Private virtue, public good

Facing up to climate change is often framed by government as an issue of personal responsibility. Wh

Who should take action to stop climate change - the government or the public? In surveys, individuals typically say that climate change is the government's problem. The response is regularly dismissed as an abrogation of personal responsibility, but an Open University social scientist, Clive Barnett, recently offered a daring reappraisal. What, he asked, if we took public opinion at face value?

What if people are genuinely confused by the baffling notion that emissions from their central heating may be contributing to the drought in East Africa? What if they believe that, if ministers were really convinced of this bizarre notion, they would do whatever necessary to stop emissions? What if people are unwilling to give up their cheap flights and 4x4s unless their neighbours are obliged to do the same?

Certainly, more and more ministers are making known their personal views on climate change. A BBC search under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that government departments pondering the ongoing Stern review into climate economics were presented with projections suggesting that emissions by rich nations such as Britain were likely to have a direct impact on the lives and livelihoods of the poor. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is now beginning to define climate change as a moral issue.

But how far will politicians allow ethics to override politics? Interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme, Brown was forced to admit that morality was compromised by the perceived need to satisfy consumer lifestyles. And industry needs to be kept sweet, too. While the media tend to portray business as being opposed to CO2 cuts, several major corporations – including Npower, BP, Shell, John Lewis and Vodaphone – are calling on the government to set out long-term strategies to protect the planet. At the same time, however, the CBI, with its hard-wired link to Tony Blair's trusted adviser Geoffrey Norris – is obliged to defend those of its members least able to adapt to a low-energy economy.

If pressure to reduce emissions continues to be backed by the science on climate, we face the equivalent of a new industrial revolution. Every revolution creates losers as well as winners, and the voices of the losers will inevitably be amplified in the media. That is why officials at No 10 are holding seminars with leaders and decision-makers to create "political space" for tougher policies on climate change. On an international level, Blair has been vocal on the matter of saving the planet, but he has undermined this commitment at home by consistently ducking contentious decisions necessary to reduce UK emissions. So, as the public looks to politicians for clear leadership on climate change, politicians look to the public to show that policies can be made without political risk.

The impasse should not surprise us, as the scientific uncertainty on climate change makes it a societal problem like no other. The majority science view – held by all the major science institutions and about to be underlined by the fourth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – is that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity are forcing up temperatures and should be stopped before they cause irreparable damage.

These calculations are partly based on elaborate computer modelling by scientists attempting to quantify the sum of effects of greenhouse-gas emissions, the earth's orbital shifts around the sun, solar activity itself, the capacity of the oceans and forests to absorb CO2, the masking effect of

aerosol pollution particles on the ability of the sun to reach the earth, and a long list of other factors. Each one of these is uncertain.

Outside the consensus, people such as Professor Richard Lindzen (favoured by the US and Australian governments) hold that given the level of complexity we cannot possibly predict what, if anything, we are doing to the climate; while others such as James Lovelock suggest that we may have already done irreversible harm to the climate, with catastrophic consequences for humanity.

The sceptical view is amplified by the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, the doomster view by the Independent. So as No 10 longs for public consensus on climate change and detects signs of growing voter concern, public ignorance and confusion still abound. And there is no sign that the scientific debate is about to stop. Surely the prompt from the OU's Dr Barnett points us in the right direction. Climate change presents a formidably complex risk decision, involving science, business, technology, ethics, international relations, politics and culture. This is not an equation we can expect the public to master on its own.

Roger Harrabin has reported on climate change for the BBC for 20 years. This is his personal view

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