Mar 2013. Presentation at Joseph Rowntree Foundation event on climate and fairness

Pdf of presentation at: Pick a card – any card. How in fudging targets to meet politically-palatable goals, climate scientists undermine issues of equity and fairness

Yesterday (13 March) I attended an engaging workshop, organised by Katherine Knox and JRF colleagues, and tasked with considering “How can we fairly and effectively meet our climate change targets” – all with a focus on the UK.

Building on two recent JRF funded reports “Distribution of Carbon Emissions in the UK”; and, “Designing Carbon Taxation to Protect Low-income Households”, the event included papers and discussions from a wide range of participants – with the Guardian’s Fiona Harvey, as chair, using her knowledge of climate change to probe presenters and discussants.

A clash of views with John Gummer (chair of the Committee on Climate Change)
I was asked to present on the framing of climate targets and how they linked to issues of fairness; John Gummer then responded, laying out his concerns around communicating climate change. He opened with an impassioned attack of the value of my contribution – arguing that we need to engender a much more optimistic view of the challenges if we are to “win a sufficient constituency” to bring about meaningful change. This was a criticism I hear repeatedly – and one I continue to ponder – but for now at least, I remain unconvinced that it is my job to spin a cheery yarn – the numbers just don’t support such tenuous optimism. Nevertheless, I continue to hold to the view that an outside chance of meeting international commitments around 2°C still exists – albeit reducing daily as we and our leaders continue to favour apathy over action.

It is in communicating this eroding thread of hope, that I depart from John Gummer and others who argue that “the public” needs to be coaxed into action with optimistic tales of win-win, green growth and rosy futures. Personally, I don’t think it either effective or appropriate that we appoint ourselves paternal arbiters, censoring what is and isn’t fit for public consumption; all too Orwellian!

So I will continue to translate my and colleagues analysis into a clear and direct language that reflects accurately the framing and conclusions of our research. And undoubtedly we will continue to be dismissed as politically naïve, unengaged with the “real world”, scaring audiences, and sharing findings with a public ill-equipped to grasp the repercussions (or so I am advised by a self-appointed group who are apparently well equipped!).

Finally, John Gummer asserted that imperialism was dead and that we need to wake up to the new and market–dominated framing of world issues. I am unconvinced by this argument. In contrast, I see imperialism thriving – with the new and much more invidious ‘Church of Mammon’ fossil-fuelling the crusade. Until we acknowledge this dogmatic Zeitgeist along with the scale of the challenge we face, our blinkers will remain firmly in place and we’ll fail to conceive of an alternative low-carbon and climate-resilient future.