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Peter Lee: ‘If It’s Climate Policy It Must Be Ethical…’

Dr Peter Lee, University of Portsmouth

‘Something needed to be done, so we did something.’ That, in summary, is what happened at the latest EU climate summit.

All of the usual ingredients were claimed: consensus among scientists; determination on the part of politicians to be seen to take action; earnest, passionate commitment from climate change activists, as though only they are concerned about the future of our planet.

If anyone wants to explore the ethics of this latest attempt at climate change policy they will have to look at what is in the small print, what is unsaid and what is unsayable. Because what emerged was an illusion, built on a deception, and camouflaged with good intentions.

President Hollande’s statement that the agreement was ‘conclusive and definitive’ is not what it appears. The European Council can change its mind any time thanks to an inbuilt ‘flexibility clause’. Failure of next year’s UN Climate Summit in Paris to reach a legally binding international agreement will force the EU to decide between climate idealism with economic self-harm, and political and economic pragmatism. It is as much an ethical choice as a political choice and one that leaders are keen to avoid.

Energy-intensive companies like BASF – a German conglomerate and the world’s largest chemical manufacturer – are focusing politicians’ minds. They have shifted billions of euros of investment, and thousands of jobs, from Europe to the United States and elsewhere in the world. Voters who see their jobs and standards of living being exported abroad will maintain that pressure on their leaders.

European environmentalists loudly oppose the extraction of shale gas through hydraulic fracking and have so far been very successful in their campaigning. It is ironic therefore that America’s turn to fracking has boosted its economy and helped to reduce carbon emissions back to 1990s levels.

What many campaigners do not declare equally loudly is that they are happy to see more Europeans in fuel poverty to meet their environmental aspirations. Another ethical choice. Europe as a whole may be one of the richest regions in the world but to a family living on benefits in Castlemilk, Glasgow or Salford, Manchester every pound spent on green electricity subsidy is a pound less spent on food or clothes.

Then there is the unsayable: that no matter how great the economic sacrifices Europe makes, there will be no resulting drop in global emissions as long as other major emitters like China, India and the US prioritise jobs and economic growth.

Perhaps worst of all is the harm done in the name of so-called ethical climate choices. Take Germany again. It embraced renewable technologies more than any other country, paying out huge subsidies in the process. Environmental groups successfully lobbied for nuclear power stations to be closed or mothballed after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

However, to keep the lights on and industry operating, coal consumption has increased at its fastest rate in decades and in the first half of 2013 produced more than 50% of German electricity requirements.

An assortment of well-intended, ethical-seeming green policies has resulted in increased CO2 emissions: the very thing that they were meant to avoid.

Ethically more questionable, especially for the poorest people in the world, has been the shift towards bio-fuel. In 2005 the United States legislated to require billions of gallons of renewable-fuel to be blended into gasoline annually. If it is more profitable to put food into cars than stomachs that is what will happen. It did not take long for Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, to call for a rethink. By 2013, ActionAid lobbied the European Parliament with a ‘Food not Fuel’ campaign to prevent new regulations that would have required an increasing amount of food to be burned as fuel.

So why is it proving to be so difficult for the climate change lobby to maintain the influence it had on policy decisions in the 1990s and 2000s? A repeat of anything like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol looks further away than ever. Although it officially ended in 2012 Canada, for example, withdrew on the basis of the ineffectuality and cost of its obligations.

Some of the responsibility lies with climate scientists, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, who breached the ethical codes that have shaped good scientific practice for centuries: notably the part about ‘disinterestedness’, or remaining neutral. Campaigning climate scientists like Professor Stephen Schneider openly advocated simplifying the climate message, removing the doubts, caveats, ifs, ands and buts that characterise best scientific practice.

Environmental lobbyists and campaigning groups followed suit as the scientifically known and knowable were overstated and presented as taken-for-granted, while reservations about the unknown were downplayed. Elements from politics, science and environmentalism blended to create Climate Change (note the capitals), a polarising ideology complete with anti-capitalist elements, some of whose advocates see human beings as an enemy of the environment.

You are either in or out, supporter or opponent, alarmist or sceptic. Consequently, individuals and organisations that accept the scientific basis of the greenhouse effect, who acknowledge that the climate is changing and who recognise that global mean surface temperatures rose in the final decades of the twentieth century are still called deniers if they reject ideological aspects of Climate Change like monumentally costly mitigation policies that may or may not even work. For its enthusiasts, Climate Change is no longer a physical problem to be addressed but a sociological phenomenon to be used to advance political, economic and personal aims.

To create ethical climate change policies all scientific doubts, caveats and limitations need to be acknowledged, present and future costs laid bare, and ideological bias set out clearly. Once this happens it is unlikely that any meaningful, by definition vastly expensive, global mitigation strategy will be politically achievable in 2015. The pragmatic, less glamorous alternative is adaptation as we go along – as humans have always done. At least until consensus is replaced with incontrovertible evidence and climate science is divorced from overblown rhetoric and wishful thinking.

Peter Lee is the author of Ethics and Climate Change Policy. His book Truth Wars: The Politics of Climate Change, Military Intervention and Financial Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan) was published on 19 November 2014.