Something went rotten in the state of Denmark. Not only is the Copenhagen farce a failure of collective action to address the greatest threat facing the planet, it also imperils the domestic action (much unspecified) that successive Governments are committed to taking to reduce Britain’s own carbon emissions.
Despite the gloss put on the talks by Barack “meaningful” Obama and Gordon “first step” Brown, we should be in no doubt that the world’s leaders failed at Copenhagen. In the run up to the talks, Ed Miliband set out three criteria for a positive outcome:
“major reductions in emissions from developed countries; substantial deviation from business as usual by developing countries; and significantly increased and reliable flows of finance for adaptation and mitigation, for developing countries.”
Set against an Accord which has no binding targets and only recognises “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degress Celsius” and that “we should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible,” the first two criteria have failed. On the funding issue, both Brown and Miliband deserve credit for the “goal of mobilizing jointly 0 billion a year by 2020″ but – as with the promised billions at Make Poverty History – it is not enough and may not materialise.
But away from the late nights, brinkmanship, and desperate diplomacy of Denmark’s island capital, there is a growing antipathy to environmental politics in Britain.
The problems that will face a possible incoming Conservative government are well documented. Influential blogger Tim Montgomerie wrote recently that “climate change has the potential to divide the Conservative Party in the same way that Europe has divided us in the past.” As Left Foot Forward set out on Friday, grandees, backbenchers, parliamentary candidates, European partners, bloggers and the Tory grassroots are falling over themselves to set out their skepticism or outright denial of manmade climate change.
But the left should not be complacent. A YouGov poll for Left Foot Forward published last weekend made for difficult reading. Only 18% of voters describe the “environment, pollution or global warming” as being among the three or four “most important” issues facing the country. The number believing it is a “big and urgent issue” has fallen from 38% in November 2006 to 24%. The only circumstances in which voters were willing to consider higher taxes on petrol and flights were in circumstances when similar price hikes were applied in all other developed countries, where support rose from 26% to 39%. Public opinion is clear: no global deal at Copenhagen, no domestic sacrifice.
Those intending to vote Labour tend to be more receptive but given how badly the party is polling, this is no solace. People from lower-income social classes or from Labour’s heartlands are less enthusiastic than the average voter.
For reasons best known to themselves, an entire political movement on the right in the US, Australia, and outside the Cameron centre of the Tories is hell bent on propagating these myths with wanton regard for their own future credibility. The Convenient Lies blog, which charts the media distortions that delay action on climate change, set out on Friday how “The timing of the UEA’s hacked emails’ publication – widely seen as a deliberate PR coup against the entire Copenhagen summit – turns out to have been far from coincidental.” Meanwhile, Liberal Conspiracy set out on Saturday how many of the allegations, jumped on by the editors of the Telegraph, Express and Mail are emanating from “a closely connected circle of known global warming deniers, all of whom are linked to right-wing think-tanks.”
The Government’s ‘Low Carbon Transition Plan’ set out policies to reduce climate emissions in the UK by 18% on 2008 levels by 2020. But the pocketbook impact of these policies as energy costs rise has not yet been felt. And just as the pain begins, the country will need to start thinking about how it goes two and half times further over the following three decades as it brings emissions down to 80% below their 1990 levels.
Against that backdrop and the dashed ‘Hopenhagen‘ talks, it seems hard to imagine where the popular legitimacy will come from for the changes needed. But the facts speak for themselves. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 387 ppm (parts per million) at present – up from about 280 ppm prior to industrialisation. Since 1906, average temperatures have risen 0.74 degrees centigrade and will rise by a further 3 to 4 degrees if left unabated. The last decade has been the warmest on record; the ice caps are melting.
Persuading people to pay more today to put off a global catastrophe in 40 years time with untold human consequences is a politically nightmarish task. Copenhagen could have eased the work of Ed Miliband and his successors. But in the public debate, the environmental movement is losing to a sophisticated network of sceptics and deniers, many with an axe to grind. If they win, those with the science on their side will, in time, be proved right by the consequences of inaction.
We must not let that come to pass. Anyone planning on being alive by 2050, regardless of their political persuasion, needs to raise their game now.