Life is about priorities...
The public is confused about climate change. Surveys generally suggest that a large proportion accept that it is a real and present danger and that humankind is largely responsible. But we are nowhere near a blanket acceptance that this is fact. More worryingly still for policymakers, the percentage of the population willing to pay more in green taxes or change their lifestyle significantly is always smaller than the number who claim to accept anthropogenic global warming as a fact.
Governments are on the horns of a dilemma. They cannot ignore the scientific advice they are receiving on the causes and potential impacts of rising average temperatures. Neither, in Europe, can they ignore the powerful and influential green lobby. On the other hand, matching the rhetoric with policies which make life more expensive or less pleasant for the average person is a sure route to electoral disaster. Indeed, some more extreme environmentalists would argue that tackling climate change is something which cannot be handled adequately by a democracy, and that a more authoritarian form of government is needed.
But, on the assumption that there is no Bolshevik wing of the environmental movement planning to set up a dictatorship of the (eco)proletariat, governments really have little option but to talk tough and long-term while making seemingly contradictory short-term decisions. There is a slow build-up of pressure over time from the internal contradictions of this situation, but this has suddenly been greatly exacerbated by the world economic crisis. It has been a difficult enough task already to expect people to make sacrifices today for promised benefits which may not even be apparent in their own lifetimes, but when jobs, savings, house ownership and pensions are under threat in the unprecedented turmoil over the banking system, it becomes all but impossible.
Hardly surprising, then, that there have been plaintive calls for climate change policy not to take second priority to current economic imperatives. The annual loss of forest has, for example, been valued at $2-5 trillion annually, comparable to the estimated cost to European taxpayers of rescuing the EU banking system. This figure has emerged from the first stage of the EU-funded Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project, led by a Deutsche Bank economist. This attempts to put a monetary value on the services provided by the natural world; in the case of forests primarily acting as a carbon sink and as a source of clean water.
We will save a more detailed consideration of environmental economics for another time, but for now it is enough to think of what this means to the man or woman in the street. All things being equal, most people value the natural environment, if only for aesthetic reasons or recreation. As societies become more prosperous, they place more emphasis on clean air and water and conservation issues, and we should not forget that the environmentalist movement started in the rich world. In economic terms, people put a higher value on the environment when they are themselves richer.
The other way of looking at this is that they place a relatively lower value on basic factors such as food and power, because they are easily able to afford them. This is the classic view of human behaviour encapsulated in Maslow's hierarchy of needs: once the essentials of life are assured, less vital things have a higher priority. The way that environmentalism has become ingrained in policy making and our general way of life in the last half century is a perfect illustration of this.
But now we are in uncharted waters. The green lobby, though very successful at getting its message across to politicians and opinion formers, still meets a degree of scepticism among the general public. Many policies still go through with hardly a ripple of dissent because they cost relatively little or have minimal direct impact on people's lives. But ambitious policies to reduce carbon intensity have been a harder sell. Despite the rhetoric, there is little sign that governments have the stomach to force through the sorts of changes which hit people's pockets or lifestyles to a significant degree. To most people, energy poverty is as important an issue as raising the cost of electricity to encourage lower consumption, and no government has yet dared to try to reduce the expansion of their national airports. For the majority, the supposed long term benefits of green taxation do not justify the real financial impact on their current lives.
On top of this, we now seem to be progressing from a state of unprecedented financial turmoil to an extended global recession. More basic needs will begin to come nearer the top of the hierarchy once more. This will certainly mean some cutback in energy use, at least by industry, but this will be small in comparison to the sort of savings envisaged in emissions control policies. At the same time, people's willingness to pay green taxes will be reduced still further. Despite this, many politicians are talking tough, with pressure for increasingly stringent targets for emissions reductions.
At present, there seems only one way out of this dilemma: a major building programme for new nuclear power stations to provide a lower-carbon, energy-secure future, coupled with encouragement of a move to make road transport primarily electric. Even then, we have to accept that energy use will continue to increase (although energy intensity as a function of GDP will certainly be lower) and that vast quantities of oil and coal will continue to be used for the foreseeable future. In particular, air and sea transport will certainly remain dependent on fossil fuel use.
Very few people would find this an ideal situation, but it seems realistic. Life, after all, is about priorities.
The Scientific Alliance
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