Posted by: Jon | 27/11/2009

Russian Roulette and ‘an appeal to reason’

In the run up to COP15 in Copenhagen the public debate between ‘moralising believers’ and ‘sceptical deniers’ of global warming has become increasingly strident. Pronouncements of a decade of global cooling and Viscount Monckton’s recent revelation that  green is the new red have been swiftly followed by warnings that we are on course for 4 degrees of temperature rise – or even an unthinkable 6 degrees.

With the summit now less than two weeks away, there is a growing sense of fatalism amongst climate change campaigners that the talks will fail and it is anyway too late to make a difference. The despondent resignation of exhausted ‘believers’ and the increasingly hysterical jeering of ‘sceptics’ reminds me of the desperate game of Russian roulette played out in the film ‘The Deer Hunter’. Because the stakes are unimaginably high and the ‘believers’ have just self-inflicted a terrible wound from the freshly ‘smoking gun’ of the leaked Climate Research Unit emails. The onlooking ‘sceptics’ have become delirious in their manic derision. The deranged and dangerous game seems to have got completely out of hand.

So who has entered the frame to defuse the stretched nerves of this contest being played at the edge of sanity? None other than that self-appointed arbiter of reason, Nigel Lawson , who has already urged us all to stay calm in his 2008 book ‘An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming’.

Lord Lawson, (whose son Dominic is married to Christopher Monckton’s sister – I infer nothing by this although you might draw your own conclusions), has this week launched a new think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, to ‘restore order to the debate’. In yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, columnist Liz Hunt exhaled a sigh of relief that a ‘sensible view’ has arrived to ‘dampen down hysteria’ and arbitrate between the overwrought factions.

On the face of it, Lawson could be seen as presenting a rational voice in this increasingly polarised debate and Liz Hunt predicts that his reasonable tone will ‘resonate with the millions of us who no longer know what to think’. Sadly, I suspect that she is right. When purporting to diffuse the tensions between such emotionally charged positions, what could seem more reasonable than suggesting that we all cool down and count to ten before rushing headlong into rash decisions?

But the hidden agenda of Lawson’s new policy think-tank is to keep us distracted from the evidence has already been dispassionately gathered for over 30 years by professionally cautious climate scientists who have made their conclusions clear. The voice of reason of the IPCC has already spoken and the hacked CRU emails prove only the growing frustration of concerned but politically-unsavvy climate scientists at their warnings not being heeded.

Writing in the Guardian, Paul Kingsnorth cited the Cumbrian floods as a possible precursor of the climate impacts we can increasingly expect to blight our lives. Instinctively I agree with him, but many others, including the Met Office, quite correctly say that the Lake District has always been wet and this is local weather, not irrefutable evidence of climate change impacts. Unfortunately it is this type of subjective suggestion made in public that only serves to perpetuate the scornful voices of denial. (Although, speaking of self inflicted wounds, I can’t resist pointing out that a 90% chance of extreme weather last week was publicly predicted by the sceptical weather forecaster, Piers Corbyn. It’s just that he anticipated a North Sea surge that could cause East Coast flooding and snow blizzards in Scotland rather than the Atlantic weather system that brought flooding to the west.)  

Kingsnorth makes a much stronger point when he refers to the range of other environmental and ecological crises that threaten us, quite irrespective of global warming. Such as the unprecedented destruction of biodiversity, our depleting natural resources, concerns for global food and water security, acidified oceans becoming devoid of fish stocks, soils that no longer produce a yield without artificial chemicals, the imminent social and economic impacts of peak oil. All of these undeniable impending catastrophes have also emanated from burning fossil fuels and so will be mitigated by the same reductions in energy consumption that mitigating climate change requires.

I happen to believe along with Paul Kingsnorth and many others that some climate impacts are now inevitable. But, even if I were a sceptic, my awareness of these other converging environmental and geopolitical crises convinces me that we are anyway running out of time. Which is why Lord Lawson, however reasonable at first blush his intentions may appear, is so misguided in encouraging us to keep calm and carry on.

Of course, Lawson’s new think tank will in no way sway decisions that will be made in Copenhagen and thereafter. It would be foolish to over-estimate the influence such Western-centric posturing is likely to have on the agendas of China, Russia, India or Brazil.

But his reasonable tones will influence us, the lay-public, who don’t know what to believe. He allows us off the hook by failing to confront the consumer lifestyles which, despite recession, have led us further from sustainability than ever before. When offered the choice of acting to mitigate an invisible and imperceptible threat (to us in Britain at least) or doing nothing, which option seems more likely to appeal to our reason?

Kingsnorth likens the forthcoming Copenhagen summit talks to the Munich agreement that Chamberlain waved triumphantly in 1938. I would add that it wasn’t only Chamberlain who sought appeasement; it was widely supported by the British public up to and even after evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940.

Communicating climate change as a single environmental issue seems not only to have polarised public opinion but to have protracted the debate until many have lost interest. Richard Black recently pointed out how much climate change has diverted our attention from other ecological catastrophes. To carry the argument now, we need to focus attention not on climate change alone, but on the alarming convergence of other environmental, economic and geopolitical that threaten to overwhelm us.

Even Lord Lawson says that he accepts global warming as a possibility. So to those who still denigrate the science, we should communicate it as just exactly that. Another potential bullet in the game of Russian roulette on which we are currently gambling our future. With so many chambers already loaded against us, reason must surely convince us now to act to lessen the odds.

(And, as an afterthought, since we have no choice but to take part in the game, we might recall that the central theme of ‘The Deer Hunter’ was that we only get one shot at it. So we need to get it right).


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