Marching Towards Climate Change
December 5, 2009
Today I attended the annual Climate Change march in London for the third year in a row. This time I eschewed my ‘Towards a slightly warmer Britain’ banner in an effort to avoid attracting too much controversy, particularly since I planned to march right amongst a large crowd of Liberal Youthers, who this year were very well organised indeed. The Lib Dem contingent of the middle-class mob this event attracts was sizeable; and recognisably so by the thicket of ‘Our World, Our Choice’ banners distributed by LY, along with the luminous flak jackets sourced by Green Liberal Democrats.
We marched past Porche garages, Starbucks & Maccy Ds, all the gaudy facades of marginally fettered capitalism. A full-on LY boom-box inspired our front-row into a placard-sweeping war dance. Simon Hughes led us in a strangely illiberal chant of ‘Liberal Democrats – One Voice’. It rained, as it always does on this particular march, as though the weather itself was conspiring in its own carbon-led perversion. We mocked the sexual dysfunction of our comrades, and the thought behind ‘Our world, our choice’, which clearly implied that we were cool if people wanted to screw up the atmosphere, as hey, it was their world too.
It was an unwittingly almost perfect representation of the problem liberalism is presented with by climate change. If it’s real, we need our entire population to speak with one voice on it, but prescribing a particular view of what the truth is is antithetical to liberalism. In compelling a reaction to climate change, we would presume to attributing a view of what is true to everyone, rather than allowing them to decide for themselves. But if climate change is real, then it would represent such an imposition upon the freedom of choice of the population that restricting freedom may be justified.
In this sense, it is analogous to war – not the futile expeditionary wars beloved of this generation of Labour leaders, but wars which represent a true existential threat, or an emphatic threat to the freedom of Britain’s population. Not even the most wide-eyed libertarian suggests that existential wars should be fought using a market-based solution. But how do we determine when we curtail our liberal principles in response to such a threat?
We can contrast two approaches. At one extreme, we have the form of ultra-libertarianism which states that it is always wrong to impose one’s view of the world upon another, and so as long as the information regarding climate change is available to everyone, it is up to everyone to decide how to react to it. This approach takes on the chin the accusation that in doing so one could allow a civilisation to collapse under the weight of its own stupidity; it had the choice to act to prevent such a disaster, but its citizens did not do so and so paid the price. This has the advantage of being entirely fair to everyone involved, and not compromising that civilisation’s liberalism. At the other extreme is the rather Stalinist approach taken by the Greens, which states that since climate change is real society must be compelled to change to beat it. Every hilltop has a wind turbine, and every estuary has a barrage. The freedom to pollute is entirely curtailed. This abandons liberalism entirely, and if climate change is proven to not be a threat will result in Britain’s economy being devastated for years to come.
Of course, given my attendance at today’s march you already know that I maintain climate change to be real. This has little to do with whether I believe the science to be sufficient or not – the antics of the CRU are irrelevant to me, in this sense – but rather because of what I know about how science funding is structured and how people react to being short-changed. Competition for funding in science is intense, and relatively speaking climatology receives very little, compared to the major players of transport & energy. You can be well sure that if sufficient numbers of scientists from any of these other fields thought that global warming was some sort of grand conspiracy of climatologists to secure additional funding, they’d already have been exposed. A conspiracy of this nature is in the interests of so few people in the scientific establishment to make it impossible.
So in that case, how do I plot a course between the two extremes given above? The ultra-libertarian approach would result in freedom being removed from an entire civilisation, so contradicts my own interpretation of liberalism. But the Green version involves gutting society’s freedoms to counter this threat, which does the same.
This is a slow-burning war, but will have the same result in the end if nothing is done. Therefore, it must be fought as a half-war. Freedoms must be preserved during the fight, but they must be paid for. The state must intervene in the market, and intervene massively. It must put turbines on every hill, and a barrage in every estuary. It must swap every car for an electric vehicle. It must remove all sources of greenhouse gases from our economy, and it must do it within the next few years.
But my fellow citizens do not necessarily agree that climate change is happening, and so will not vote for a government that imposes such strict measures. Where then for my liberalism?