Climate change: Beware politicians who say they realise the danger but then insist on making it worse – Joyce McMillan

A terrifying graph appears on my Twitter feed, posted by a friend and colleague with an interest in the future, and in futurology.

It shows the speed of decline in carbon emissions that would be necessary to keep global heating at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels; and what it sketches is a cliff face, a near-vertical fall to zero.

We either cut carbon emissions by half within the next few years, it suggests, and all but eliminate them by 2040; or we have to prepare for levels of heating that will transform life on Earth almost beyond recognition, before children born today reach their late 20s.

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This, at least, is what all reputable climate science tells us; and it has to be said that the evidence before our eyes – notably the current shocking spring heatwave across northern India and Pakistan – suggests that the predictions are if anything too optimistic. And it’s against this backdrop of absolute crisis that I am often moved to wonder just what is wrong with many of the world’s politicians, who fully acknowledge – at events like the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, just six months ago – that this change needs to be made; but somehow always have an excuse or a sophistical argument to hand, when it comes to making it.

One outstanding representative of this dangerous generation of climate sophists, for example, is the current UK Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who in theory, like the rest of Boris Johnson’s government, is fully signed up to the idea of low-carbon transition; but in practice has recently become a vigorous advocate for further expansion of the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry, including the much-debated Cambo field.

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Last week, Kwarteng was challenged during a business lunch by climate activists demanding a rapid exit from oil and gas. “Shout and scream all you like,” he responded on Twitter, “but I’m not going to put Britain’s energy security at risk by shutting off domestic oil and gas production”; and he added that we would need to burn oil and gas “for decades to come”, and should therefore, in the interests of energy security, be sourcing it from our own North Sea and North Atlantic.

Well of course, it’s always pleasant to have a Conservative minister confirm just how vital energy resources located off Scotland are to the economic future of these islands.

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng addresses the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last November (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng addresses the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last November (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng addresses the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last November (Picture: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

In environmental terms, though, what Kwarteng is saying is just plain wrong. We cannot continue to burn oil and gas “for decades to come”, without horrific consequences; and insofar as we will need North Sea oil and gas over the next decade or so, to help us transition to and invest in future renewable energy systems – well no-one, despite Kwarteng’s predictable caricature of his opponents, is asking him to “shut off domestic oil and gas production” immediately, but only to refrain from actually encouraging new fossil fuel exploration and development.

Kwasi Kwarteng, in other words, can see the graphs and read the numbers, as well as anyone else; the man has a Cambridge double first, and is clearly not a fool.

Yet somehow, the intensity of lobbying from commercial interests desperate to believe that they can somehow maintain business and profits as usual, while combating climate change, overrides both information and intelligence; and leaves Kwarteng not only parroting nonsense about how we need to open up new oil and gas fields, but also, as a sideline, promoting further investment in “new” nuclear power – a form of low-carbon energy which is so investment-intensive, and takes so long to bring online, that there is really now no case at all for investing in it, rather than in much faster and cheaper renewable systems.

I have even heard Kwarteng repeating the desperately out-of-date canard that renewable energy “only works when the sun shines and the wind blows”, a comment which is now true only where there is a complete failure to invest in storage systems; and then he pauses to take a sideswipe at the Scottish Government, which, in an effort to at least seem to take the climate crisis seriously, this year decided not to participate in a massive offshore industry gathering in Texas, but instead to send two Scottish Enterprise officials to check how serious the participants are about the renewables transition.

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Not, of course, that the Scottish Government is without its own major issues, when it comes to cognitive dissonance over climate change.

It has long proven itself unable to stop building new roads; and as I write, it is presiding over a drastic reduction of service levels on Scotland’s newly nationalised railway – far below any level in my adult lifetime – that will inevitably drive thousands away from train travel for good, at a moment when expanding public transport use is supposed to be the highest of priorities.

In truth, it is difficult to point to a single government anywhere – except perhaps in the threatened islands of Oceania – which is really acting as if we face a life-threatening climate emergency; and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is something about this crisis – the combination of scale, complexity, and the requirement for revolutionary change at a moment when most people are still relatively unaffected – that is simply beyond the ability of humankind to manage, both psychologically and politically.

Like the meteorite barrelling towards Earth in many a science fiction story, it seems impossible that such a catastrophe could really be imminent, while daily life in our part of the planet continues much as usual; and so far, in a world full of politicians only too glad to keep evading the issue, the prospects for our species and many others, here on planet Earth, are looking increasingly grim.



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