Posts Tagged ‘Gordon Brown’

Let’s look at what happened in the last week or so.
On 4th July, The Guardian obtained an internal report from the World Bank estimating that biofuels have caused world food prices to rise by 75% (it seems I was far too optimistic on that previously).

On 5th July Gordon Brown gave an interview to The Guardian, in which he said he was going to tell the G8 nations that the problems of climate change and international development should not be sidelined by the credit crunch.

On the 7th July he launched a campaign to drastically reduce food waste in the UK, in an attempt to combat the escalating world food prices.
The very same day, the Government announced that they will be continuing with the requirement to have 2.5% biofuel in all transport fuel, although the planned percentage increases over the coming years will be reduced.

So let’s just recap. We are told to stop wasting our food on the grounds that we need to do everything possible to restrict food price increases, and on the same day we are told biofuels are going to continue to be in our fuel for the foreseeable future, despite the fact that they cause food price escalation, and starve millions.

A few days later, after the widely reported multiple-course lunches at the G8 summit, the issue of climate change seems to have passed the Leaders’ lips. Maybe between courses 6 and 7? It can’t have taken much longer than that, because they made minimal progress. Not even that.

The attempted 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 agreed by the G8 is the only thing that hit the headlines. The UK Government is already supposed to be thinking about a 60% cut by 2050 (in the Climate Bill which seems to have been lost without trace – maybe they left it in a taxi, or on a train). It’s commonly accepted now that an 80% cut is what we really need, with lots of educated voices saying 90% or 100% cuts are required, if not more.

The G8 announcement was so lame that even the head Economist of the Governments own Carbon Trust said it was crap – “an abrogation of responsibility” , as well as a whole host of the usual groups like Greenpeace etc. stating the obvious about it being a great let-down.

So it seems that, yet again, large international talks have come and gone, and all it that came of it was that our mighty world leaders agreed that something should probably be done sometime. But not any time soon, and certainly not with scientifically determined goals.

In the meantime, the Met Office tells us that spring is now arriving 6 days early in the UK , and satellites are showing that the vast Wilkins ice shelf in the Antarctic is collapsing. In winter.


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The challenge of overcoming climate change has been likened to the challenge of the second world war by Gordon Brown(1), or war more generally by others(2). It is easy to see why this comparison has been used. Everyone in the country knows what a huge challenge the Second World War was, and the sacrifices that each and every person had to make to help the cause, as well as in the work required to rebuild after it was over. It is hoped that comparing this with the challenge of minimising global warming will make people understand the size of the problem we are facing, and persuade them that they will have to help.

In trying (but not trying very hard, it must be said, – and certainly not leading by example) to explain to the British public that dealing with climate change may require sacrificing a few creature comforts, Mr. Brown is indicating that he’s finally starting to realise the gravity of the problem, and the scale of the required solutions.

However, if he takes a few moments to think about the World War 2 comparison, he will realise that persuading the public this time is going to be infinitely harder than it was for Winston Churchill. There are a few main reasons for this –

Reason 1. – You can’t see carbon dioxide.
In the Second World War you could see the enemy. It was a nasty man in Germany with lots of weapons and a big army. Showing people what they were up against was nice and easy, and it made it a lot easier to convince people that they all needed to do their bit and be prepared to make a few sacrifices in the war effort.
You can’t see carbon dioxide (or other greenhouse gases) in the air. They float around menacingly and gradually increase the temperature of the globe bit by bit until it’s too late, and we are committed to runaway climate change regardless of what we do. Before long the price of food will rocket, diseases will spread, etc. etc. and if that wasn’t enough the poor middle-Englanders will suffer from the mother of all hosepipe bans. At the moment it is difficult for many people to see the connection between flying across the world on holiday and millions of people suffering in extreme weather a few years later. If we could see the whole process it would make it a lot easier to convince people. But unfortunately we can’t.

Reason 2. – The general public don’t see it as their problem.
This follows on from problem one. Everyone could see the horrible things that were going to happen to them if we didn’t fight the war, and that made them want to fight it. This was mainly because the nasty things were going to happen to them.At the moment the British Public seems to think that climate change isn’t really going to harm them much, and therefore it isn’t at the top of their to-do list. There are a few reasons for this.

First is what I call the polar bear problem. Yes, polar bears are facing extinction due to climate change. Yes, that is a terrible thing. But the more that polar bears are used as the representative image of climate change the less the average person is going to want to do anything about it, because polar bears come a very long way down the list of peoples priorities in life.
Secondly, most people that know anything about climate change realise that the developing countries are going to be hit much harder than us in the developed world (3). What they may not realise is that a) this is likely to be less and less evident the more that temperatures rise and b) the entire scale is serious – we might not have as many problems as in the developing world, but the ones we do have are going to be more than enough to try and deal with.
Thirdly, nobody wants to fight this war because they are completely dependent on the cause of the problem.

Adding to all of this is the fact that the Governments own actions are confusing the general public – with concerned, proactive rhetoric on climate change, and simultaneous contradictory actions building more coal power plants and expanding airports (see previous post 22nd Nov. 2007). They are effectively saying “We need to go to war…….errrr…….but some of us are going to welcome the enemy with open arms and help them to win…….okay?”

Problem 3. – It isn’t going to be easy to see the outcome.
It was obvious when the war had been won. Well done everyone, we did it. We succeeded. Now we can start to pick up the pieces and not have to worry about that again for a while. That’s not going to happen with climate change. It takes a very long time for the atmosphere to sort itself out and come to a new balance, and it isn’t going to be obvious when it has. If the end is clear, then it will mean we have lost this war.

The World War 2 comparison is a good one, because everyone knows the huge effort required then, which will help them to understand what is required now. At the moment it isn’t obvious to the general public why this needs to happen – and therefore they won’t be very understanding when someone says they can’t fly across the world for their holiday, or they have to stop using their car.

People do not care about polar bears enough to make them stop flying. We need to make it clear that climate change is going to affect them – and it could make their lives a lot more miserable than it will be if they have to walk to work and not fly to Thailand on holiday.

At the rate we are going, by the time people realise we are at war we will have already lost. We cannot allow this to happen.

1. Gordon Brown speech on 19th November 2007 at the WWF.
2. Climate change is like ‘World War Three’ – Telegraph.co.uk, 5th Nov. 2007.
3. Discussed briefly in the UN Human Development Report 2007/08.

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While I was at the conference last week, one or two of us were trying to come up with ideas for what the group could actually do to try and help in raising awareness of climate change, and I suggested we should start a petition to get Gordon Brown to address the nation solely on the issue of climate change. And hey presto! – on Monday he did just that, and it didn’t take a single signature.

It wasn’t quite the all-channel dominating, prime-time, 30 minute long, Hollywood-style epic that I had in mind, but it was a start.

So what did he say? Well, he recognised that the Climate Change Bill might have to “be tightened up to 80 per cent”, and said that “By 2016, all new houses will have to be zero carbon”. He also said he was “convinced that we can eliminate single-use disposable bags altogether in favour of long-lasting and more sustainable alternatives”, and was going to have a meeting with the supermarkets and co. about how this could be done – but made no promises it would be (1). There were lots of mentions of technologies that will help, and how difficult it will be to overcome the problem etc. – but somehow, it didn’t leave me very convinced.

Zero carbon houses in 2016?! – What are you going to be pissing about with in the meantime Gordon? – That’s 8 years away!

Anyway, So far so good. If he sticks to everything he said in the speech (and it’s up to us to make sure that he does), then we will be a little closer to preventing more than 2 degrees of climate change, which is something we REALLY need to prevent.

The problem, as many people have highlighted previously, was that government departments, notably Transport, didn’t appear to have heard the speech, and certainly weren’t going to let it get in the way of nice big plans for a third runway at Heathrow.

According to the Secretary of State for Transport, Ruth Kelly – “If Heathrow is allowed to become uncompetitive, the flights and routes it operates will simply move elsewhere. All it will do is shift capacity over the Channel. It will make us feel pure, but with no benefit to the rest of the planet.” (2).

What?!?! Did she really just say that? As a friend of mine said today, that’s like saying “Well of course I’m going to keep selling drugs to kids, because if I didn’t then someone else would instead.”

I couldn’t believe that these two statements came from the same Government. That’s right folks – we’re really concerned about global warming – so concerned that we’re going to build lots of new runways so that other people don’t have to, therefore reducing their emissions. Errr……hold on a second…….

On the face of it, Mr. Brown seems to understand the extent of the problem, saying –
“The issue is not, as some would have it: can we afford to do more. The now undeniable reality is that we cannot afford to accept any less” – apart from, apparently, where planes are discussed. Oh, or building more coal-fired power stations (3). Hmmmm.

Forgive me for not being entirely convinced Gordon, but how about doing something. Like now.

Not everyone is going to enjoy the necessary changes over the next ten years or so – so why is the Prime Minister so scared of doing things? Does he really think that we are going to be able to cut our emissions to the required amount and also keep the motoring industry, supermarkets and big business completely happy?

Do you really want to get rid of plastic bags Gordon? Then do it! It won’t save the planet, but it would be a start. And have a good long think about that third runway while you’re at it. You’ve talked the talk, so how about a bit of walking to follow.


1. Gordon Brown speech on Climate Change at the WWF – 19th November 2007. This can be found in full here.
2. Kelly launches fight for Heathrow expansion, The Guardian Online edition, 22nd Nov. 2007.
3. The New Coal Age – George Monbiot, Monbiot.com, October 9th, 2007.

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