climatechange (climatechange) wrote in climate_change,

The folly of being "politically reasonable"

One of the issues that runs through politics as a whole, with every single issue, is an attempt only to ask for what is "politically reasonable" or acceptable. In UK student politics, one of the main reasons for scrapping the demand to maintain a student grant system in 1997 was that it wasn't politically reasonable to ask for or believe the students' union was going to get it. This had a ring of truth to it because in traditional negotiation tactics, for example, with an employer you would generally take off the table immediately any request which was obviously not going to happen (eg. a 100% pay rise). However, in politics this is often a false mantra as the short term and long term boundaries can shift radically with public opinion and other forces, and so following this route often results in a sell-out of the group's objectives. In climate politics, it's vastly more serious; it's positively dangerous.

When working in or with environmental NGOs I have often come up against the argument that we must be politically reasonable. The logic goes is that if we campaign for something that requires such radical change, politicians will never entertain the idea and we will never be heard. That if we ask for something more "reasonable", something that the politicians may be able to implement without such outcry.

Being politically reasonable was what got us the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that is vastly insufficient. Being negotiated in 1997 however means that some of its flaws can be overlooked - we know vastly more about what targets must be met today than we did 10 years ago, and the science behind those targets is a lot harder. However, the Clean Development Mechanisms that weaken the legislation were obvious even then, but allowing companies and governments to buy their way out of making any greenhouse gas reductions in unproven projects was a "politically reasonable" hole in the legislation.

The controversy over Kyoto has proven one other thing however - any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will be politically or ideologically difficult for some, the economic adjustments and costs that need to be made, no matter if it's 5.2%, 60% or 90%. What is important is that what is put on the table must solve the climate crisis, there is no half-way or even most-way measure, we either implement sufficient cuts to give us a good chance to stop the positive feedback loops that will result in runaway climate change that will make life on Earth intolerable, or we do not.

I write this because it has just been revealed that Friends of the Earth has fallen into this very trap and is in the process of promoting a climate bill that will not be sufficient, and has even curtailed it's own scientific report to these limitations - something that we would more expect of a piece of industry sponsored research.

You'll notice in my entry last Sunday, for the first time I gave two different targets. One was based on a report released on the Climate Crisis website which correlated various pieces of latest research from the Hadley Centre and other institutions to provide a very accurate target of what we needed to achieve - 90% greenhouse gas cuts by 2030. The second was a report very recently released by the Tyndall Centre, a respectable climate research centre, that appeared to be in conflict - 90% by 2050. I was confused but didn't have time to investigate further.

The answer however was published on the Guardian newspaper's website by George Monbiot. I'm going to use a rudely large quote because it holds the point together:

"Concentrations of 450 parts per million CO2 equivalent or lower", it says, provide a "reasonable to high probability of not exceeding 2C". This is true, but the report is not calling for a limit of 450 parts of "CO2 equivalent". It is calling for a limit of 450 parts of CO2, which means at least 500 parts of CO2 equivalent. At this level there is a low to very low probability of keeping the temperature rise below two degrees. So why on earth has this reputable scientific institution muddled the figures?

You can find the answer on page 16 of the report. "As with all client-consultant relationships, boundary conditions were established within which to conduct the analysis ... Friends of the Earth, in conjunction with a consortium of NGOs and with increasing cross-party support from MPs, have been lobbying hard for the introduction of a 'climate change bill' ... [The bill] is founded essentially on a correlation of 2C with 450 parts per million of CO2."

In other words, Friends of the Earth had already set the target before it ask edits researchers to find out what the target should be. I suspect that it chose the wrong number because it believed a 90% cut by 2030 would not be politically acceptable.

This echoes the refusal of Sir David King, the government's chief scientist, to call for a target of less than 550 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, on the grounds that it would be "politically unrealistic". The message seems to be that the science can go to hell - we will tell people what we think they can bear.

A two degrees rise is the currently accepted danger point by which runaway climate change becomes unstoppable.

There is a lot of pressure for NGOs and environmentally inclined politicians to try to ignore the science, or water it down in their minds by blindly hoping that anything but the cut required will be enough. The organiser, lobbyist or author for the NGO wants to be able to win their campaign, and the higher the restriction, the more difficult it becomes to convince a politician. The politician wants to be able to get a bill through and convince the corporations and institutions that it effects, and the people who put him or her in a job, that it's worthwhile. Each extra percent and each year less makes that more difficult.

It is difficult. We need to convince politicians who need to convince the country and the world that we need to change the way we live in many ways - to abandon cars, aeroplanes, over consumption of our resources. Our whole economy is based on an endless supply of energy and resources which just does not exist and is not possible. It might seem like an impossible task, but it's certainly not. Difficult, but not impossible.

The first step however begins with ourselves. All NGOs must make a commitment to campaign and accept only what will work, what the most up-to-date science demands. Today that science demands it must be 90% of greenhouse gas reductions by 2030, and we must make much of those gains within the next decade. If we start with something that won't work we might as well go home now.

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