The debate over tackling climate change is interesting but a little confusing. I first heard of the Conservatives’ ideas about aviation arriving on Sunday morning at Sky News to do their paper review. I welcomed the idea of a personal aviation emissions allocation as this is broadly in line with the RSA’s own proposal for personal carbon trading.
The next day the FT suggested that my support for the Conservative idea – which is both green and redistributive - was some kind of rebuff for Gordon Brown ahead of his own speech. As it turned out the Chancellor, referring to the important deal negotiated by Angela Merkel, emphasised the need to take continental and global action on climate change.
Last week in Brussels David Cameron urged the EU to take a strong role in tackling climate change but at the same time revealed that his only partners in his putative new centre right European Parliament group is the Czech ruling party, whose leaders are apparently unconvinced that global warming is real! In a further twist, Brown favoured voluntary measures on domestic fuel efficiency over Tory proposals for regulations and taxes; a neat reversal of conventional political point scoring.
What should we make of all this? Obviously it is good that the politicians are putting climate change centre stage. After last month’s grim IPCC report (itself probably erring on the cautious side), there was nowhere left to hide on the issue. Environmental groups must feel like the only girl at the ball so assiduously are they being courted. Put both Brown’s and Cameron’s ideas together and you have a pretty serious action plan. Brown is right that action must be taken internationally; Cameron that the domestic requirements of such agreements will not be met by voluntarism alone.
But there is a danger in the environment being seen as a political fad. As the sociologist Stan Cohen brilliantly analysed in his book 'States of Denial', most of us rely on a capacity to turn our faces away from difficult truths. Thus were most Germans under Nazi rule able to deny responsibility for the Holocaust and even otherwise progressive white South Africans willing to live with Apartheid. And maybe it is how we can live affluent Western lifestyles while a few thousand miles away African children starve?
In persisting with denial we rely on certain mental tropes such as 'it's not really happening', 'it's nothing to do with me' or 'there's nothing I can do about it'. By making climate change feel like an issue of political point scoring rather than unarguable science and clear moral responsibility we run the danger of providing an easy route for denial.
Ultimately I believe we can tackle carbon emissions and have better lives, but in the short term we face some tough choices. Once this row is over, our politicians should try to find a basis for an agreed way forward.
I heard last week that the average readership for a blog is one so I am gratified to see that at least six people read mine:
Andrew and Praguetory - I agree there are some good blogs and I should stop talking only about the negative ones.
Ewan - yes, we need to think of new ways to use technology to engage young people in politics (something we will be discussing in our internet conference later this year).
Leen Petre is right to remind us of the digital divide, although it isn't so big when you look at satellite TV or mobile phones.
Trevor - we are currently thinking about doing some work on prisons.
John - I liked the idea but I can't say I hold out much hope that citizens would pay a voluntary tax to politicians however good their cause.
People are making the obvious comparison between the pandemic and the world’s biggest crisis – climate change. But how we make that link will shape our response.