Any shade of politics you like, so long as it’s green
The dangers of the new consensus around the politics of global warming.
Listening to this week’s statements about global warming made it sound as if the political climate is the one experiencing rapid change.
UK prime minister Tony Blair claims his government’s new Climate Change Bill is ‘revolutionary’ and compares the challenge of global warming to the struggle against the Nazis and the Soviet Union. Prime minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown declares that it will require a ‘new world order’ to save the planet from man-made global warming. David Cameron, Conservative Party leader and favourite to win the next General Election, says he will ‘open up a second front in the green revolution’ to combat climate change. Meanwhile, commentators talk of global warming as ‘the key battleground in British politics’ and warn that the parties are ‘set for war over climate change’.
Blimey. Revolutions, political wars and new world orders? Rarely do we hear such passionate talk in the dull world of managerial politics today. So what revolutionary measures are the political leaders fighting for? Behind which banners are they fighting their civil war over the future of the planet? Err, Blair and Brown’s New Labour wants to abolish incandescent lightbulbs and standby switches on television sets. And Cameron’s Conservatives want to tax us more for flying. To the barricades!
‘Yet another not-so-bright idea’
This week’s explosion of hot air over global warming marks a new record in the denigration of political language. Behind the overcooked talk about changing the world and saving the planet, the crusade against global warming represents the latest stage in the politics of low expectations and small-mindedness. And far from climate change being a battlefield for any big political ‘war’, the issue is being used to confine debate to an even narrower, more conformist strip of ground.
We have been told many times by political leaders that ours is the era when ‘choice’ is king. Now we can see what they meant. We can choose any shade of politics we like, just so long as it is green. This fits into the pattern of what they call ‘informed choice’, whereby we are expected to make the choices that they inform us are the correct ones.
If we hope to live in a democratic society, any attempt to limit political debate or banish alternative views must be seriously put to question. And there are good reasons for questioning this new political consensus that are quite separate from any debate about the science of climate change. First because, despite the bold talk of all the party leaders, it represents the abdication of political leadership. And second because it reflects an underlying anti-humanist mood in public life.
What we normally call a political consensus is not formed by different parties spontaneously reaching the same conclusions. It comes about when one party imposes its principles on the political agenda, shifting the middle ground and forcing its opponents to accommodate to its programme. That was what the postwar Labour government achieved in the 1940s, and what Margaret Thatcher’s Tory governments managed in the 1980s.
Today’s consensus around the politics of global warming is different. Nobody could seriously suggest that the UK’s invisible Green Party has redrawn the political map. Instead the major parties have all gravitated towards greenery on global warming because they lack any political principles of their own.
With their public standing at an all-time low, politicians are attracted to the issue of climate change because it allows them to scramble out of the mire and back on to the moral high ground. Rather than fending off endless allegations of sleaze or trying to explain why they cannot run a decent health service, Blair and Brown are set free to make portentous speeches about saving the planet. And instead of tackling the tricky issues of coming up with alternative policies on the economy or Iraq, Cameron can strike statesmanlike poses while hugging a glacier.
Blair’s remarks this week hinted at how he has suddenly seized upon the global warming issue to provide an ersatz sense of mission for his faltering government. ‘People that have been in Downing Street over the years have faced issues to do with the Cold War, the Depression and the rise of fascism’, the prime minister told a group of teenagers. ‘Climate change is a bit of a different type of challenge, but a challenge I believe is the biggest long-term threat facing our world.’ By recasting climate change as a sort of Nazi or Soviet threat facing the current generation of leaders, Blair elevates himself on to a higher plane of history.
The rise and rise of the politics of global warming also reveals another big problem with leaders today. Lacking any of the political authority of their predecessors, they are continually looking for something else to lean on as a source of public legitimacy. Here they have sought to latch on to the science of climate change. They are dragging scientists on to the stage to try to justify their own petty authoritarian policies, in an echo of the way that the tobacco industry once used men in white coats to advertise its wares.
I am all for the elevation of science and respect for scientists. But this attempt to use science to lend some respect and authority to politicians who lack it represents something far less noble: the abdication of political leadership. Rather than forging and fighting for their own political vision of the future, party leaders are hiding behind scientists and claiming that the science proves that the time for debate is over.
Let us leave aside for now the vexed and complex question of the actual science of climate change. I am no climatologist, but then you surely do not need to be to see that the simplistic, conformist politics of global warming are about something else. Even if we were to accept that some of the far-reaching expert predictions about climate change were true, there would be no necessary straight line from those scientists’ estimates to the sort of policies now being proposed by Brown or David Miliband or Cameron. Instead, they are using the language of science to express their own politics of low expectations and policing our behaviour.
When humanity has been faced with great challenges in history, the solution has been to go forward, to apply human ingenuity and endeavour to overcoming problems by advancing society. There is no record of tackling future problems by going backwards or restraining development. Yet that is what is effectively proposed through the politics of global warming.
It is about rationing, giving up the gains of the past, flying less and making do and mending more – a message captured in Brown’s typically penny-pinching statement that in future people will have to ‘count the carbon as well as the pennies’. And as for the developing world, they can forget about getting anywhere near the semi-civilised standards of living achieved in the West. It is strikingly ironic in this context to hear the likes of Cameron talk about a ‘green revolution’ – a term which, only a few years ago, described the use of new science and technology to revolutionise industrial food production in Africa, an advance that the new green (counter-)revolution of ‘sustainable agriculture’ frowns upon.
The adoption of these attitudes across the political class represents something far more important than the cynical tax grab which some critics have claimed it all is. The crusade against manmade global warming is underpinned by a much broader loss of faith in our manmade society and its once-proud accomplishments, from industrialised farming to flying the world. You only had to listen to Cameron, supposedly the great white hope of UK politics, sounding off this week about how many species are threatened with extinction ‘because of mankind’s relentless grab for the finite resources of our shared home’ to realise how mainstream mankind-bashing has now become.
Forget the revolutionary rhetoric; these ideas are deeply conservative, backward, and reactionary. To challenge them is not a job for scientific inquiry, since that is not really what such prejudices are based upon, but for political argument. The pressing need is to recast notions of human agency, and develop a future-oriented vision based on a belief in our ability to tackle problems through economic and social advance.
For starters, here is one straightforward historical idea that might sound ‘revolutionary’ today: the more control humanity is able to exercise over nature, and the larger the ‘footprint’ we make on the planet, the better the future is likely to be.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.