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Cancun Summit: why are we not taking action on global warming?

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As the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun continues, various recent polls show that public concern about global warming has been declining in most of the western world in the past two years (those who think the world's climate is changing are down from 91% in 2005 to 78% today in the UK; similar figures are found in the US and France). Perhaps not surprisingly given this climate, more than half of the Republicans recently elected to Congress deny the existence of global warming.

In a recent documentary broadcast in the UK in November 2010 ('What the Green movement got wrong', Channel 4), Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas argue that the green movement is responsible for this decline in concern about climate change. According to them, this decline is due to environmentalists' endless talk of 'gloom and doom' and their refusal to acknowledge that other solutions exist. Not only are 'the Greens' not helping to solve climate change, they are making it worse by refusing low-carbon solutions that are readily available, such as nuclear power, GM food or geo-engineering, and by failing to convince the general public of the danger and urgency of tackling greenhouse gases emissions. This would explain why the Green movement is failing.

Such claims are not new. Last month, Charles Secrett, former director of Friends of the Earth UK also voiced his concern that the environmental movement had failed in a seminar I co-organised in London. But the reasons given by Brand and Lynas for this failure are largely misleading. The true reasons for the general public complacency about climate change are due to several factors that have little to do with the Greens themselves.

First, decline in concerns about the environment in periods of recession are common. I have shown in a recent co-authored paper that there was a sharp decline in general public interest in the environment in the early 1990s. The remedies advocated to mitigate climate change played a big part in the 1990s bust. Why? Because the general public, which first heard about global warming around 1989, became reluctant when it realized that tackling it would challenge the way we live. Lynas recognizes this in the documentary. When you tell people that flying is a sin, he remarks, they answer: 'in that case, I don't believe in Climate Change'. Thus the problem is not with the messenger, it is with the receiver (though the self-righteousness of some environmentalists can play a negative role, as I have argued in another article published by History & Policy).

The true reason why we refuse the 'inconvenient truth' of climate change can be better understood by way of an analogy. I have argued in a recent article in the journal Climatic Change that there are many similarities between societies in the past that have used slave labour and those in the present that use fossil fuels. First, I suggest that slaves and fossil-fuelled machines play(ed) similar economic and social roles: both slave societies and developed countries externalise(d) labour (labour came from slaves in the former case and 'work' is provided by machines in the latter), and both slaves and modern machines free(d) their owners from daily chores. Like slave owners, today we rely on the services of fossil-fuel powered machines to do the jobs and provide the services which were undertaken by slaves and servants two hundred years ago. Second, in differing ways, suffering resulting (directly) from slavery and (indirectly, through climate change) from the excessive burning of fossil fuels are morally comparable. When we burn oil or gas at a rate that exceeds what the ecosystem can absorb, we indirectly cause suffering to other human beings. Similarly, cheap fossil fuels facilitate imports of goods from countries without (or with grossly inadequate) legislation to protect economical and social rights of employees and workers. Fossil fuels hence help externalise labour and perpetuate oppression. Therefore we now behave much like slaveholders did in the past (even though there are obviously several important differences which are also discussed in the paper).

Thus, the convenient life we have thanks to our 'energy slaves' gives us a powerful incentive not to act on climate change. This explains the 'failure' of the green movement to convince people. It was also hard to convince slave owners that they were wrong. Yet, because the use of fossil fuel is so similar to the former use of slaves, we can be empowered by the knowledge that slavery was eventually abolished. And we can learn from the history of the abolition of slavery to act more effectively on climate change (something I examine in some details in the last part of the Climatic Change article). Let us hope our leaders will have the same moral courage to confront the problem this week as Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln did in the nineteenth century.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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