Climate change deniers have changed tactics, deploying warm words, special pleading and inaction – Joyce McMillan

It was sometime around the end of 2018 that the debate on climate change moved on to new phase, certainly here in the UK.

In September of that year, the BBC issued guidance to its journalists that they no longer needed to “balance” discussion on climate change by giving air time to those who denied that it was happening at all.

It was a straw in the wind, but a significant one; and by the spring of 2019, when climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed members of the UK parliament at Westminster, it was clear that if overt climate-change denial was fading into history, the problem had now shifted elsewhere.

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Government after government, Greta Thunberg observed, would now invite her to meet them, and try to impress her and other young activists with the action they were taking on carbon reduction.

Yet, she observed, they all did so with absolutely no sense of urgency, and no attempt to achieve change on the scale that would be necessary to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or anything like it.

Phase two of the climate change debate, in other words, is no longer about governments which deny that climate change is real. It’s rather about governments – and wider societies – which say that they fully accept the science, but who then somehow compartmentalise that recognition, and simply continue with “business as usual”, in many key areas of economic life.

All of which brings us to the Scottish government’s new programme for government, published this week.

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Greta Thunberg has called out governments for failing to make the necessary changes to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (Picture: Carl-Johan Utsi/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

Aimed at producing what it calls a “fairer, greener” Scotland, the programme for government is, at heart, a thoroughly decent document, which says all the right things about social justice, support for public services, and of course, about the need to plan for a just transition to a low-carbon future. Nor is it only a matter of fine words; many of the programme’s promises are backed by spending commitments, although most of these are not new.

It is, though – as Greta Thunberg suggests – notably short on the tight time-scales, and the radical vision of the new economy for which we are aiming, that might seriously challenge the vested interests still clinging to the old “normal”.

Despite the massive carbon emissions associated with flying over all but the shortest distances, for example, the government somehow believes that it can greatly increase Scotland’s air connectivity to various global destinations, and encourage people to use those services, while at the same time reducing its carbon footprint.

And despite a stated aim to reduce car use, and a planned increase in its modest spending on walking and cycling, the Scottish government continues to spend the vast bulk of its budget on roads; it seems determined, for example, to press ahead with its Sheriffhall roundabout flyover on Edinburgh’s southern bypass, a classic road-building effort which simply assumes that mass peak-hour car commuting around Edinburgh will continue and grow, rather than actually aiming to reduce it.

The Scottish government, of course, is far from being alone in demonstrating these contradictions. For every serious proposal made to tackle climate change, by any western government, there is now an army of men and women in suits set to embark on special pleading about how this particular change will not help, is too small to matter, or will lead to solutions that have even larger carbon footprints.

Collectively, their voices have that same tinny ring of implausibility – make us carbon free, oh lord, but not here, and not yet – that accompanied the long years of corporate denial on the link between carbon emissions and climate change; yet governments hear them, and fear to confront them.

And all of this is doubly tragic because fate has thrown us, in the past 18 months, a precise and vivid demonstration of what we actually can do to change our way of life, when we believe that a real emergency is under way.

In response to the Covid pandemic, governments across the western world shut down activity across huge swathes of the economy, cleared our roads of daily commuter traffic, drastically reduced international travel, and provided financial support on a mass scale for those affected by the upheaval.

Yet in the Scottish government’s programme there is, for example, no imaginative plan to build on the experience of lockdown by consigning the obligatory daily commute to history.

Instead, we build new roads, and congratulate ourselves on saving those very commuters the alleged “misery” of waiting for a few minutes in traffic, on their way to and from workplaces where, as we now know, they often do not even need to be.

So this is the impasse in which we find ourselves, in this second phase of the global climate debate; and it could prove a fatal one.

Already, a school of political analysis is emerging which suggests that western democracies – vulnerable as they are to lobbying, special pleading, and short-term public opinion – are simply not capable of making these changes, and that our best hope of significant climate action lies, paradoxically, in the iron grip of the brutal Communist Party of China on what may soon be the world’s largest economy.

Yet the very existence of a document like the Scottish programme for government – which so clearly grasps the problems, even while often hesitating to respond with the boldness the moment requires – suggests that our democracies may surprise us yet, with their capacity to confront and deal with this terrifying challenge.

Just so long as we, the citizens and voters, keep up the pressure on our political leaders to step off this escalator of ecocidal destruction, and to give back to our children and grandchildren the future they deserve, on the beautiful blue planet we inherited, and must strive – even against all the odds – to pass on.

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