• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Energising the debate about climate change

I must admit that I find the debate on climate change confused and confusing. This is partly due to the complexity of the science, and the problems associated with making stringent and confident claims about likely outcomes in the future, as environmentalists frequently do.

However, what really concerns me is the politicisation of the science of climate change, and the way in which the alleged problems facing the planet are discussed in the language of ideological diktat. I am particularly concerned at the way in which the threats posed by climate change are re-framed as moral punishments for our sinful behaviour. Increasingly, proposals for tackling the problem of climate change are underpinned by a tendency towards behaviour management. The idea that the planet ‘demands’ that we change the way we live, the idea that we must alter our behaviour in order to ‘save the world’, is now put forward with dogmatic fervour and moral force.

I have no problem with rejecting the numerous rituals that have sprung up in our era of environmental correctness. It is clear to me that, from the point of view of the environment, recycling is a pointless exercise; but then, its real aim, in the language of green-leaning moral entrepreneurs, is ‘to send a message’. By taking up the act of recycling, even though it is worthless, people become more conscious, apparently, of their wasteful habits and the fragility of the planet.

Other ways of ‘sending messages’ to the public include pressuring them to stop using disposable nappies on their children, discouraging the use of plastic bottles and bags, telling people they should turn vegetarian, and getting us all to turn off the lights, stop using our cars and stop having so many children. You don’t need a PhD in climate science to know that these gestures and strictures have only a symbolic significance. They provide proof of moral rectitude, proof of conformity; they are the normal forms of behaviour expected of ‘aware’ individuals at a time of environmental crisis.

However, while it is easy to reject the moralising imperative of climate change campaigning, it is not so easy to know what to make of the scientific claims that go alongside it, or ‘The Science’ as many refer to it. I have abstained from taking sides on the scientific issues, hoping that one day I would come across a convincing account that I could understand and accept. That is why I am so delighted about the publication of Energise! by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky.

Woudhuysen and Kaplinsky, a researcher and scientist respectively, provide an authoritative overview of the scientific and political discussion that is accessible both to the specialist and the layman. They argue that human activity has had a significant impact on climate. However, while they believe that climate changes are related to human action, they are fervently opposed to the demand that we restrain people’s consumption or modify people’s behaviour. One reason why they are opposed to the anti-consumerist rhetoric of green ideologues is because people’s personal consumption habits account for only a small amount of total CO2 emissions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, how people behave and consume has a relatively insignificant impact on the situation.

In contrast to the prevailing pessimistic stories about humanity’s dirty and destructive impact on the environment, Energise! argues against turning a problem into a crisis. It takes the sensible view that problems created by humans are also susceptible to human solutions. Woudhuysen and Kaplinsky argue that ‘human activity has unintentionally had an enormous effect on climate’, and then say: ‘Now it’s time to uphold what intentional action can do.’ In other words, the effects of unintentional acts of impact can be contained; indeed, the world can be made a better place through self-consciously tackling the problems we are faced with.

At a time when people are continually told to reorganise their lives around the narrow-minded principles of environmental correctness, we need to be reminded every now and then that the human species is, on balance, a creative, innovative and adaptable force. Woudhuysen and Kaplinsky write that ‘the human origin of climate change’ should give rise to optimism, not breast-beating. From their viewpoint, mistakes made in the past provide us with an opportunity – an opportunity both to deal with the unintentional consequences, and to progress further in terms of economic and cultural development.

The proper way to deal with unintentional harm caused by humans is to devote resources to scientific experimentation, in order to develop new energy sources, and to innovate more efficient and productive technologies. The authors are much more worried about how we might expand the world’s energy supplies than they are with the phenomenon of climate change. They take the view that, through technological innovation, humanity might gain access to a vast reservoir of energy. Through harnessing old and new sources of energy, it will be possible for us to cut down on CO2 emissions and thus minimise the destructive potential of climate change.

The most exciting sections of the book contain proposals for innovation and investment strategies that could help deal with the problem of climate change. Instead of advocating the reduction of carbon-use, the authors argue that CO2 can be controlled through a ‘variety of industrial recycling techniques’ that might help to establish a New Carbon Infrastructure. They argue that through managing CO2 carefully, there is no reason why our society should deny itself the remaining benefits of fossil fuels. However, the long-term solution to humans’ unintentional impact on climate lies in making serious investments in the development of renewable energy, argue Woudhuysen and Kaplinsky. They believe that in the next two decades there will be significant developments in the area of wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, and in the harnessing of hydroelectricity and wave and tidal power. Their book is really a plea for an economic and technological programme that is not merely a survival strategy. Rather, the development of energy needs to be integrated into other innovations that allow for more efficient forms of production. Such innovation is necessary, not only to deal with climate change, but also to produce a great deal more inexpensive energy in order that more people can enjoy the fruits of modern society.

Most anti-crisis measures tend to be reactive and focused on a specific problem. Yet even in the most uncertain circumstances, there are always opportunities for economic and cultural development, too. Every problem contains within it the seed of its own cure, and Energise! represents a call for an opportunity-led, rather than vulnerability-led, response to our current predicament. Unlike green ideology, which preaches the dogma of restraint, Energise! focuses on the potential for developing the power of humanity to, as the authors put it, ‘humanise the planet’. This book is packed with useful information about the state of the world’s energy sources and supply. It provides useful insights into some likely trends of the future. It is an excellent manual for the humanist futurologist, and will no doubt contribute to raising the level of debate on humanity’s relationship with the planet.

Energise!, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky is published by Beautiful Books Limited. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the February 2009 issue of the spiked review of books.

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