CLIMATE CHANGE : Why do we play down the horror?

2012 Republican Presidential Candidates - Upda...
2012 Republican Presidential Candidates – Update March 28, 2011 (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

Jonathon Porritt wonders why we moderate the ‘scary’ impacts of global warming to avoid alienating people

So here I am, writing this on a flight out to join Forum for the Future colleagues in New York (I know, I know…), pondering, as always, how to manage the advocacy challenge that lies ahead. The Guardian reports

I’m leaving on the day the British media went into overdrive on the latest data from the Arctic on the extent of melting in the summer sea ice. Superlatives abound: ‘worst ever’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘no known comparison in at least three million years’ etc. But the thing that really grabbed me in all the coverage was the personal testimony of some of the scientists involved: shocked, horrified and astonished as they clearly are at the prospect of an ice-free summer Arctic by 2030 – decades earlier than the same scientists were predicting just a few years ago.

A comment from a Cambridge University sea ice researcher says it all: “this is staggering. It’s disturbing, scary that we have physically changed the face of the planet.”

Scary. A word that’s hopelessly understated, and yet seriously difficult to use effectively – especially in the US.

In his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney mentioned climate change only once, and used speech marks around it to demonstrate his contempt for Barack Obama’s marginally more committed position.

It’s election time, and both parties still get a lot of money from the oil, coal and gas lobbies. Money talks louder than science or even basic reason. Just check out the official platform of the Republican Party in Texas: “We strongly oppose all efforts of the extreme environmental groups to disrupt and stop the oil and gas industries. We believe the Environmental Protection Agency should be abolished. We support the freedom to continue to use and manufacture incandescent light bulbs. We strongly support the immediate repeal of the Endangered Species Act. We strongly oppose the listing of the dune sage brush lizard either as a threatened or an endangered species.”

Now that is scary. Especially if you’re a dune sage brush lizard.

Fortunately, I suspect I won’t have to deal with any Texas Republicans on this visit, though I have in the past. But I will be engaging with many people who may still describe themselves as ‘climate sceptics’, if not full-on ‘denialists’.

No doubt I’ll end up moderating the message to avoid alienating them. To ensure that ‘scary’ doesn’t lead to denial rather than enlightenment. Keeping people on side is a precondition of making any progress on sustainability issues.

I feel bad about that. All the more so having just read the latest broadside from the redoubtable Kevin Anderson at Manchester University, taking to task the vast majority of climate scientists for their mealy-mouthed inability to tell it as it really is: “Contrary to the claims of many climate sceptics, scientists repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses. When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise, ‘impossible’ is translated into ‘difficult but doable’, whereas ‘urgent and radical’ emerge as ‘challenging’ – all to appease the god of economics. Put bluntly, climate change commitments are incompatible with short to medium-term economic growth.”

He’s right about this. In one way or another, many of us are now involved in playing down the full horror of accelerating climate change. I even do it with my own children, both of whom have started to ask me how, after 40 years trying to narrow the gap between what needs to be done and what is being done, I haven’t collapsed into utter despair!

“Never too late”, I tell them. Not as in “never too late” to avoid some pretty horrendous shocks to the system, but “never too late” to avoid total apocalyptic meltdown.

I spent much of my summer holiday reading books by people wrestling with that very demarcation line, including the latest reworking of the original (1972) Limits to Growth analysis by Jorgen Randers. This time round, he’s casting his somewhat gloomy Norwegian perspective out to 2052, and here’s his conclusion.

“Don’t let the prospect of impending disaster crush your spirits. Don’t let the prospect of a suboptimal long-term future kill your hope. Hope for the unlikely! Work for the unlikely! Remember, too, that even if we do not succeed in our fight for a better world, there will still be a future world. And there will still be a world with a future – just less beautiful and less harmonious than it could have been.”

I suspect I’ll avoid even those uplifting exhortations in the US. Just too scary!

• Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future

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Environmental sustainability is out the window…(!!?)… if Commission is cut

The Government is expected to axe its environmental watchdog this week as part of Whitehall budget cuts. If the Sustainable Development Commission is to be cut, it is a blow on a nunber of fronts -logic, the environment, sustainable government, indeed the concept of sustainability – are all losers!

Shadow energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband: “They promised to be the greenest government ever but they’re completely betraying that promise.”

Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins said: “The Sustainable Development Commission has played a crucial role in helping Government departments work together to tackle the triple threats of climate change, economic downturn and inequality – as well as keeping a critical check on progress.

Jonathon Porritt: As the former Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission from 2000-2009, I’m clearly going to be a bit biased about the Government’s decision yesterday to get rid of the Commission.

http://www.24dash.com/blogs/jonathon_porritt/2010/07/23/The-Governments-First-Green-Betrayal/

The Government is expected to axe its environmental watchdog this week as part of Whitehall budget cuts.

An announcement that the Sustainable Development Commission is to be abolished is expected tomorrow, just as the environmental and sustainability watchdog publishes its latest report outlining the savings departments could make from being greener.

The report will detail how the Government could make hundreds of millions of pounds of savings over the next Parliament by reducing transport, water use, energy waste and rubbish – savings worth many times the £3 million expenditure on the SDC.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was unable to confirm today if the arms-length body, which is jointly operated by the UK Government and devolved administrations, is to be disbanded, saying no final decision has been made.

But reports of its imminent demise have raised concerns in the Welsh Assembly, where it was last week described as playing an important role in Wales’s efforts to become greener.

The SDC has helped central government departments save the equivalent of £16 million in carbon emissions reductions and £13 million in reducing water waste.

The commission has also worked with the NHS and schools to reduce their emissions and energy use and recommended the “whole-house” green makeovers to make them more energy efficient, a policy that was adopted by all three parties before the General Election.

Its advice on whether a Severn barrage could be built sustainably also paved the way for consideration of tidal schemes in the Severn Estuary.

Greenpeace campaigner Louise Edge condemned the decision to axe the SDC as “incredibly short-sighted”.

“The commission has always given great value for money, cutting wasteful energy use across Whitehall and providing vital advice on how departments can slash their carbon emissions.

“You have to wonder about the thinking behind scrapping a £3 million body with a record of success while pushing ahead with the multibillion-pound Trident replacement, which the military doesn’t even want. This is muddled thinking,” she said.

Margaret Ounsley, head of public affairs at WWF-UK, said: “Everybody knows that we are facing a heavy deficit, and we should not be too prescriptive about how the Government deals with it.

“However, it would be the worst sort of mindless hacking from Government if we were to lose the capacity to measure and report on its moves towards meeting its own commitments to become leaner and greener.

“Shooting the watchdog does not make always make for savings.”

And Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins said: “The Sustainable Development Commission has played a crucial role in helping Government departments work together to tackle the triple threats of climate change, economic downturn and inequality – as well as keeping a critical check on progress.

“The coalition must be held to account on its promise to be the greenest Government ever – and explain how it will continue to green Britain, saving money and creating jobs at the same time – without the Sustainable Development Commission’s expert guidance and overview.”

Shadow energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband said: “The coalition has made some terrible decisions on the environment – scrapping the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, shelving Labour’s plan for the Green Investment Bank.

“They promised to be the greenest government ever but they’re completely betraying that promise.”

http://www.24dash.com/news/central_government/2010-07-21-Short-sighted-Government-to-axe-Sustainable-Development-Commission

As the former Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission from 2000-2009, I’m clearly going to be a bit biased about the Government’s decision yesterday to get rid of the Commission. So I’ve been working really hard to put myself in Ministers’ shoes in terms of the ‘rationale’ they’ve advanced for this reprehensible decision. They’ve put forward four justifications:1. It will save moneyThe SDC costs the taxpayer around £4 million a year, around 50% of which come from Defra. The rest comes from the Devolved Administrations and other Whitehall Departments – all of which wanted to carry on working with the SDC. As George Monbiot has pointed out, the SDC’s advice on reducing costs through increased efficiency has already saved the Government many, many times that negligible amount, and would have gone on doing so year after year.2. Sustainable development is now mainstreamed across government.Defra Ministers are now claiming that sustainable development has been embedded in every department. In other words, no specialist capability at the centre is any longer required, simply because the Government ‘gets it’.Like hell it does. To hear Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State in Defra make such a totally fatuous claim after a few weeks in power is irritating beyond belief. She clearly knows nothing of the constant slog required (of the SDC and many other organisations) to achieve the limited traction that is all that can be laid claim to today.There’s a rich irony here. The SDC is a UK-wide body. Neither Wales nor Scotland was in favour of getting rid of the Commission, no doubt because both Countries have done an infinitely better job than Whitehall on ‘mainstreaming’ sustainable development.3. It will avoid duplicationThis is a bit trickier, simply because the SDC does a number of different things. It advises Ministers – and there are indeed lots of other people who do that. But rarely if ever from an integrated sustainable development perspective. It helps countless public sector bodies (from the Audit Commission to the Department of Education, from Local Authorities to Primary Care Trusts in the NHS) to make sense of sustainable development, and no other government body does any of that. And it scrutinises government performance on a completely independent basis across the whole sustainable development agenda – not just on climate change. And no other body does that.4. Sustainable development is too important to delegate to an external bodyIt’s worth recording Caroline Spelman’s actual words here: “Together with Chris Huhne, I am determined to take the lead role in driving the sustainable agenda across the whole of government, and I’m not willing to delegate this responsibility to an external body.”Even after nine years working with dozens of Government Ministers, I’m astonished at such utterly brazen cynicism. The only thing Mrs Spelman has done so far as Secretary of State at Defra is publish a new strategy for the Department. This has not one serious reference to sustainable development in it. Such is the depth of her concern.If Defra’s next step is to get rid of what’s left of it’s own internal Sustainable Development Unit, then it will have literally no capacity to ‘drive the sustainable agenda’ even within Defra, let alone ‘across the whole of government’. And how can you drive anything if you haven’t the first clue what it actually means? And it just got rid of the only part of the system capable of providing you with a basic primer for beginners?So let’s not beat around the bush: their justification for getting rid of the SDC is transparently vacuous, if not downright dishonest. This is an ideological decision – in other words, a decision driven by dogma not by evidence-based, rational analysis.And the only conceivable reason for allowing dogma to dominate in this way is that the Government doesn’t want anyone independently auditing its performance on sustainable development – let alone properly-resourced, indisputably expert body operating as ‘a critical friend’ on an inside track within government.I don’t suppose the Prime Minister was even consulted about such a footling little matter. But it’s clear that his advisors hadn’t the first idea about the kind of signal this dogma-driven decision sends out, ensuring that his claim that this will be the ‘greenest government ever’ is in deepest jeopardy. It’s too early to make any definitive judgement about how the Green agenda will fare under the Coalition. But it’s not encouraging. ‘Greenest ever’ has to mean something substantive. Simply smearing a sickly ideological slime over everything just won’t cut it.