They’re still out there, the deniers, but they become increasingly exotic. And excuses for inaction on global warming become stranger. One I found would have us believe that spending on wind farms was responsible globally for “killing millions” through the misallocation of resources. That came from a panellist at a public debate at one of the UK’s leading scientific establishments. Oddly, he cited no learned journals to back the claim. The same voice went further. There are no limits on the human use of natural resources, we were told, because when things run out on earth, we can always mine … asteroids.
OK, so the audience did laugh spontaneously at that point. But what makes people cling so tenaciously to denial that they would entertain ludicrous feats just to preserve the status quo, rather than embrace relatively simple changes – like switching the energy system away from fossil fuels – and in the process create jobs and greater energy security and (even if they don’t accept its reality) tackle climate change?
To push that simple change, this month one man took a big leap away from the security of the science laboratory that was once his home and got himself arrested for challenging the coal industry in the US. To be fair, James Hansen of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies has a track record in standing up to authority, especially Republican administrations, but getting detained by men in uniform in the cause of climate change was a first. Soon after, a new climate bill was passed in the US.
It’s encouraging that people like Hansen are upping the ante, and it’s not difficult to see why they do it. On one hand, the month brings confirmation of how warming will drive a huge human upheaval through forced migration, and how the UK will see more flooding in winter and droughts in summer. On the other, there is news that the Met Office, responsible for much of the UK’s core work on modelling global warming, is to lose one quarter of its climate research budget, about £4.3m, after the Ministry of Defence withdrew funding, and that emissions from international shipping – not covered by international agreements for reduction – are rising.
Meanwhile, the policing of climate protests appears to grow increasingly political and repressive, in direct contradiction to exhortations to mobilise and campaign from figures like the secretary of state for energy and climate change, Ed Miliband. As the evidence on warming further hardens, any kind of coherent political response seems to flounder more elaborately.
And yet, in spite of everything and in a quite unplanned and unintentional way, the beginnings of a potentially positive and self-reinforcing spiral are dimly visible.
First, the environment comes riding in to save the economy, through various initiatives like support for wind power and home energy efficiency, that one day, added up, might look like a Green New Deal. Then the economy accidentally returns the gesture.
In 2008, a combination of high oil prices and the financial crisis saw the global economy slow down and the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions fall by half. They still went up, but slowed significantly.
Rich and poor countries experience such trends very differently. But the effect in some rich countries, where emissions cuts are needed first and deepest, has been interesting. Far from there being universal wailing and mortification, many have embraced the chance to work shorter weeks and take unpaid holiday. They’ve accepted cuts in disposable income because the gift of extra time has opened up new opportunities elsewhere.
In reclaiming part of their lives to do anything from spend more time with family, learn a new skill, volunteer, start a campaign or enterprise, take a walk in the woods or, indeed, study stars and asteroids, people are discovering that there is a big payback in added wellbeing. For some people at least, the recession has taught them that less really is more. As the clock ticks down to the point when, in 89 months’ time, it will no longer be “likely” that we’ll keep below the critical two-degree temperature rise, lets hope we are all quick learners.
Finally, its not just world-famous scientists who are putting themselves on the line legally or, indeed, literally. Last summer 29 people stopped a train containing 1,000 tonnes of coal on its way to Drax power station in Yorkshire. They stopped the train with a red flag, following standard railway safety rules, boarded it and began shovelling the coal on to the line. One was dressed as a canary – the traditional warning of dangerous pollution down a coal mine. They dropped a banner saying “Leave It in the ground”.
Like Hansen, they saw coal as the biggest danger when it came to climate change, and Drax is the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK. All 29 were arrested and are now standing trial. They’re charged with “obstructing the railway” and they face up to two years in prison. Their trial started on Monday, but what is really on trial is whether we have the wit as a society to save ourselves from death by carbon-addled inertia.