Market News

 July 30, 2018
Our scorched Earth needs voters to put more heat on their politicians

 Over the course of Britain's sweltering summer, the landlord of the building inhabited by the Observer periodically informs us that our air conditioning is undergoing an "automated controlled shutdown" because the weather has become so hot and humid that the system is at risk of damaging itself. So just when you really need cooling air, you can't have it. One to be filed under: you couldn't make it up.

This is not uncommon. The offices, factories, homes, roads and railways of Britain were designed on the assumption that it is a country of blessedly temperate conditions, immune to extremes of heat and cold. When people say that Britain is not built to withstand a sizzling summer, this is more literally true than they may know.

We can avoid thinking about what this intense heatwave could mean for the future of the planet by taking careless refuge in the consolation that others are having it much worse. The devastating wildfires in Greece have killed at least 87 people and ignited national fury about the state's inadequate response. Japan has declared a national disaster after more than 20,000 people were taken to hospital in a week. Algeria has reported the highest temperature ever reliably recorded in Africa: 51.3C. That's hot. Forests are blazing within the Arctic Circle. That's not usual.

Scientists tell us to expect weird weather to become more familiar. The fiery conditions we have seen this summer are the result of the jet stream stalling, an effect caused when the poles heat up more than the equator does. There is further broad and deep scientific consensus that climate change is at the heart of it. The jet stream has been hinky in the past. The consequences are more severe this time because global warming has raised baseline global temperatures.

This is a glimpse into a frazzled future, a warning every inhabitant of the third rock from the sun would be wise to heed. Extreme weather events -- ferocious heatwaves, epic floods and violent storms -- are going to happen with increasing frequency. The most catastrophic consequences will be felt by other, often much poorer countries, but Britain won't be unscathed. You can't run from climate change and you can't hide. Not absent the ability to get to another planet suitable for human life. The question then becomes a political one: what, if anything, are we going to do about it?

There is a school of thought that contends that politics is fundamentally incapable of addressing this challenge. It is just too overwhelming for politicians and electorates to handle. The problem is so complex and so global that it induces fatalism in the leaders and the led. I find this view to be self-defeating and self-harming. There are things that governments can do and they have even managed to achieve some of them. There are now days when Britain meets all its energy needs without burning any coal, something that hasn't happened since before the Industrial Revolution and a development that would have astonished earlier generations. We produced more electricity from renewable and nuclear energy in 2017 than from gas and coal, making it the first year that low-carbon resources met most of the country's demand for power.

That is a legacy of good decisions made by earlier governments. This is progress. It is not sufficient progress, but it does demonstrate that there are things that can be done to mitigate climate change and there are smarter responses to this threat than burying your overheated head in your sweaty hands.

Political engagement has fluxed depending upon who is in charge, how much pressure there is from the public and what else is happening. It was on the agenda of Labour governments after 1997. David Cameron then positioned the Tories as a party that liked the planet. He once campaigned with the slogan "vote blue, go green", which rather gave away that rebranding his party was his primary motive. More voters and opinion-shapers have become engaged. Witness the pressure to do something about plastics. Michael Gove's positive response can be welcomed, even while recognising that the greening of Gove is another attempt at a rebranding, in this case of himself.

The past decade has seen a compelling accumulation of frightening data about what is happening to the planet, but the world and its politicians have been distracted by other threats that seemed more immediately menacing, especially the financial crash of 2008 and subsequent austerity. George Osborne, who was blue but never green as chancellor, strangled the budget for developing carbon capture and storage. Theresa May has never been animated enough by climate change to make a major speech about it. Her government recently scrapped the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon power scheme, dashing hopes that Britain could lead development of a new source of renewable energy. Scrubbing a planet-friendly project followed the decision to press ahead with Heathrow expansion.

The international picture has deteriorated. Global warming has been crowded out as a subject energising international leadership and the push to tackle the danger has lost momentum. The Paris climate agreement signed in 2016 was supposed to commit more than 170 countries to measures to hold the increase in the global average temperature to "well below" 2C above pre-industrial levels. What it lacks is any mechanism for holding the signatories to their promises and not one of the major industrialised nations has published a full and plausible strategy for meeting their targets. A growing number of the scientists of climate change fear that global warming is going to be in excess of 2C. Donald Trump, who dismisses climate change as a hoax made up by the Chinese to hurt US industry, has ripped up the commitments made by his predecessor. American withdrawal is a double disaster. The Paris agreement is much less of one without the signature of the world's most profligate emitter of greenhouse gases. Absent a commitment from the US, other countries are likely to feel less incentive to make good on their pledges and less shame when they break them.

This disappointing international picture is something to lament, but not an excuse for Britain to do nothing. We live on a windy island inhabited by a lot of clever people and surrounded by a lot of sea. With the right levels of public investment and well-targeted incentives for the private sector, this country could be a world leader in tidal and wave power.

There are changes that will be simply forced on Britain as the heating planet has an increasing impact on the way we live and work. MPs on the environmental audit committee have just offered some useful, if largely remedial, suggestions. These include making buildings and transport systems more heat-resilient and using water more efficiently. Such recommendations are, of course, measures to relieve the symptoms of global warming. They do not address the causes.

Stronger action will require politicians ready to drive global warming up the agenda, lead public opinion and take bold decisions, many of which will be tough and some of which will not be popular with everyone. This politicians will do only if they genuinely care about climate change or are made to care because a critical mass of their voters tell them that they want something done. The most recent British Social Attitudes survey reports that more than 90% of Britons agree that climate change is a fact, but the rub is that only around a quarter describe themselves as very worried about it and only a minority feel a responsibility to reduce it. Climate change struggles to get into the top 10 of issues that voters tell pollsters that they are most bothered about and almost never reaches the top three. This means that, while most Britons appreciate that there is a threat, not enough grasp its scale or think that it ought to be a serious priority for the government.

That could change. It certainly ought to change and is more likely to change as extreme events become a more regular occurrence. Britons have been accustomed to the weather forecast coming after the news. For most of us, for most of the time, the only information we required was whether we needed to take a brolly with us. Britons may adjust their attitudes and demand a lot more leadership and action from their politicians, when the weather leads the news.