The climate crisis no government can afford to ignore

By Paul Richardson

A new Parliament assembles in Westminster after the election to confront many problems left by its predecessor. Top of the list of concerns for many government ministers and MPs will be the deficit. Mayer Hillman, Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute, a leading proponent of carbon rationing and the author of many books on environmental subjects including How We Can Save the Planet (Penguin), hopes that the new Parliament will turn its attention to what he considers to be a far greater threat to our future than anything else: the issue of climate change. But, as he confessed to me when I interviewed him in his North London home, he is not optimistic.

I began by asking Hillman whether the recent furore over the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia undermined his confidence in the science of climate change and the calculations on future temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“The science still stands. Temperatures do fluctuate substantially. It is not a straightforward trajectory. But the trend is still upwards. I suppose the UEA scientists didn’t want to highlight the fluctuations so much as the long-term trend which is what is important.”

Have the leaks caused problems?

“Leaks from the UEA have encouraged many people to take their eye off the ball. It has been hugely damaging because it has fed scepticism about climate change. It is going to produce a host of problems, many of them intractable. The generation following this one is going to inherit a planet in a deteriorating condition and there will be a continuing decline in its habitability during the rest of the century. This will lead to a huge loss of life because of floods and drought and associated with this severe water and food shortages.

“There will also be a loss of land and this will force people to migrate. At the moment we have immigration for economic reasons but immigration from climate change will be far in excess of current levels running into hundreds of millions of people trying to reach parts of the planet that are in a reasonable state. Northern Europe will be a favourite destination. The world is going to face a burgeoning population combined with a decline in the area of land in which people can live. It is a huge issue which has not been addressed.

“I have asked ministers and senior civil servants ‘Where are these ecological refugees going to go?’ and they do not have an answer. Not surprising when you recall current worries about the UK population growing to 70 million. No one wants to think about what will happen to refugees who are the victims of climate change. But these poor people will not be like economic migrants. They will have no choice. They will be obliged to move, victims of our profligate lifestyle over the past two centuries.”

Hillman is convinced politicians and public would rather not think about climate change because of the demands it makes on all of us to massively reduce our consumption of fossil fuel. Given that politicians normally deal with immediate issues how are we going to get people to focus on what is going to happen 20 or 30 years down the track? The energy regulator, Ofgem, is predicting price rises of over 60 per cent over the next 10 years. Will people accept this? George Osborne has already had to pull back from plans to introduce an air miles allowance. How can we deal with these issues in a democratic society?

“There is only one way to deal with it. It was formulated in 1996 by the Global Commons Institute (GCI). It requires the imposition of an energy cap through international agreement. That cap will then lead to an equal share on a per capita basis for the world’s population. Everyone would be allocated an equal carbon allowance.

“If you look at the figures provided by climate scientists you end up with a figure that is less than one ton of carbon per person per year. Currently in the UK we use 10 tons each a year (more if you take into account the fact that much of our manufacturing takes place abroad) and in America it is over 20 tons average per person. We need to get down to one ton per head as soon as possible. We can’t wait until 2050.

“The situation has been left to drift too long. We need an international system that requires people not to exceed their fair share. The government has fought shy of this. But people will not act voluntarily. We need legislation to bring down carbon consumption.”

But will people vote for a party committed to such a policy?

“I do worry about whether a democracy can deal with the problems we face. We have to require people to do things they don’t want to do. If we can’t get the majority to accept this, it raises questions about the viability of the democratic system in the face of the dangers posed by climate change.”

Hillman has argued that it might be better to have an ‘ecological dictatorship’ that faced up to threat to the future of the planet than a democracy that hid its head in the sand. But if you look at the record of dictatorships, especially the communist dictatorships, they have
been ecological disasters. What checks would there be in an ecological dictatorship?

“I can’t answer that question but what I can say is that there is little evidence from their manifestos of the main parties in this country recognising the gravity of the situation. The airline industry is claiming planes will be 30 per cent more efficient in 20 or 30 years’ time but this just means that by 2050 with increased flights emissions will be no higher than they are now. But present levels are too high!”

What about carbon trading or allowing airline passengers to offset their journey in some way?

“Carbon trading isn’t working. What makes it fundamentally flawed is that it is based on the belief that you can attach a monetary value to a ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. You can’t put a price on all the ramifications of climate change, like the problem of sea water coming up into arable land and ruining it. How do you evaluate the damage that will be caused for over a hundred years to people living in delta regions like Bangladesh, for example?

“The problem is that industry has got its back up against the wall. It wants to go on pretending that economic growth and protecting the environment from climate change are compatible. It just can’t be done.”

In his books Hillman is dismissive of technological change bringing a sufficient solution to climate change. He rejects nuclear energy and is doubtful about whether the development of non-fossil fuels will enable us to maintain existing levels of growth. Does he really see no value in technological innovation?

“People say every little bit counts but what happens if the aggregation of the little bits does not solve the problem? The real solution to the problem is the GCI’s contraction and convergence framework to which I have already referred.

“We need to set a cap on the amount of carbon we can safely emit and then divide the amount on a per capita basis between every human being on the planet. Everyone will then have the same ration and it will be up to them to use their ration as they wish. They will be able to sell the parts of their ration that they do not use so it will be worth their while, for an example, to shop around and buy green electricity at a higher price that does not use up a big part of their ration.

“Poor people whose total of emissions tends to be low will be able to make money this way. People who want to fly to New York and use up three tons of carbon will have to buy extra rations from these with spare rations to sell. Technology comes in and plays a role here but you have to provide a framework within which it can operate. I think the adoption of equal per capita shares is inevitable and will arrive fairly soon.”

After Copenhagen how are we going to get an international agreement for carbon rationing?

“We are much closer to it than people realise. All the major players agree we must have a contraction in our use of fossil fuels. In Britain we have a target of an 80 per cent reduction before 2050. How do we share out this contraction? What happened at Copenhagen was predictable because representatives sought to look after the interests of their own country. The only solution will come when people recognise that the global interest comes first. It is a mistake to trade in national percentages. We need to look at carbon allowance per person. If the Americans say they will reduce by one third that still leaves them with 13 tons per person. A reduction on an equal per capita basis is the way to go.”

How do you judge the record of the present government? What do you expect from the next government?

“The government has committed us to an 80 per cent reduction in carbon by 2050 but in the small print said that we have less than a fifty-fifty chance of reaching that target. This is extraordinary but all the political parties have endorsed it. I have glanced at the manifesto proposals and none of them say that we have to achieve a massive reduction in carbon emissions and that this means big changes in our lifestyles. People still think there is no harm in flying where they want to go for their holiday. The electorate has not been educated. People are carbon illiterate.

“There is a comparison between 1939 and now. Faced by war and the prospect of food shortages a Conservative government brought in food rationing. It wasn’t left to the market prices to curtail demand. Rationing was accepted because it was seen as the only fair way to deal with a commodity in limited supply. We are in an analogous situation today. You can extend the analogy and say that those people who will not recognise the danger of climate change are like those people in the 1930s who would not accept the danger posed by Hitler. Except it is worse. Even the Nazis did not threaten the destruction of the planet.”

Mayer Hillman tries to live by his creed. He is embarrassed to admit his own carbon consumption last year was 3 tonnes (less than one third the national average) but he never flies and has one of the most energy saving homes in Camden. He wasn’t even prepared to fly to the US to promote his book so a reluctant publisher was forced to bring out an American edition without the usual promotion tour by the author.


Published in Government Gazette April/May 2010.

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