Climate change: the scientific debate is over. Political and policy action must start now

The IPCC report has given the government a wake-up call.

Today, one part of the climate change debate comes to an end. The scientific debate is over. The IPCC, a huge distinguished panel of international climate scientists, has concluded that to limit climate change, the world must make a continued and substantial reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. No other scientific conclusion has been subjected to such prolonged,detailed, global scrutiny. Those responsible for our media coverage – particularly the BBC – should take note.

Time should be called on a long, rancorous, and frequently very odd debate, in which a tiny number of individuals and small groups – frequently with clear vested interests - have been given equal weight to 97 per cent of climate scientists. The Flat Earth Society still exists, but that doesn’t mean we have to take them seriously.

Of course it’s not just climate scientists – and green campaigners - who’ve recognised the pressing urgency of action on climate change. From the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, who said climate change kept her awake at night, to 83 per cent of Global 500 companies which have recognised climate change as a serious risk to their operations, to the heavily at-risk inhabitants of fragile small island nations around the globe, there’s wide understanding. As Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General has said: “"The heat is on. Now we must act."

Those opposed to “green” action in Britain often say that we can’t afford it in today’s economic climate. On the contrary, we can’t afford not to act for the sake of both economy and environment. And that’s not just because of the risk of the floods, the droughts, the heatwaves, are already having huge human and financial costs, but because of the weaknesses and the failures of the very foundations of our economy and everyday life, structures built on massive consumption of once-cheap fossil fuels that we can no longer afford.

We have a huge problem with fuel poverty in Britain, the result in part of rising energy prices – almost all due to the rising cost of gas and distribution costs in our privatised system, but also of our leaky, poor insulated homes. With not a penny of government funds currently going into home insulation, we’re not only missing out on tackling that problem – but also creating tens of thousands of good, long-term jobs, as well as cutting carbon emissions.

We have a huge problem with unemployment, under-employment and low pay in Britain. Investing in and developing renewable energy generation technologies – based around our rich wind and tidal power sources – offers the chance to generate.

The Centre for Alternative Technology has calculated that together renewable technologies and energy conservation can deliver up to 1.5 million good new jobs.

We have a huge problem with food poverty in Britain – with half a million people dependent, today, on food banks to get enough to eat. We need to bring food production back to Britain, restoring the ring of market gardens around our towns and cities, ensuring food security in our increasingly uncertain world, removing currency risk. We must end the dreadfully wasteful, destructive practice of air freighting fruit and vegetables, and cutting down our practice of shipping them around the world.

We have a growing problem of “transport poverty” in Britain – fast rising rail and bus fares that are trapping our often forced commuters into further poverty. We need to develop a transport plan for England' built at its base around walking and cycling (worth noting that 1.3 million more new bicycles were bought last year in Britain than cars registered), with affordable, reliable, timely public transport available for longer journeys. Again, more good jobs, as well as cleaner air and better public health.

There are also looming threats that we need to avert. Green MP Caroline Lucas has highlighted the economic threat of the “carbon bubble” – the unburnable fossil fuels whose valuation underlies the stock prices of some of our largest companies. We need to think long and hard about how to manage that risk, how we can keep more than half of our known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, not subsidise the potential new and risky operation of fracking for shale gas, as our government is currently doing.

It’s not surprising that we’ve seen uncertainty about climate change growing in Britain, with a recent poll showing 19 per cent of people were not sure about the human cause of it. (Although of course 72 per cent were sure). With the government failing to take action, with a Lib Dem energy secretary saying he “loves” shale gas, some people understandably thought that perhaps climate change was something they didn’t have to worry about. But they, and the government, have today been given a wake-up call.

Britain has been a leader, and we can, and must, be again. In passing the 2008 Climate Change Act, Britain stood out in declaring its collective intention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now we need to match that with action.

Natalie Bennett is the Green Party leader

Looking out over Death Valley, one of the driest places in the world. Photo: Getty

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt