Bali: no more jaw-jaw, this is climate war

Greens are demanding state-enforced austerity and authoritarianism to deal with 'climate catastrophe'. And they're using the Second World War as their model.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

The climate change circus has moved on once more. Last month, it was the presentation in Valencia, Spain of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) synthesis report. Now the show has moved to the Indonesian island of Bali for the first discussions on a post-Kyoto treaty. But with no concrete agreement on the horizon, green activists are calling for greater urgency – and what could be more urgent than a war?

Last month, the IPCC declared that the evidence for human responsibility for climate change was now ‘unequivocal’. As UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said in September, the scientists have spoken: ‘Their message is quite simple: we know enough to act; if we do not act now the impact of climate change will be devastating; and we have affordable measures and technologies to begin addressing the problem right now. What we do not have is time. The time for action is now.’ (1)

Yet while the UN, IPCC and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) demand urgent action, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement in Bali on what that action should consist of. Everyone agrees that carbon emissions must fall, but there is considerably less agreement on how to bring this fall about.

Many countries, led by the European Union, want to see a stronger Kyoto-style agreement with binding emissions reductions – but one that, unlike Kyoto, includes developing countries, too. In turn, these developing countries are loathe to be bound by emissions limits when they are finally benefiting from desperately needed, fossil-fuelled economic growth. And the US, the largest producer of greenhouse gases, is also keen to avoid mandatory limits, especially if they do not apply to countries like China and India, which are increasingly becoming economic rivals to the US.

Kyoto has hardly been a rip-roaring success, however. The treaty demanded a cut in emissions of five per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2008-2012. As the graph below reveals, overall emissions for industrialised countries (the green line) are slightly down on 1990 levels despite economic growth. But this fall is largely due to the fact that emissions in emerging economies in Eastern Europe (the blue line) fell through the floor after 1990. Even in these countries, emissions have risen since the Kyoto treaty was signed in 1997. For the well-developed economies (the pink line), emissions have risen by 11 per cent since 1990.

Percentage change in greenhouse gas emissions, 1990-2005
(source: UN Framework Convention on Climate Change)

Even some of the ‘success’ stories are somewhat illusory. For example, Britain’s emissions cuts have been largely down to a switch from burning coal to burning gas in electricity production – a change that started before the Kyoto deal was signed and would have happened regardless of any treaty. The actual effect of the treaty has been, at best, to apply pressure to reduce the rise in emissions. Only six of the 23 Kyoto industrialised countries outside Eastern Europe have actually cut their emissions since 1990 (2).

Worse, Kyoto represents the ‘easy bit’. After all, it may be easy enough to trim emissions through campaigns, price increases and other financial incentives without any noticeable impact on costs or methods of energy production and consumption. Really serious cuts would require a major shift in the way we currently travel, build and work, or savage cuts in consumption – or some combination of the two. That kind of shift doesn’t seem to be on the table at Bali. State-sponsored impoverishment isn’t very popular, after all.

There are those, however, who think a bit of impoverishment is absolutely necessary – and they justify their argument by invoking the spirit and images of war. Madeleine Bunting, writing in Monday’s Guardian, declared that we need to move to ‘a low-consumption economy oriented towards facilitating the real sources of human fulfilment’. She continues:

‘Hearteningly, we know it can be done – our parents and grandparents managed it in the Second World War. This useful analogy, explored by Andrew Simms in his book Ecological Debt, demonstrates the critical role of government. In the early 1940s, a dramatic drop in household consumption was achieved… by the government orchestrating a massive propaganda exercise combined with a rationing system and a luxury tax. This will be the stuff of twenty-first century politics – something that, right now, all the main political parties are much too scared to admit.’

Just in case we didn’t get the message, Bunting’s Guardian colleague George Monbiot banged the drum for a Climate War Economy the following day: ‘We must confront a challenge that is as great and as pressing as the rise of the Axis powers. Had we thrown up our hands then, as many people are tempted to do today, you would be reading this paper in German. Though the war often seemed impossible to win, when the political will was mobilised strange and implausible things began to happen. The US economy was spun round on a dime in 1942 as civilian manufacturing was switched to military production. The state took on greater powers than it had exercised before. Impossible policies suddenly became achievable.’

If you thought it was just a few overwrought Guardian columnists calling for wartime-style rationing, think again: this outlook is catching on in the corridors of power, too, with the likes of Prince Charles and former UK environment secretary Margaret Beckett calling for a ‘war’ on greenhouse gases. Only yesterday, the head of the UK Environment Agency, Lady Young, told the Daily Telegraph: ‘This is World War Three – this is the biggest challenge to face the globe for many, many years. We need the sorts of concerted, fast, integrated and above all huge efforts that went into many actions in times of war. We’re dealing with this as if it is peacetime, but the time for peace on climate change is gone – we need to be seeing this as a crisis and emergency.’

Such shrill sabre-rattling isn’t a new phenomenon. As we noted on spiked in February this year, talk of the Blitz spirit, rationing, avoiding waste and tightening our belts is becoming increasingly common in climate change circles (see ‘Your planet needs you!’, by Rob Lyons). This may, in part, reflect the fact that the last time Britain did anything that we still feel positive about, it was defeating The Nazi Threat – even if our role in Hitler’s downfall is more of a Great National Myth than a historical fact.

The war talk over global warming also reflects an increasing desperation on the part of eco-activists, commentators and official environment departments. For them, governments and voters are simply not responding with sufficient panic to this apparent planetary emergency. So they are adopting an hysterical tone to try to get people’s attention. But the bottom line is that most people – quite rightly – do not wish to live under austerity measures. We’re actually rather keen on our material wealth, thank you very much, and we’d rather not live in a society where all sorts of punitive state action can be undertaken in the name of saving the planet.

If the world does get markedly warmer in the future, then we will need practical solutions to the problems that may arise, while doing our best to ensure that economic development can continue apace. We don’t need poverty and authoritarianism.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton said we should bin the moral fable of climate change. James Woudhuysen looked at why greens don’t want to ‘solve’ climate change. Peter Martin asked whether people were getting off on global warming. Daniel Ben-Ami reviewed Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth and suggested building nuclear reactors in Africa. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

(1) Climate change threatens investment in Millennium Goals, UN Secretary-General, 24 September 2007

(2) Kyoto’s failure haunts new UN talks, LA Times, 3 December 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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