‘Your planet needs you!’

Food rationing, Blitz spirit, the Doomsday Clock...everyone from Prince Charles to radical greens is talking about climate change as a warlike emergency.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

‘Perhaps we should see this as a war we simply have to win.’ So said Prince Charles as he collected the Global Environmental Citizen award from Harvard Medical School last week (1). He’s not the only one using such war talk.

UK environment minister Ben Bradshaw last week told a conference of food experts: ‘If the impacts of climate change are as bad as predicted, we may need to go back to rationing.’ (2) John Ashton, the UK foreign secretary’s special representative on climate change, explicitly made the link with the Cold War. Speaking at a conference in January, Ashton said: ‘There is every reason to believe that as the twenty-first century unfolds, the security story will be bound together with climate change…. The last time the world faced a challenge this complex was during the Cold War.’ (3) Climate change as a security issue is a theme that has been doing the rounds of the Pentagon for some time, and Bush’s greener noises of late suggest he’s been won over.

Another echo of the Cold War was the recent decision by the keepers of the metaphorical ‘Doomsday Clock’ to move the hands forwards closer to ‘midnight’, noting that the ‘dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons.’ (See Don’t panic: Doomsday Clock, by Rob Lyons). Others took their lead from earlier conflicts. Last December, natural history filmmaker and TV producer David Attenborough told the House of Commons select committee on the environment that we need a ‘moral change’ to combat climate change, suggesting we need a ‘general moral view that wasting energy is wrong’. He added: ‘I grew up during the war and during the war it was a common view that wasting anything was wrong. It wasn’t that we thought we were going to defeat Hitler by eating a lot of gristle in our meat, but it was actually wrong not to eat our food.’ (4)

In November, maverick former UK environment minister Michael Meacher told the early morning show GMTV: ‘This is the one overriding overall political issue which challenges the future of the human species on this planet. We are very good in this country at getting behind a collective cause which we all know has to be absolutely hugely overridingly important, as we did in 1939. I think we are at war over climate change and I think we can lead the country.’ (5)

And, of course, in times of war there is no room for dissent. Last year, the Royal Society demanded that ExxonMobil cease funding sceptical organisations (6), and last week the Guardian splashed with news that the same company was willing to pay writers to provide critical analysis of the latest report – implying that anyone doing so must be taking a bribe (7). Others go further than a nod and a wink about corruption. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out on spiked, pejorative terms like ‘denier’ have been used, with echoes of Holocaust denial, while others fantasise about criminal tribunals in the future for those responsible for ‘starvation, famine and disease’ (see Global warming: the chilling effect on free speech, by Brendan O’Neill).

Why is climate change being discussed as a kind of warlike emergency? Taking such an approach makes little sense. There should be an ongoing debate about the science, economic impacts and political consequences of climate change. While the IPCC’s summary report (bizarrely published months before the report itself will be finished) has been used to suggest the science on climate change is a done deal, there are in fact plenty of unknowns and variables to be explored. While it is probable that greenhouse gas emissions have had some effect on climate, that effect has not been all that great so far. It may become a major problem in the future – we simply don’t know. (See A man-made morality tale, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky.)

In a situation of uncertainty, there may be sense in taking initial steps just in case a major problem does emerge. We can make some relatively low-cost savings in energy, fund research into how we might adapt to a changing climate, and look more seriously at alternative ways of producing energy. Such steps are not disruptive to the general workings of society and are a sensible insurance policy. Making huge changes in transport, electricity generation and agriculture without adequate technology to fill the gap left by carbon-emitting vehicles, power stations and so on could be far more costly than any problems associated with changing temperatures and weather.

Even if climate change does prove to be dramatic, there is plenty of argument to be had about whether focusing on emissions cuts is really the best solution. Adapting to that change – in fact, innovating around the problem – may even prove to be extremely creative and spur society to greater heights.

Talk of war and emergency and ‘denial’ crushes such notions. Instead, we have a simple moral enemy – carbon emissions – that must be eradicated at all costs. Those who deny the threat are appeasers, fifth columnists or ‘deniers’; careless talk costs lives, we’re told. Everyone must make sacrifices to the war effort. There must be a ruthless campaign against waste with constant exhortation to switch things off, consume less, ‘make do and mend’. Children, apparently, who are receptive to the black-and-white messages of making a greener world, can play a particularly important role as the moral guardians of our climate future.

Above all, ‘war’ provides a focus that we can all rally around. Western politics has been devoid of a mission for the past decade or more. As a result, the failings of the market and the lack of any direction in society have been cruelly exposed. The elites need an organising principle when society is stagnating. Trying to recycle the Cold War as the ‘War on Terror’ has only revealed the embarrassing inability of the West to control events. Sustainability, on the other hand, is a much better fit. Sustainability turns stagnation into a positive thing – and it receives moral force through the imminent threat of climate disaster. No wonder that the Conservative Party has already campaigned on the slogan ‘Vote blue, go green’ and our prime minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown has commissioned a blatant piece of advocacy research – the Stern report – to suggest that immediate action is the only sensible option.

If the talk of war is allowed to grow, we will have a climate change all right: a climate of increasing authoritarianism, censorship and unnecessary impoverishment. Is that a world worth fighting for?


A man-made morality tale, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky

Corrupting the curriculum, by Frank Furedi

(1) US must win the war on climate change, says Charles, Guardian, 29 January 2007

(2) Britain could go back to rationing, This is London, 29 January 2007

(3) Climate change creates security challenge ‘more complex than Cold War’, Jane’, 30 January 2007

(4) Attenborough urges ‘moral change’, BBC News, 13 December 2006

(5) Britain ‘at war’ on climate change, Ananova, November 2006

(6) Royal Society tells Exxon: stop funding climate change denial, Guardian, 2 February 2007

(7) Scientists offered cash to dispute climate study, Guardian, 2 February 2007

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Topics Science & Tech


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