UK Conservative Party leader David Cameron has announced his commitment to an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. This move ‘beats’ Labour’s promise of a 60% reduction by the same date.

Cameron’s announcement follows statements by the Conservative Party’s Quality of Life Challenge policy group, whose website announced last weekend that they had ‘publised [sic] an important update to the Quality of Life Group’s recent report on acceptable climate change and CO2 emmission [sic] targets‘. The policy group challenge the Stern report, drawing on the IPCC’s WGII summary for policymakers, and others, to conclude that ‘the existing 60% goal is likely to prove inadequate […] UK emissions will have to be reduced by at least 80% by 2050′.

The statement is justified on the basis that ‘the politics must fit the science and not the other way round’ (‘Don’t give up on 2°C [PDF -NO LONGER AVAILABLE]‘). On the face of it, this seems a perfectly sensible approach. The trouble is that the science doesn’t actually say that mitigation is a better strategy than adaptation, let alone whether an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 is better than a 60% reduction. Mitigation, far from being a no-brainer is a complicated and controversial field scientifically. By claiming that their 80% figure is derived from the science, the Tories are hoisted by their own petard – this is a clear case of the science being stretched to fit the politics.

Moreover, mitigation policies cannot be a matter for science alone; they must also be informed by moral and political considerations. And yet when parties hide behind claims that their policies are derived from the science, these are necessarily excluded from the discussion. For example, in a recent article in Nature called ‘Lifting the taboo on adaptation‘, Roger Pielke Jr, Gwyn Prins, Steve Rayner and Daniel Sarewitz argued that the case for adaptation had not been sufficiently heard.

Yet policy-makers need to understand the limitations of mitigation for reducing vulnerabilities, and give more urgent consideration to broader adaptation policies — such as improved management of coastal zones and water resources — that will enhance societal resilience to future climate impacts regardless of their cause. To define adaptation as a cost of failed mitigation is to expose millions of poor people in compromised ecosystems to the very dangers that climate policy seeks to avoid.

So why would the Tories wish to exclude discussion of alternative strategies? Why would they claim that alternatives would contradict the science, that they are ‘at the margin of the debate’, and that ‘we cannot risk them being wrong’? The answer is simple: lacking a framework of political principles, they have such little scope to set themselves apart from their Labour and Liberal (and for that matter, Green) counterparts that their only option for demonstrating their fitness for leadership is to appear to be taking the issue more seriously. And that’s the only option open to their counterparts, too. The result is an escalation of the ‘crisis’ that ends up looking more like the razor wars than politics.

Cynics on both sides of the issue may dismiss Cameron’s words as empty rhetoric, as mere postures assumed to embarrass the Labour Party, and to rob the liberals and the Greens of their environmentalist edge. They may well be right, but what is important here is to recognise how dramatically environmental thinking is narrowing political discussion about the future. Crisis politics dominates thinking right across the political spectrum and hides politics behind scientific absolutes which simply do not exist, and cannot be interrogated. Even the Socialist Workers Party is getting in on the act, calling for cuts of ‘at least 80 percent […] by 2030‘.

That all parties are pushing in the same direction on this one might lead some to argue that they can’t all be wrong. But it would be more true to say that they can’t all be correct. Discussions about the future are being reduced to an arms race of gimmicks that appeal to the very same fear that they generate. It’s enough to make five blades in a disposable razor seem like a positively radical, world-changing idea.

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