Short Cuts

John Lanchester

Since the LRB went to press with the last issue, climate change has made one of its periodic appearances in the headlines, with David Cameron and Gordon Brown each making announcements about what he will do when in office. This amounts to a green beauty contest, with the public in the position of the pen-sucking judges.

Cameron first. The Tory leader has hitherto, for all practical purposes, said nothing about anything: his mission has been to avoid policy commitments while making it clear his Tories were different from the party that a majority of the electorate had come to hate. The scale of his potential difficulties has been made apparent by the fact that even this purely cosmetic rebranding has caused distress to the party’s large Gargoyle Tendency. The test of any policy’s substance is whether or not it pisses some people off; seen from this perspective, climate change is Cameron’s first actual policy. He has chosen to focus on flying, a weak point for the government, because its commitment to the expansion of airports seems to be in total contradiction to Tony Blair’s stated belief that ‘climate change is the single most important long-term issue that we face as a global community.’ I say ‘seems to be’ – note the beautifully evasive way in which those last four words generalise the problem, rendering Blair’s statement perfectly consistent with inaction in the UK. In any case, air travel, and transport in general, is not a Labour strength, and the Tories have targeted it with their report Greener Skies: A Consultation on the Environmental Taxation of Aviation. I defy anyone not to be a tiny bit impressed by the report, which is manifestly serious, and argues for both taxes on aviation fuel (which is currently exempt from duty) and carbon allowances for flying. Some of the plain English is welcome: ‘The aim of any reform should be to reduce the overall growth in emissions from aviation.’ Of course, the document’s status as a consultation document allows plenty of wiggle room for future inaction or rowing-back.

Brown is more cautious. His one experiment with green taxes, the fuel price escalator of 1999, was a disaster. It led to the oil refinery blockade, and thence to general mayhem, and clearly left him thinking that the environment is one of those issues the public pretends to care about when talking to pollsters, but doesn’t really. (As I write, Andrew Turnbull, former head of the Civil Service, has just said that Brown has ‘a very cynical view of mankind’.) His policies involve encouraging us to switch to low-energy light bulbs, eliminating standby on electrical appliances, and extending home insulation. All of these are not just good ideas, they are essential, but they are about as close to doing nothing as Brown could have got away with – they certainly fail the definition of a real policy advocated above, as something that pisses somebody off. Brown has said that he considers the Tory policy on flying ‘ill considered, unworkable and unfair’, and that he is opposed to taxation and regulation as ways of tackling climate change.

The Labour politician who seems to be taking the issue most seriously is David Miliband, the environment secretary, who in contradiction to Brown says that ‘tax is a key instrument in climate change mitigation . . . The first principle is to put a price on greenhouse-gas emissions, equivalent to the damage it causes to the environment and society.’ This, given what his boss-to-be says, is fighting talk. Miliband has been looking into the question of a personal carbon allowance for all UK citizens, and, crucially, for any taxes and allowances that are introduced to be brought in quickly. He has also called for investment in carbon capture and storage, of exactly the kind that the Treasury turned down when BP asked for £500 million to set up a CCS system at Peterhead. There is, I suspect, a generational thing here: it looks as if the two forty-year-olds, Cameron and Miliband, get this subject in a way that the 56-year-old Brown doesn’t quite.

The joke is that we are going to need all these policies: the light bulbs and the tax on flights, the insulation and the CCS and the carbon allowances and plenty more besides. Taken all together, they represent only the start of a systematic approach to climate change, one which would reshape politics. When a government minister goes on television to announce that fewer cars are being sold, that fewer people are flying, that fewer people are buying new stuff, and that this is really good news – that’ll be the sign that things are changing. But this is at least the glimmer of a beginning.

I wrote in the last issue that the media give climate change sceptics far too much press: a 50-50 balance, whereas the peer-reviewed literature has 938 papers supporting the consensus and none disagreeing. The recent Channel Four programme The Great Global Warming Swindle was a perfect example of the kind of thing the sceptics come out with, complete with the usual cherry-picked data and selective editing. One of its most eminent contributors, the MIT oceanographer Carl Wunsch, has said that his words were framed to make it appear he was saying something ‘diametrically opposite to the point I was making’, and that the programme was ‘one-sided, anti-educational and misleading’. He said of Channel 4 that ‘I took them at face value – a grave error.’ A 1997 film about environmentalists by the same director, Martin Durkin, caused Channel 4 to have to broadcast a prime-time apology. The Independent Film Commission ruled that ‘comparison of the unedited and edited transcripts confirmed that the editing of the interviews . . . had indeed distorted or misrepresented their known views.’ Given the strength of that wording and the public apology, you do have to wonder what kind of television channel would commission a programme on the same subject from the same director.