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16 February 2007

Politicians cannot save the world

Oliver ponders the dangers faced by the world

By Oliver Postgate

Do you remember the Nuclear Arms Race? For years it seemed as if mankind was going to commit suicide in a nuclear holocaust. The conviction that the competitive accretion of nuclear explosives, enough to cause general annihilation many times over (and also, ‘collaterally’, poison the world), was a form of defence seemed to be indelibly cast in the minds of politicians. It was only eventually shifted by the sudden application of common sense by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, the frontmen of two politically antagonistic, apparently implacably hostile, superpowers.

Today mankind is once again on its way to death. But this will not be death by holocaust, it will be death by democracy, death by the decay of a process that was once thought to be ‘the will of the people’.

How can this be?

Well obviously ‘the people’ don’t want to die. That is not their ‘will’. They want to live in peace and comfort and safety. They elect politicians whose job it is to look after them, guard their interests and keep them safe from any perceivable danger.

So what is the problem? Global warming is known to be destroying our habitat. So why can’t politicians take the appropriate action to put a stop to it. Surely that is their job. That’s what they were elected to do.

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So it would seem. But the short circuit, the simple loop which appears to make it impossible for them to take action, goes roughly as follows:

  1. Party politicians have to be elected. They have to maintain their popularity with their voters. So they can’t take unpopular attitudes or propose legislation that would inconvenience their voters. They can only do that sort of thing if there is already a sufficient weight of public opinion to make it electorally cost-effective to do so.

    (This was recently expressed by a far-sighted Cabinet minister in a reply to a letter I had sent him about the danger of irreversible global warming. He wrote:-

    ” . . . In the end politics is not simply something about what happens in the formal political arenas (including Parliament) but the pressure that can be brought to bear, the changes that other people can make possible, and the tide of opinion that allows those of us in public life to make a difference.” )

    So, OK. On the one hand, however crucial an issue may be, if politicians want to do something about it, they must first be ‘allowed to’ by knowing that they would have the support of a ‘tide of opinion’. But, on the other hand . . .

  2. Where do you find a ‘tide of opinion’?

    There was one last week when a million and a half people petitioned the Minister of Transport not to bring in road pricing. This shows that ‘the people’ are well capable of expressing a tide of their ‘will’ when something perhaps necessary but actually personally inconvenient is proposed. But global warming is not a ‘perceivable’ danger. It isn’t yet causing us perceptible harm. For many people it is just something to talk about. Imagine the outcry that would follow a proposal to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% by rationing petrol, cutting off the electricity for four hours a day and cancelling all air transport. Of course we did that, and much more, willingly, in 1940, when we were facing the prospect of destruction by Nazi Germany. But we can hardly be expected to put up with that sort of inconvenience today, at the height of our peaceful prosperity,

Why not?

Apart from any other reason, because nobody is going to ask us to. Politicians have always been reluctant to entertain the existence of a problem until after they have decided, and can say, how they are going to solve it.

Also, it would be a betrayal of politics itself. Modern supermarket-style politics is driven by the search for market satisfaction. In the fiercely competitive field of party politics, victory is gained and held by continuously offering a higher standard of living to the electorate, by promoting the country’s economic growth which is soundly based on maintaining a level of consumer demand to be enjoyed in an atmosphere of universal complacency, engendered by life in what is, in reality, a sort of luxurious zoo, a place in which fancy reigns supreme.

For a party politician to admit that the very affluence and success that they have so proudly brought us is what has caused global warming would be an outrage. An admission of failure – political suicide.

To do that would be unthinkable.

Consequently the only way an elected party politician can hope to begin to do the job he or she is being paid to do – look after the world – is simply to wait and hope that one day global warming will supply a disaster so dire that everybody can be assumed to know that their way of life must now change.

Unfortunately the urgent danger that global warming poses is not so much the prospect of a specific disaster as the more immediate likelihood that the process will become self-inducing and beyond human control. So by the time an actual disaster does turn up it may already be too late.

The application of common sense tells us quite clearly that if there is even a chance that global warming could become irreversible (and there is a lot more than just a chance that this may be happening), then, if the human race wants to survive, it must see that there is no case for anything but ‘worst-case thinking’ and must take whatever action is needed to put a stop to it, now.

Meanwhile the political establishments and their attendant scientists are scuttling about like beetles on a hotplate, looking for politically acceptable solutions, proposing scenarios and negotiating plausible long-term procedures apparently intended to allow us to have our cake and eat it, by promising that global warming can eventually be put down without eliminating its cause, and all the time knowing, in their hearts, that global warming isn’t going to wait, knowing that while global warming is melting the white ice caps it is increasing the solar heat intake of the dark water and beginning to thaw the frozen methane in the tundra and so supercharge the greenhouse effect.

That is just one of the many self-inducing ‘feedback’ effects of global warming that will make it irreversible. As they continue, silently, invisibly, the fate of the world, our children’s fate, will be sealed. Whatever happens after that, however terrible it may turn out to be, global warming will already have taken over and there will be bugger-all anybody can do about it.

Oliver Postgate
February 2007.

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