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  • Published in Opinion

Britain has endured its wettest winter since records began in 1910. Nikki Brain looks at the looming climate crisis

Britain Climate CrisisFor a while the issue of climate change was conspicuously absent from political reaction to the storms and flooding that have been overwhelming Britain. Then last week the silence was finally broken, with economist Lord Stern and then Ed Miliband daring to suggest that the floods, if not directly attributable to human activity, are a pretty grim preview of what might be in store for us if climate change predictions prove accurate. This led to a reluctant government reasserting its commitment to tackling climate change, which seemed to have been conveniently forgotten after its first months in power.

Those who have been campaigning for decisive action on climate change for years are unlikely to be too enthused by anything that has been said in the past week. From Thatcher’s “we are all greens now” to Cameron’s “greenest government ever”, politicians have been disappointing on climate change for decades. However, the recent storms have raised new concerns, as what was previously an abstract threat seems to be becoming a reality. As the potential cost of our inaction to date becomes clear, we must ask whether Britain is sleepwalking into a climate crisis.

No excuse for inaction

Since 1990, when the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced its first report, scientists have been telling us that an increase in global temperature will lead to an increase in extreme weather events – dry places will become drier, wet places wetter, and storms and hurricanes more frequent. If nothing else, the past few weeks have shown that Britain is ill equipped to deal with such a change. David Cameron announced on Thursday that £100 million would need to be spent on flood defences before 2020, and the figures will continue to rise. It appears that by failing to act on climate change we have only raised the costs of dealing with the effects in the long term.

So why does Britain appear to have been fast asleep when it comes to the realities of climate change? Firstly, despite all scientific evidence, even accepting the possibility of man-made climate change has been positioned as a radical act. It is true that we still cannot prove beyond doubt that human activity is accelerating the rate of climate change. But in its latest report, the sixth of its kind, the IPPC said it is 96% sure that is the case. Such certainty of a risk to our future is rare, and makes the threat of climate change look much more immediate than some of our other national security priorities.

When defending the government’s decision to renew Trident, Britain’s nuclear programme, David Cameron said that “uncertainty and potential risk” of future threats means it is essential that we keep our nuclear capability. It is difficult to envisage a time in the near future when we will need to deploy nuclear missiles. Why then, in the face of a more real and immediate threat, are politicians still citing a lack of irrefutable evidence as an excuse for inaction?

Profit over stability

The answer is grounded less in facts and statistics than politics. This week, George Osborne broke his silence on climate change in regard to the floods. He claimed that there is too much ideology in the climate change debate, berating activists for not accepting shale and nuclear energy as viable options. He said that he wants to tackle climate change in “as cheap a possible way as we can”, and if that is not possible, “mitigate against it for example by building flood defences.”

Osborne inadvertently highlighted the paradox at the centre of the climate change debate. Ideology has indeed been a devastating barrier to progress on tackling climate change, but it is not the ideology of environmental activists that is impeding progress. That suggestion implies that the environmental movement’s unreasonable demands have somehow stifled the government’s ability to act on climate change. It implies that the government has been carefully considering the opinions of the environmental movement, rather than attacking and infiltrating it, arresting its members and attempting to curb its ability to protest through punitive new laws on public assembly.Far from being the voice of reason in a tide of green ideological fervour, Osborne’s statement is a shining example of the ideology that is really standing in the way of progress – the neoliberal obsession with short term profit over long term stability.

Green economy

The unwillingness of successive governments, nationally and globally, to spend money on tackling climate change has led to little being achieved, and the costs of mitigation are rapidly increasing as a result. Lord Stern was largely ignored in 2006 when he attempted to demonstrate, through economics not ideology, that the eventual cost of dealing with the effects of climate change would far outweigh the costs of investing in low-carbon technology straight away.

Now, in the wake of the floods, the government has predicted that millions of pounds a year of taxpayers’ money will be spent on mitigating the effects of a warmer and wetter climate.

Another problem with the dominant political ideology is that it requires loyalty to an economic system that creates cyclical periods of growth followed by economic crisis – the “boom and bust” symptomatic of unrestrained capitalism. In 2009, 30,000 people attended the annual national climate change demonstrations in London, which called for the Labour government to take decisive action at the Copenhagen summit.

In 2013, about 500 people took part in the annual climate change march. The economic crisis and the consequent assault on the cost of living sidelined the issue of climate change; greater precedence was granted to the cost of energy than its source. Only in a secure economy in which people’s most pressing needs are met will climate change be a viable priority for the population at large.

An economy that relies on rapid consumption and growth followed by inevitable periods of crisis is not well equipped to deal with the long-term investment needed to deal with climate change.

Hope and alternatives

There is hope that the issues of the cost of living and climate change can be tackled together. The benefit of renewable energy over shale gas and nuclear, for example, is that ordinary people can profit from it. Big business cannot maintain a monopoly over wind and solar energy as it does with other technologies. There are already many examples in Britain of communities reaping the rewards of co-operatively owned energy projects.

It would be naive to suggest that such initiatives by themselves can provide a solution to climate change. Ultimately, governments have the power to act on climate change because they are able to bring the biggest polluters to heel. However, just as the floods of recent weeks have given us a glimpse of what a future climate crisis may look like, these small acts of resistance give us a glimpse of what shape a resilient, low-carbon economy could take.

What can we learn from the events of the past two weeks? Firstly, Britain must wake up to the fact that there is a very real possibility that our failure to act quickly and decisively on climate change has left us vulnerable to an impending climate crisis.

Secondly, uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction; rather, the uncertainty of what is to come makes it imperative that we act. Thirdly, ideology must be removed from the climate debate. Governments can no longer allow dogmatic loyalty to the market and the belief in maximum profit at any cost to cloud their judgment on the question of climate change. Our future security cannot be jeopardised for the sake of bigger profits now.

Lastly, climate change should no longer be seen as a separate or subordinate issue to the economy. Britain needs to wake up from the collective 20th century daydream of limitless growth without consequence and understand that, ideology aside, the cost of limiting climate change will be far lower than the cost of dealing with its effects.

Public meeting: In deep water: climate chaos and capitalism in austerity Britain


27 February 2014, 19:00 - 21:00


SOAS, University of London
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