Monday, September 04, 2006

Adapt and perish

The New Labour view on climate change is that any radical attempt to tackle the crisis would disrupt the world economy to an unacceptable extent and that technological "solutions" are the only way forward. That’s not a whole lot different from saying that society has to adapt to climate change to survive because global warming is an "inevitable reality" which we can’t reverse.

What you might not have expected is that such a conservative, fatalistic, essentially non-scientific, message would come from the British Association for the Advancement of Science. You would be wrong. Frances Cairncross, the association’s president, has told the BA’s festival of science conference in Norwich that greenhouse emissions would have to be slashed by 60 per cent to stop levels of global warming gases increasing. "That's simply not going to happen," added Cairncross, who is an economist.

She went on: "Adaptation policies have had far less attention than mitigation, and that is a mistake… We need to think now about policies that prepare for a hotter, drier world, especially in poorer countries. That may involve, for instance, developing new crops, constructing flood defences, setting different building regulations, or banning building close to sea level." Some places in the world, such as the Siberian steppes, might actually benefit (!) from global warming, she said.

Cairncross is right to point out that the Kyoto treaty on cutting emissions is "ineffectual". But restricting ourselves to adaptation policies simply reinforces the status quo and in practice will not save the planet either. This approach, more importantly, safely puts to one side the capitalist way of doing business, which in the last 30 years has driven and deepened the ecological crisis.

Cairncross’s views should come as no real surprise. She was managing editor of the right-wing business magazine, The Economist for 20 years before becoming rector of Exeter College, Oxford. She also chairs the Economic and Social Research Council, which receives most of its funds from the government. Whitehall will have read her speech about climate change with some pleasure.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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