Sunday, March 23, 2008

Climate Change and the Decisions that Matter

The Acid Test - Government Policy Decisions on Climate Change

Before proceeding with this article it is best to state at the outset that the issues are qualified to some extent by prevailing uncertainty regarding Climate Change being man made/anthropocentric. Dripping glaciers and collapsing ice floes make the national and indeed global headlines with alarming - perhaps to some tedious - regularity. Two very recent examples were headline news recently, where the increased rate of melting glaciers was “bettered” by a gloomy prognosis on the decrease of even stable ice continents, that are not supposed to be so susceptible to fluctuations in temperature.

Seemingly, there is also little doubt that the consequences of climate change could be considerable in political, economic and ultimately human terms, hence the urgent need felt by many to “do something” to avert this crisis – i.e. promote the Nuclear Industry. Hence also the globe trotting Al Gore - hopefully not contributing too significantly to aviation emissions - and the Stern report, which being economic in its consequences tends to be treated seriously.

Climate Change a Natural Cycle or Man Made?

However one impediment to “doing anything” is the argument that the crisis is not of our making, and the author feels this viewpoint needs to be acknowledged. It is a minority viewpoint, apparently the scientific majority of around 80% see a significant correlation between human activity and the crisis, but it is a view that is held in some parts. Indeed nature columnists in certain local newspapers, who rub shoulders with such luminaries as David Attenborough and might be considered as having some influence, have quite recently expressed the view that climate change is simply part of a natural cycle. A natural cycle unfortunate perhaps in its consequences, but for which the blame should not be laid at our door, and seemingly one we can do nothing about.

Until such time as columnists adduce some evidence to support such views however, this article will follow the scientific consensus, in assuming that the scientific majority are right, though we append a useful link on the topic below. Overall also we will make the assumption that not all such scientists blaming mankind are likely to have been hired by vested interests to play a particular tune. It is possible of course, but the opposite influence of traditional vested interests, such as the aviation and automobile industries seems more likely, and the wish to continue enjoying such transport will drive such views.

Key Government Policy Decisions on Climate Change

Moving on to the central topic we wish to briefly examine the substance of government actions with regard to climate change and local and influential decision making.

The concerning fact is that whilst we have a large national budget being targeted towards the area, and we seek to promote the UK global trailblazers in the diminishing emissions, the actual behaviour on the ground is different. Two recent decisions by the government, both made by theSecretary of State for Communities & Local Government, Hazel Blears, alert us to this worrying discrepancy.

The Thames Gateway Bridge Public Inquiry took Global Warming very seriously. On this occasion the Inspector even recommended that the Gateway proposal should, on this very count of adverse climactic impact, be refused. However, despite the Thames areas being particularly susceptible to heavy flood damage, the Secretary of State thought otherwise, and ordered a review of the decision.

At Lancaster, the Heysham M6 Link Road Bypass scored very badly on Global Warming, and again the Inspector Mr Tipping (Cantab) had little choice but to record this fact. The Secretary of State agreed with the Inspector that the increase in greenhouse gases resulting from the scheme, including an increase in CO2 emissions, would be a significant adverse impact of the road scheme IR8.3.37” (Para 31 of Inspectors Report). However, significantly she claimed that there were no alternatives, something that opponents of the scheme hotly dispute as they assiduously compiled a package of alternatives. The Inspector did not allow the CO2 consideration to get in the way of rubber stamping another “business as usual” road scheme. Would it have mattered if he had? Perhaps not greatly, we might at best have expected another review of the decision, but in fact the relevant Secretary of State was only too pleased to endorse his decision.

What does this tell us?

Whilstl it is tempting to allow the reader to draw their own conclusion, without spelling it out, what seems clear is that the UK policy on global warming and climate change is one thing, but practice is another. Where policy can be hidden behind small print budget mechanisms it allows for giving the “impression of doing something”. In fact it may only be serving to add to government coffers, a fact which is often seized on by the cynical road lobby. The real decisions, that is to say those which are not simply obscure pricing mechanisms, but exist in the tangible world of results and action, tell another story.

When it comes to stark decisions, that will have to be taken if the challenge is going to be even remotely met , the record so far begins to look a little indefensible. The story so far seems to be “business as usual” and no change.

As long as climactic human calamity is far off, as with Bangladesh awash in melting the Himalayan glaciers, this will probably remain the likely course of events, perhaps until it is too late. Despite the many warnings, sadly it may require things to come home to roost even more clearly than the recent floods in the Midlands, to usher in the cold, if necessary, wind of change.

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