14 Feb 2014

We need a radical plan to deal with our turbulent climate

Covering the storms in Cornwall this week has been like reliving my childhood. We came to St Ives on holiday every year from the mid-1960s until the inevitable lure of Mallorca got us, 10 years later.

Cornwall, then, was famous for warm weather. It was the first time I’d seen palm trees – possible because of the jet stream. It would bring warm air from the Caribbean right to our doorstep in Carbis Bay – with a predictability illustrated by all those beach photographs from the 19th century, and by the fact that somebody had bothered to build a railway right out to this far extremity of the British isles.

Now here’s what happened since I ran up and down these pristine beaches in my jelly sandals. Exhibit one: the Keeling Curve, showing parts per million of C02 in the atmosphere.

Since I was born, carbon emissions have grown from 4 btc a year to 10 btc a year – and according to majority scientific opinion that has contributed to climate change. As the world warms, the IPCC’s models predict the polar jet streams will move toward their respective poles, and the evidence is this is happening.


Because the science on this is new it is, quite rightly, contested and provisional. The best estimate is that our jet stream is slowing, and as its flow west to east weakens it is getting wavier from north to south.

So while climate scientists can’t say “This storm is happening because of climate change”, they can say we expect extreme weather events to be more frequent, the sea to rise, and the jet stream to be disrupted.

Yesterday a man in gold earrings, a souwester and more sea-wrinkles than a walrus came up to me and told me he’d seen the barometer sink off the scale on Christmas eve, for the first time in his lifetime, and warned me that “mother earth is getting ready to wash the **** off the shore”. (Technically it was the third lowest barometric pressure ever recorded )

Now, because settled human societies are only 40,000 years old, and the earth 7 billion, I am always prepared to heed the warning from climate sceptics we have to take climate variations in our stride; not run around screaming in our wellies that this is the end of the world etc.

However, I am also prepared to believe in the uniqueness and irreversibility of human action. Humanity can impact quite quickly and radically on the natural world and we have to be prepared for all kinds of unexpected consequences.

That is why, as the waves bash over the clock tower in Porthleven, clearly built by people who thought they’d left a reasonable margin of error to avoid this situation, I cling to science.

Just as I do not care what Glenn Beck and Nigel Lawson think about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, or what their views are about haematology, I do not care what they think about climate science.

I want, on the basis of the best available knowledge, for people, businesses, governments to take action.

And here’s where it is getting very politically tricky. If this is just freak weather, then it makes sense to strengthen the defences we have, and the infrastructure, and prepare for a long-range rise in sea levels.

If this is, on the other hand, just the latest warning the planet is giving us that the process of climate change will be very unpredictable, then we will need to do something else.

If you look, for example, at Network Rail’s climate adaptation plan, published in 2011, a lot of the risks seem misdiagnosed. Rising sea levels are seen as long-term issues. Track buckling and heat exhaustion among maintenance workers seemed better able to be quantified than the possibility of the sea ripping away the line at Dawlish.

If, now, Welsh coastal villages are being targeted for abandonment due to the unavailability of funds, while “money is no object” to save Surrey from catastrophic flooding, sooner or later a demand is going to rise for a national strategy on climate change.

Right now, nobody seems to “own” such a strategy, least of all the man in charge of the Defra secretary Owen Patterson, who thinks “the climate has not changed” and that “fewer people will die of cold in winter”.

There are climate deniers in every party, but the Conservatives’ current line – let’s not discuss climate change while Surrey and Somerset are under water – puts them at odds with the other two.

Here’s why it’s about to become very political, once the floods subside. To equip Britain strategically to deal with floods, heatwaves, storm surges and high winds we are going to need a holistic, joined-up plan, that links building regulations, railway plans, sea defences and drainage projects.

To stop burning carbon at a rate that heads off catastrophe, we are going to have to engineer a very rapid transition to a mix of renewables and nuclear, together with a very radical change in the way we consume energy – i.e. towards electrical power and away from gas.

John Ashton, a career diplomat and former climate adviser to William Hague, summed up the problem in a speech late last month: “The market left to itself will not reconfigure the energy system and transform the economy within a generation.”

That is, market incentives, combined with higher energy bills, are not moving us fast enough off carbon.

I think it is axiomatic that the market will also not be an adequate means for deciding which villages we abandon in west Wales, and whether the money for HS2 would be better spent making sure the west of England’s rivers and sea defences can withstand what’s coming.

So a political system geared to market solutions is going to find it quite difficult to accept non-market solution.

There is nothing “left-wing” about taking strategic control of infrastructure, energy and resources to fight a long-range war on a strategic threat. What else were Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill doing in two world wars?

But to enact a strategic plan you need to agree on what the threat is.

A large part of the press has devoted its time to rubbishing climate science in the past decade, so this is not just about politicians being out of touch with people. A lot of naturally conservative people I’ve talked to here – farmers, fishermen – are reluctant to say this is man made climate change related. Only 52 per cent of people think these storms are caused by climate change. So I respect the politicians’ right to tread carefully.

But let’s confront the problem: there is a logic behind climate denial if you think the market is the God-given form of economic life: if the threat is as great as science says, then maybe our assumption that the market can sort it out is wrong, and maybe our entire economic model has to change. Better, then, that the science is wrong – since much of it is so provisional anyway.

Our generation, the ones born in the 60s and 70s who made the carbon graphs curve upwards, has a responsibility to think outside every box we ever created for ourselves.

The IEA, and IPCC and numerous other scenarios spell out the threat. If we don’t adopt a radical plan to stop burning carbon, the catastrophic effects of a temperature rise above the 2 degree target will be very complex, unpredictable and cause global social chaos.

Even if this is just a freak storm – three force 10 gales hitting Newlyn in two months, when one a year would be rare – then at least it is warning us what will happen if we don’t change.

Given the number of very legitimate sectional interests that are going to have to be sacrificed or balanced as we reconfigure Britain to cope with this, in an ideal world you would want a bipartisan agreement across politics as to the nature of the threat and the basic options for dealing with it.

We don’t have that. And that will resonate across politics long after the sea walls are rebuilt and the fallen trees clear.

Follow @PaulMasonNews on Twitter