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As the UN Climate Summit opens in Durban against a background of rock bottom expectations, is it worth rethinking the message about reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

A recent article in the Financial Times made grim reading for anyone hoping to see America show leadership in international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: Referring to tar sands, shale gas and fracking, Edward Luce explained how the combination of new discoveries and new technologies are opening up major fossil fuel sources. Together these sources could enable the US to move towards energy self-sufficiency. Quite apart from the impact of these energy sources on carbon emissions, what Luce calls America’s ‘new age of plenty’ could be disastrous for the already fragile political case for action on climate change.

In the face of rampant climate change scepticism, and instinctive hostility among Americans to the federal government signing international deals on their behalf, those making the case for US action on carbon reduction (including President Obama) have relied heavily on the security of supply argument. Americans may not be willing to accept their fair share of international obligations of emissions reduction but they are open to the argument that the US should reduce its dependence on unreliable or potentially hostile oil producing nations. Now, however, the exploitation of new forms of fossil fuel makes security of supply seem less important, leaving just an unpopular and under-developed case for action on climate change.

It is always attractive to pile up reinforcing arguments for a course of action. As a Government advisor I was used to being told – often on pretty tenuous grounds - that a scheme would not only bring social benefits but would in time save a huge amount of money by preventing some ill or other (a Treasury official once said to me ‘we have a special file we use for most arguments about long term social savings; it is round and in the corner of the room’). It is assumed by a case’s proponents that even if supplementary arguments are weak they can’t do any harm. Often this assumption is wrong.

Not only can a weak argument distract attention from the strong, if one part of the case is damaged it undermines the credibility of the rest, like a wonky leg on a table. If Luce is right about the new plenty, American environmentalists may start to claim that they never needed the arguments about peak oil or security of supply to make the case for reductions in energy use and investment in renewable sources, but the question will come back: ‘why then did you make those arguments in the first place?’

In the UK many green campaigners are keen to argue that promoting sustainability will have all sorts of beneficial side effects ranging from weaning us off the consumption treadmill to promoting social justice. This may well be true, but is it good tactics? I have often heard climate change sceptics on the right argue that the green movement exaggerates the threat of climate change in order to smuggle in an anti-capitalist, anti-market agenda which would never win public support in its own terms. The more environmentalists pile up the progressive causes which will be aided by action on climate change, the more credible this charge becomes.

Which is why I advocate a much more prosaic case. It is this: nearly everyone spends a significant proportion of their income on something which rarely gives them any direct benefit, to whit various forms of insurance. The chance of our house burning down or of us dying in an accident are remote but – although we may quibble about premiums and fine print – we accept the case that we need to cover ourselves for the worst.

It is not necessary to believe that man-made climate change is proven absolutely or runaway global warming inevitable to accept that the risk of climate change is greater than the risks against which we personally insure. Is it not, therefore, reasonable to argue that society as a whole should be willing to invest proportionately as much in cost (or opportunity cost) to reduce the climate change risk as we do personally to reduce much smaller personal risks?

This is not a case which lifts the soul, challenges the culture of consumer capitalism or even fosters twenty first century enlightenment. It may seem directly to contradict the thrust of the Common Cause Alliance (Friends of the Earth, WWF, Oxfam-GB, and CPRE) whose report explicitly warned that making the case for responsible collective action using the language of selfish individualism is ultimately counter-productive. My defence is that this is an argument which is currently being lost so we environmentalists need to be pragmatic and also that there is plenty of scope for value changing discourse around who pays for the insurance policy (both nationally and internationally).

But I suspect my view will prove controversial even within the RSA, let alone further afield.


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