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Newsletter, March 2007

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How engaging is climate change?

It looks as if 2007 may be the year that climate change finally begins to feel serious. It’s not just the flurry of heavyweight reports such as the Stern Review, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the extraordinary coming together of the United States Climate Action Partnership, or even Al Gore’s remarkable documentary film on the subject.

It’s more that nobody can fail to notice that we seem to have got to spring without having been through winter. Just a blip say the sceptics. Well, maybe - but maybe not and maybe we need some solutions, and fast.

John Elkington of Sustainability has produced an interesting summary of quick and false fixes compared to truer but longer term ones. Among the false are market solutions that do not involve lifestyle or behavioural changes; bio-fuels other than as one part of a new portfolio of fuels (and even then he warns they will bring with them a raft of economic, social and environmental concerns); seeding the oceans with iron filings to speed plankton growth and the absorption of carbon; and building a big space umbrella to reduce solar radiation.

His summary of the true solutions is different in kind: conservation, regulation, incentives and political will and leadership. The critical difference between the true and the false is that the true rest on changing the nature of the relationships between people, between people and planet and, in some ways, between our own nobler and baser instincts.

To conserve energy on the scale required, for example, we will have to understand why profligacy and self-indulgence is no longer acceptable. To accept the kind of regulation that will have an impact - that, for example, prevents us flitting off for weekends in exotic places - means accepting that we have no right to cook the planet. Giving up the urge to reach 60 miles per hour in a few seconds and instead aiming for 60 miles per gallon as a minimum means sacrificing vanity and self-image. And political will, that most precious of commodities, is needed most when we are faced with choosing against our own self-interest.

There is one element of the good solutions missing from John’s list: the need to get people engaged with the issues, discussing the choices we have, being unable to avoid taking responsibility for our decisions. Involving people in this world-changing issue has to be fundamental, not an afterthought, if we want people to accept the scale of behavioural change that may become essential.

Without the active participation of people in large numbers none of the good solutions will work, and we will be reduced to sprinkling iron filings in the hope of seducing the plankton or, as the descendants of Noël Coward’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, relying on galactic umbrellas to shade us from the midday sun.


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