island Moment: is it already too late to save the environment?", and the discussion was about climate change, rather than any other environmental problem. Her main thesis was that the Climate Change Act (2008), which commits the UK government to reducing emissions by 80% by 2050 and which was supported by all three main political parties, was already dead and it was only a matter of time until some government repealed it.

She takes as some evidence for this belief the fact that during the economic crisis all the politicians are fixated on the economy rather than the environment, and never mention the latter when talking about the former. Well, the economic crisis started in 2007, so before 2008, so that's one problem with this argument. And as Mukherjee pointed out, a year or two ago the politicians were falling over themselves to "out green" each other. In particular, Cameron had used the environmental message to try and "detoxify" the Tory brand.

Mukherjee claimed that some person high in the Lib Dems had told her that they were the most "green" party "only because we didn't think we'd get into office". Well that is not quite fair, since the Lib Dems are full of the usual academic middle class types who love to portray themselves as "green", and so most of them presumably believe the rhetoric.

Apparently Jonathon Porritt claimed that "Britain leads the world in climate change rhetoric". Well, Porritt is a perfect example of that. Britain has far too many people who campaign and write books rather than actually contributing something useful to the world (think science and engineering).

Mukherjee claimed that the only legal sanction for a future government failing to meet the goals of the Climate Change Act was judicial review, which she considered a bit of a joke, but which is fair enough, since why should a future prime minister go to prison just because previous prime ministers failed to do something or other. But it does show one of the flaws with the entire concept of the Act.

She put the alleged current lack of interest in climate change amongst politicians down to three things.

First, there is the declining number of British people who believe that "global warming" is a reality. Well, a lot of that decline could be attributed to the silliness of Climategate, or maybe the cold winter Britain just had, who knows. But as someone pointed out in the questions at the end, this kind of blip in opinion polls happens all the time, and it is probably not significant in the long term.

Anyway, she took the opportunity to state that one of the problems was that there was "no engagement between politicians and ordinary people" and that politicians only paid attention to the media, as if somehow the media represented ordinary people. And she had a dig in particular at newspapers for having far too much influence. So the Guardian has only 300 thousand readers, which size of audience she claimed would sink most radio programmes, but the Guardian (and the other newspapers) had instant access to all the top politicians.

The second reason she gave for the alleged waning interest in climate change by politicians is the Energy Gap. So Britain, by some accounts, is in serious trouble of having the lights going out by 2020, and this is one of the big failures of the previous Labour government, but most likely the government in charge at the time when blackouts start happening will be the one that gets the blame.

And the third reason she gave is the failure of the Copenhagen 2009 climate change conference. She put that down to the conference just being too big for any hope of cohesion, and in particular blamed the NGOs (so she said that they had "collapsed it from inside"). Well, the media were also part of the circus, and in particular Mukherjee, so they should also shoulder their part responsibility. She claimed that the EU delegation was completely ignored by the real players (the US, China, India, Brazil).

Bizarrely enough, she showed three of her own reports from Copenhagen, but they added nothing to the discussion, so perhaps it was just useful padding.

Her take on all this was that to overcome these issues, Britain must "invest in elite academic education", and in particular in science. She was keen to stress that "elite" is not the same as "posh". Well, although more and better education is a good thing, it's hard to see this as the main stumbling block in Britain over climate change. Far more serious is that no politician has come up with a narrative whereby they are going to address climate change and make peoples' lives better rather than worse. Part of the problem, as Mukherjee noted, is that there is a dominance of "puritanism" amongst NGOs, who want to move the world back a couple hundred years (so pre-industrial revolution). Mukherjee didn't point out that the reason this kind of puritanism gets such traction in Britain is that the BBC gives these people loads of free air time without any critical analysis or comment.

Apparently Mukherjee grew up on a council estate and went to a grammar school and then Oxford, so the kind of rise that allegedly is less and less common these days, thanks, some people would claim, to the anti-elitist destruction of grammar schools. And it sounded like she was pretty nearly alone in the BBC, which is stuffed full of the same "public" (i.e. private) school types that the cabinet is now stuffed full of. (She made the obvious remark that the current cabinet made the world look more like 1910 than 2010.)

During questions someone asked whether the BBC gave too much airtime to climate change "sceptics" and she said not. Someone else suggested that if only Britain had voting system "reform" (i.e. proportional representation) then all would be well on climate change leadership, but letting extremists (left and right) into Parliament is hardly a great idea. Mukherjee said it might be good to get more Greens into Parliament since they are single minded, i.e. presumably willing to screw ordinary people to achieve their goals. She pointed to the alleged success of the so-called London Congestion Charge as to what could be achieved, but that is a success only in the minds of people who don't mind millions and millions of pounds of money being wasted to run the scheme.

Someone mentioned the town hall meetings where the Climate Change Act was propagandised by the usual NGO suspects (Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, etc.). Mukherjee herself had pointed these out as an important reason the Act was passed, and praised them for this reason. But she and the questioner completely failed to point out that these meetings were not representative of the public but just of the usual vocal middle class suspects. And far too much power in Britain has been shifted away from the accountable politicians to the unaccountable vocal middle class.

Someone mentioned how it might take less energy to produce GM crops. And Cambridge is one of the few towns in Britain where GM crops get some kind of sympathy vote, although there is also plenty of opposition even in Cambridge from the usual non-scientific ("chattering") middle class. Mukherjee supported GM crops, but didn't point out that the very same NGOs she praised for pushing the Climate Change Act were the ones who had helped stop GM crops. Instead she blamed the media, and Monsanto for allegedly not responding to the strident anti-GM propaganda (but that's a bit hard to believe). Anyway, she believes that the European elite is going to lose its battle against GM since the rest of the world seems to grow it just fine.

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