Monday, 31 May 2010

Is there a “new politics” ...? and what can it do for climate change?

The month of May for the UK has been dominated by the general election and arguments about the dawn of a so called “new politics.” Certainly the election results had a different look than the UK parliament has seen for a long time. A hung parliament, a new Green Party MP catch the eye as does the “new” and “historic” they tell us, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats coalition doing a policy debate, sync and regenerate exercise under the watchful gaze of the media.

And so it has gone on…this politics, that sure feels different (if you weren’t a voter in the 1970’s at least) but which hasn't proved itself yet - like a home appliance with a novel Dyson look that comes with an earnestly proffered 5 year guarantee. Post election developments fill the news agenda and the claims continue from No 10, Westminster and from some journos that we are in the grip of a New Politics of cooperation.

Do people like politicians working together? An interesting quirk of the election this time was "The Worm" the instant reaction graph that showed approval of undecided voters as the leader debates ran realtime and The Worm turned favourably for Clegg when he talked about "working together" - Obama in the US and Kevin Rudd in Australia similarly won the approval of The Worm with the same sentiments in leaders debates.  

The question being asked now in the UK is what kind of working together is it? Is it a New Politics of progressive consensus building that will empower government ministers, backbench MP's, public servants and citizens or is it the old style horse trading with a layer of double gloss - blue and yellow stripes – colours for a political marriage that will fade, crack and split beyond the flashbulb honeymoon. New arrangements yes but is it a new culture? Some watching on as Cameron and Clegg share a platform will give an instinctive answer this question, others will pick through the queens speech and sit on their judgment. 

However you look at this it is a sharply relevant question for action on climate change, because primarily of the policy that comes out of the coalition. It is yet also a basic conundrum of politics to which the climate change challenge more than any other needs forward progress. We need stronger consensus building, better working together to meet the challenge of climate change and straight up vested interest horse trading - the Old politics - won't do it, the lack of progress from Copenhagen showed that. 

Nick Clegg is in the public gaze the embodiment of this so called “new politics” (ahead of David Laws still yet as things stand!) and his fate will probably reveal whether May has seen begun a genuinely new phase of progressive politics. And there are 2 persons whose fortunes may reveal how positive or not this new political context will be for action on climate change.

Lib Dem Chris Huhne the new energy and climate change secretary was one of  David Cameron's first coalition ministers to venture into the news agenda. He told us "There are a whole series of compromises which have been struck in this agreement which I think are obviously unpleasant for each of the parties"

A refreshingly honest characterisation of cabinet and coalition politics you could say. He expressed these sentiments in the context of his explanation of the coalition policy on Nuclear power; New nuclear power stations will be built if they are funded by the private sector and Lib Dems can continue to hold to their election manifesto position of disagreeing with nuclear power generation. Huhne reconciles himself to this policy by speaking loud the belief that the private sector hasn't and probably won’t be able to build  nuclear without state support - refreshing or regressive change? Ed Miliband Labour ex energy and climate change minister came up with the memorable line Huhne in his job was like “putting a vegan in charge of MacDonald’s.”

Caroline Lucas is the First Green Party MP in the Uk parliament, cheered on by many sympathizers outside and in her constituency, how can she make a difference in Parliament? Will the coalitions new politics permeate the whole of Westminster’s benches or if she wants to be more than a pressure group with a Westminster head office should Lucas roll up her sleeves harder and faster for a old style fight. Lucas provides the answer that she will be going after change on her own terms

"I passionately hope it is possible to demonstrate that you don't have to get your hands filthy in terms of doing politics."

 Climate Change has been hungry for a taste of some new politics for a long time and if a progressive partnership ethos is to burst through the left right binary and horse trading Lucas as principled advocate and Huhne as government green light monitor will have to put a shift in, get noticed by us  and most importantly be allowed get things done - if they don’t it may tell us that the new politics is old and the latest dawn for big strides on climate change is false


Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Why Fishermen believe in climate change (and everyone else believes in overfishing)

(Originally published by Adam Corner at 

 How much of what is recorded as scepticism about the scientific reality of climate change is in fact a desire for it not to be true – or at the very least, for it not to be as bad as the scientists and politicians say? This is a question that cannot easily be answered. When people are motivated not to believe something, they are also motivated not to acknowledge that their non-belief is anything other than rational. But two fishy tales shed some light on one type of climate change scepticism, and highlight an enormous challenge for climate change communicators: how do you persuade someone to believe something that they really don’t want to believe?

Fishy Tale 1

Last month in Doha, delegates at the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species voted against a ban on fishing bluefin tuna. The decision was widely condemned by environmental groups, and in The Guardian, George Monbiot described the refusal to acknowledge the critically endangered state of the bluefin tuna as:

“Olympic-class denial, a flat refusal to look reality in the face.”

Even the most casual follower of Guardian etiquette knows what happens next – when a writer uses the ‘d’ word, the comment threads fill up with red-faced, indignant micro-treatises on the inappropriateness and offensiveness of the term ‘denial’. But on this occasion, the comments were broadly supportive of Monbiot’s stance. Yes, agreed some of the very same posters who usually follow his pieces with streams of bile (hello CheshireRed), overfishing of the bluefin tuna was a serious problem and should be stopped.

Fishy Tale 2

Bottomfeeder’, by Taras Grescoe is a book about the overfishing and ultimate demise of many of the world’s fisheries. Combining barely-believable statistics about the collapse of once abundant oceanic ecosystems (some estimates put European fish populations at 5% of their first-recorded levels) and interviews with countless fishermen and traders in ports and harbours around the world, Grescoe builds up a bewildering picture of the world’s seas.

While the evidence is anecdotal rather than statistical, it is striking just how many of the fishermen (and it is primarily men) that Grescoe speaks to are adamant that climate change is warming their seas and driving away their catch. Their intuition that the seas are warming is supported by sea temperature data – but by far and away the biggest impact on the number of fish they are pulling out of the sea is intensive overfishing. Far fewer of Grescoe’s interviewees acknowledge this – blaming seals, foreigners, and global warming before conceding that perhaps their methods of fishing might be having an effect.

Why fishermen believe in climate change (and everyone else believes in overfishing)

So, notorious Guardian message board climate denier CheshireRed solemnly supports the protestors who seek to prevent overfishing of the bluefin tuna, and accepts that those who are responsible for the overfishing are in denial about the cause of the problem – but does not support measures to curb greenhouse gases which would (presumably) impact on his behaviour. Conversely, the fishermen responsible for overfishing happily accept climate change but doubt that their actions have any impact on the state of the world’s fisheries.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that CheshireRed (and his message board buddies) are not sea fishermen, with a vested interest in underplaying the impact of overfishing. However, like most of us in the developed world they have a personal stake in climate change being shown to be a scam – it would eliminate the need to change our high-consuming lifestyles. Some people – for economic or ideological reasons – have a more formal desire to reject the science of climate change.

Perhaps we need to start asking some more subtle questions about belief in climate change. Combating the increasing level of climate change scepticism is high on most campaigners’ priority lists. But without a sensible grasp of the reasons for scepticism, an awful lot of effort could be expended without any discernible effect. We urgently need a typology of scepticism.