We’re all dead against global warming. But when it comes to the crunch . . .

By David Aaronovitch (THE TIMES, 05/09/2006):

Something in me rebels against the idea of preparing for global warming. Such a concession feels treacherous and unnatural, a bit like taking out life insurance on your own children. Even so I could see the logic in what Frances Cairncross, the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was saying yesterday. Friends of the Earth itself concedes the likelihood and survivability of a two-degree increase in world temperature, so we’d better steel ourselves, do what Ms Cairncross says, and develop new crops and build up sea defences in unlikely places. I will volunteer to help to create “wildlife corridors” for endangered beasts to migrate safely. I think I could carry a lynx or two in my gym bag.

The outcome — whether our grandchildren and great-grandchildren inherit a tolerable world — depends, of course, on far more than what policies we adopt in this country. Or even than what we do together with Governor Schwarzenegger of California. But as the protesters at the Drax power station were right to point out, our bit is the bit we can do and we ought to do it. What is it, though?

Yesterday’s letters page had an epistle on the same subject from a number of important figures, including Friends of the Earth and the environment spokesthings of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. This letter called for a climate change Bill which would establish a “legally binding target” for the reduction of CO2.

The objective would be a 3 per cent annual reduction every year after 2010 (assuming that the reduction to 20 per cent below 1990 levels was met by that time). Each year there would be an audit, and if the reduction was not accomplished then the relevant select committees would be empowered to propose policies and have them debated and voted on by both Houses of Parliament. And if the Government fell way short, then the PM and the climate change minister would both have their pay slashed by 10 per cent.

My first reaction to the proposed Bill may have been coloured by the fact that two of the most intellectually erratic members of the House of Commons, the conspiracists Norman Baker and Michael Meacher, were among its early sponsors. My second reaction was to wonder whether the Bill didn’t itself run the danger of being a huge cop-out, loading on to a government a target without any specified means of achieving it, and without taking responsibility therefore for public reaction to any possible consequences.

Surely (one lobe of my internal discussion argued) the problem with all this is exemplified by the plausible-sounding but ultimately gimmicky proposal for the salary cut. It isn’t the prospect of a 10 per cent wage reduction that bothers governments, it’s the 100 per cent wage reduction they’ll get if the voters decide they don’t like ’em.

Step through the wobbly lines with me back to September 2000 and the fuel crisis. Men with names such as Haddock are blockading the fuel depots, the newspapers and broadcasters are lauding a new Peasant’s Revolt, and the Government looks around it to see how widespread is support for the fuel duty escalator, originally conceived as a measure to assist in emission control. It looks to its right and sees: “Tory representatives at their party’s annual conference in Bournemouth have overwhelmingly backed a motion calling for the immediate lowering of fuel duty. Said Richard Ottaway, the then Tory Treasury spokesman, ‘It wasn’t until the Labour luvvies in Islington couldn’t get to the delicatessen to buy their sun-dried tomatoes that the Prime Minister knew he had a crisis on his hands’.”

The Government looks to its ecological left and hears: “Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has called on the Government to cap fuel taxes for five years. In his conference speech, Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Matthew Taylor said, ‘People power is here to stay. I believe we must be part of that revolution’.” When tax comes to fuel it appears that no one much cares for the environmental arguments, so Labour abandons the fuel tax escalator, though you will now find on the Lib Dem website a criticism of it for doing so.

This is not a party political thing. Labour in opposition would have behaved the same. But it created in me a cynicism about whether the British people (and British media) would allow its governments to take difficult measures that impact upon their lives. Look at the squealing about speed cameras and enforcing bus lanes. That’s what the one lobe says.

And see — that lobe goes on — the total vagueness of Tory party proposals as to how any reduction might be achieved, let alone 3 per cent. Its website says: “Our starting position is one of optimism that we can build consensus around positive actions to reduce carbon emissions . . .” and then finishes a dozen pieties later with: “Below is a list of questions that we are discussing with a broad range of people inside the business community. If you have a view, please share it with us at . . .” At the side is one of those pointless polls that asks: “What do you think about the Government’s Energy Review? Great? Good in parts? Appalling?” Eighty-six people have voted so far and appalling has it.

What about the Lib Dems? Here there are genuine Green Switch policies which can be campaigned for this weekend at the Green Switch stall in Dorking and elsewhere. I choose elsewhere. This programme is not unimpressive, though it doesn’t remotely come close to the party’s claim that it “will cut income tax and switch to green taxes on pollution instead. Then the more you choose to switch to greener living the more money you will save.” And the Lib Dem insistence in advance of the Energy Review that it will oppose any new nuclear power also leaves a gap in its explanation of how it will reduce greenhouse emissions from power generation.

So, says the sceptical lobe, how does setting a “binding limit” advance us beyond setting targets — especially when a difficult policy has to be sold to an electorate that suffers from simultaneous compartmentalisation and amnesia? Now the other lobe responds — with help from people at Friends of the Earth. Such a climate change Act would put the onus on parties and leaders to come up with proposals that would allow the target to be met. Those proposals could be vastly different and embody alternative views on how society might develop. You could choose to allow increased mobility, for example, but the cost might be an enormous reduction in household and industrial emissions. Or vice versa. And maybe people are now ready for this in a way that they weren’t six years ago.

Here’s a test though. What do readers think would be the reaction of public and opinion-formers to the following: a law to ban the production of electronic equipment with standby buttons? Stolid acceptance of the sense of such a measure? Left lobe wins — pass the Bill. Outrage at such an intrusion into our right never to get closer than five yards to our TVs? Right lobe triumphs. Don’t bother.