We learned something last month many had long suspected: the US istalking to the Taliban about an “exit to conflict”. To avoid the inevitable backlash from within some domestic constituencies, the news was quickly spun by the US as nothing more than “talks about talks” via the use of intermediaries. As with peace talks in the past – Northern Ireland, inevitably springs to mind for me – there will be the die-hards who cry “Never!” or “No surrender!”, whereas there will be the war-weary moderates in the middle who welcome the thought of positive engagement and conflict resolution.
When I heard the news about the possibility of olive branches being gestured in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help but think of the ongoing “climate war”. Here we have a seemingly intractable, bitter, hostile conflict between two firmly entrenched foes with no obvious sign of resolution ahead.
(And I won’t dare for a second suggest who might be analogous to the Taliban!) Day after day, week after week, the battle rages on. And, in Australia, where the conflict is arguably at its most intense at present, we now have reports of climate scientists receiving death threats. But, as with the killing fields of France during the first world war, “progress” can only ever be measured in a matter of inches.
Are those of us engaged in this dispute destined to remain in this state of stasis for years ahead? If so, it’s a thoroughly depressing thought.
But there have been two flickers of hope to report over the past week that hint at the possibility of a positive, constructive alternative. First, we had a blog post by a US blogger called Skeptoid who, as a self-proclaimed “libertarian/conservative” climate sceptic, announced that he had “converted” and was now “persuaded that anthropogenic global warming is real”. For me, though, the far more compelling component of his post was not the revelation of his conversion per se, but his thoughtful advice to his “friends on the left and right” for how to reach some shared middle ground.
It’s well worth a read, but, in summary, what he seems to be saying is, first, erase any political allegiances from your mind and concentrate on getting to grips with what the best available science is telling us. Only then can you introduce your politics when talking about how to move forward. I couldn’t agree with him more and have been trying to make this same point for years by exposing what I see as naked ideology or vested interest rather than genuine scientific enquiry.
Then came the revelation, uncovered by Steve McIntyre of ClimateAudit, that the IPCC renewables report published in full last week had given prominence to a “80% by 2050″ claim in its press release which had come from a paper co-authored by a Greenpeace staffer, who also happened to be one of the report’s lead authors. That this detail was hidden for a month because the press release had, utterly bizarrely, been released a month ahead of the full report, only acted to further anger people.
There were varying degrees of reaction, ranging from “the IPCC is a corrupt bunch of crooks and we can’t believe a word it says”, through to the “nothing to see here, move along” variety. But, for me, by far the most interesting reaction came from the environmental writer and campaigner Mark Lynas who wrote on his blog (here, here, here andhere) why he felt the IPCC had handled this “affair” poorly – views I very much share, as I remarked under one of his posts.
After everything that the IPCC has gone through over the past 18 months, why could it not see that this would court negative attention? If – as I think they should – vested interests are to be involved in the process of drafting reports by the IPCC’s Working Group III, which looks into the issue of climate change mitigation, then full transparency and balance is absolutely essential if it is to gain the confidence of all its various observers.
But the longer lasting legacy of Lynas’s intervention is likely to be how it was welcomed by some prominent voices within the climate sceptic community. There seemed to be genuine surprise – and gratitude, even – that an “eco fundamentalist” could be “open-minded” enough to criticise the IPCC.
Coincidentally, I happen to be currently reading Lynas’s new book, The God Species. It set outs the nine “planetary boundaries” – climate change, freshwater, nitrogen use, biodiversity etc – which he argues our species must aim not to cross if we are to avoid threatening “life and our civilisation”. As you might expect, it strikes me as eminently sensible stuff, but where the book is at its most interesting I think is where he tries to strike a conciliatory tone with those who, ideologically, are likely to oppose his central thesis of environmental boundaries and limits.
He talks of his sympathies with the right (where the vast majority of climate sceptics are to be found, he notes) and their preference for market-based solutions and technological fixes, and hatred of taxes and inter-governmental interventions. The green movement is doomed to fail, he says, if it persists with its big sell that we have to give things up to survive.
He speaks of needing to stay within those boundaries, come what may. So, if that involves building more nuclear reactors and planting GM foods, then so be it. Evidence-based solutions must always be the priority. Greens, he argues, must not be afraid to slay some of their own ideologically dragons if they want to see progress on issues such as climate change. Likewise, the climate sceptics of the right risk making a fundamental long-term error by ignoring – or, yes, denying in some cases – what the best available science is telling us about the consequences of rising carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification and the like.
I don’t agree with everything he says in the book, but have found myself nodding in agreement at large parts. I have no ideologically objections to technological solutions such as nuclear and GM, but I admit that I do still instinctively like to apply the precautionary principle wherever possible. I like to think that I see everything – climate change, depleting fish stocks, deforestation etc – through the prism of risk analysis. Can we risk ignoring what scientists are telling us are looming problems?
I also accept, though, that we might not have the luxury any more of being endlessly cautious when it comes to so-called “saviour” technologies. As long as we can expose and, ideally, eradicate decision-making founded on vested interests and/or idealogy, then I would hope that I was open-minded enough to either rule in or rule out solutions based on scientific evidence alone. And if compelling evidence was published that said we need not concern ourselves about rising greenhouse gas emissions any more, then I would accept it. (Truly, who wouldn’t want to wish away climate change?!) But, at present, I just don’t see the balance of evidence this way. It comes back to risk: can we risk ignoring the available evidence?
And why not play to the strengths of some idealogical stereotypes? For example, the right has a long tradition of conservation and environmental stewardship.
Of course, the interplay of politics and climate solutions is almost unavoidable given the huge stakes at play. It would be naïve to pretend otherwise. So, for me, the events of the past week pose this simple question: are there any shared goals between the two warring parties in the climate debate worth finding “peace” for?
I would meekly suggest the following as a starting point, although I fully accept that some will want to add more, or cross some out:
* Unimpeachable, transparent, uncorrupted science
* Energy security
* “Clean” energy (if CO2 is not your concern, then surely reducing localised air pollution is a valid goal?)
* Halting deforestation
* Halting biodiversity loss
* Conserving marine habitats
* Avoiding economic instability
* Protecting the poor and vulnerable
* Ensuring global food supplies
Personally, I see the most obvious shared goal being the first: unimpeachable, transparent, uncorrupted science. It’s the building block – and stumbling block – for everything else and is arguably where much of the heat is generated within this debate. How can we ever move on to thrashing out the politics of climate solutions if we are forever bogged down in disputes about the veracity of the science, or whether there even is a problem to solve? Of course, this is clearly the tactic of some climate contrarians, but I don’t believe it’s fair to project all climate sceptics in this manner.
I admit that I sometimes find it hard to detect the signal from all the noise when observing climate sceptics, but the most positive contribution the more moderate climate sceptics (or “luke-warmers”, as they are sometimes described) such as McIntyre and Andrew Montford have brought to the debate is their dogged insistence that climate science must be transparent, open, fair and free from influence. I don’t think anyone could argue that this is not a worthy goal and, even if you disagree with their motivations, tone and methodologies, we will come to thank climate sceptics in years to come for forcing these obvious improvements.
So, would a “meeting of the moderate minds” within this debate be productive? When so much of this war is fought in anonymous online forums (see below for details!), would it be constructive to bring these two groups together in a room to begin tentative “peace talks” based on first trying to identify any common ground? Or is it hopelessly naïve of me to even suggest that this could ever bring positive results? I prefer to see myself as a climate pragmatist, but would I rightly be cast as a climate “appeaser”?
What seems obvious to me is that we’re collectively getting nowhere fast. I believe it might be time to try something new, but I would be genuinely interested to hear the thoughts of all those within this debate.
Leo Hickman is a weekly columnist for the Guardian. His hands-on approach to green living is honest and inspiring.
He has written several books for adults including the best-selling A Life Stripped Bare: My Year Trying to Live Ethically and A Good Life