Caroline Lucas. Photo: Patrick Duce / Campaign Against Arms Trade (CC BY-NC-ND).
Caroline Lucas: acting on climate change is a moral imperative
10th December 2015
Who's the UK's foremost politician setting the agenda on climate change issues? Green MP Caroline Lucas, of course. Nick Breeze caught up with her at a COP21 event at the French National Assembly in Paris. The fossil fuel industry is in its last throes, she told him - but it's fighting back hard, and politicians are giving out very mixed messages: saying one thing, while doing another.
I agree there is a moral imperative to do something about the Syria crisis, but why isn't that same moral imperative there when we are talking about people dying, not through terrorism but through climate related disasters?
Now in her second term as Green MP for Brighton, Caroline Lucas has emerged as an outstanding politician who has set the agenda for the entire House of Commons on social justice, climate change and other major environmental issues.
When I heard she was in Paris, I made it a point to track her down and hear what she had to say to campaigners and activists.
I finally did so at the Globe COP21 Legislators Summit at the French National Assembly, where she was speaking along with parliamentarians from 67 countries calling for integrated action on climate and a 2030 Agenda, and greater parliamentary engagement in implementation.
World leaders are here en masse making very grand statements and setting an agenda for serious emissions reductions and plans to create a safer world for humanity and all of nature. But as I moved around Le Bourget centre, I have interviewed many respected scientists and found a great deal of scepticism as to whether the politics can really meet the climate change challenge.
The British government is a very good example, in that it likes to talk big on the environment - but when it comes to action, is very much going backwards on policies that are essential to our decarbonisation. The need for Britain to take the right action was underscored here in Paris by Dr James Hansen when he showed in his presentation that the UK is, historically, the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.
A growing sense of cognitive dissonance
It is this 'disconnect' between what scientists are telling us and the response that politicians in Britain and other developed countries that forms the basis for this interview. Every climate scientist I have interviewed at COP21 has said they do not believe we can keep temperatures below 2C - never mind 1.5C - so long as the world is still building coal and gas burning power stations and other long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure
So, in my first question I asked Caroline about that growing sense of cognitive dissonance that many people experience, between the speeches we hear, and the actions we perceive.
Caroline Lucas: There is huge disconnect between what is going on with the politics and then the science and what is actually required. I must admit I find it quite extraordinary when you hear policymakers say "we can't stay below 2 degrees, if we try and do that it is going to stop our economies growing."
There are some scientific realities here, we have a planet of finite resources, we have an atmosphere that can only absorb a certain amount of greenhouse gases, without triggering climate catastrophe.
So we have to get our realities realigned and the reality we need to be looking at is the scientific reality and then we work out how we share out in an equitable way, the emissions that that allows us, really keeping in mind as well, that the poorest countries really need to have the most emissions room.
British government - do as I say, not as I do
As a British politician, what message that you are bringing to this COP?
As a British politician, to be honest, my biggest focus is on trying to make sure the British government is leading the way by its actions and not just by its words. I must admit that I a bit disappointed that at the same time David Cameron is using warm words in Paris, back at home, he is taking a wrecking ball to green policy.
He is slashing support for renewables, he is building an illegal obligation to maximise the economic return of fossil fuels. What could be more perverse than that? So I recognise we have a job of work domestically to make sure our leaders are actually delivering on the ground, what they might be pledging here in Paris.
But where I take some comfort is that I think, actually, in many senses, quite a lot of businesses are ahead of where the politicians are. I think, as I say, there is this battle going on as people try to get used to the new reality.
Of course there will be some fossil fuel companies with big fossil fuel interests who are going to be lobbying until the very last gasp. But I do sense we are the cusp of a different kind of energy future and I do hope that Paris will play its part in that.
Are fossil fuels finally on the way out?
Can we really expect an end to the era of fossil fuels when, for example, the UK Government is cutting incentives towards renewables and the new Canadian Climate Minister states the tar sands are important for the Canadian economy?
I think what we are witnessing right now is the last death throes of a fossil fuel industry that is lobbying governments like mad because they can see the writing on the wall. I do believe it is possible to get away from fossil fuels.
We didn't end the stone age because we ran out of stones, we worked out better ways of doing things. I am fairly confident that if the political will is there and if that means there is enough public pressure on politicians as well, of course we could get to 100% renewables by 2050. But we need the political will and that is what this process is all about.
Politics can really incentivise business by legislating in the right way. Do you think that is starting to happen now, especially on an international level?
I think increasingly, businesses are lobbying on an international level, they are coming together and just really pleading with politicians, saying, "we just want a level playing field, we want certainty, we want to know what the green policies are going to be, so that we can adapt."
And I think what's been so frustrating, going back to the situation in the UK, is that policy and especially climate policy and environmental policy seems to change on a weekly basis, so it is incredibly difficult to make investment decisions for companies.
So I think that if the political will were there, just to set the direction of travel and to stop giving mixed messages - like suddenly deciding to lock in 35 years of nuclear power at the same time as we are supposed to be moving to a decentralised grid, a flexible grid, and so forth - if we could have some consistent messaging from governments, I think most businesses would be happy to come along.
Ultimately, it's a moral argument
Agreements being made here are not being called a 'protocol' which implies they are binding, instead they seem to be just 'agreements' that we hope will be honoured. What are your views on this?
I think it is a great shame that we don't have a stronger indication yet that this is going to be a binding protocol, that is obviously what we need. I guess we can take some comfort, perhaps, from something Obama said in recent days that maybe certain aspects of the agreement could be binding.
So, for example, he was talking about the so called 'ratchet mechanism', the thing that will allow us to review progress every five years. That process of review could be binding. That's something but obviously the process would be so much stronger if it was binding, if it was mandatory.
If we do not take the appropriate action now, it is likely to be last political 'bite of the cherry', this is saying to millions of people in poorer and vulnerable regions, "We are sorry, we can change our lifestyles, you will have to die?" What are your views on the morality of this position that is very much the current status quo?
I think there really is a moral dimension to the climate debate and it just strikes me particularly in the aftermath, after the Paris terrorist attacks, those terrible attacks, David Cameron, back home in the UK, has strongly been saying we have a moral responsibility to stand by France and, in his view, take steps to bring air strikes over Syria.
Now it just interests me that he can see the moral imperative there, I might disagree with him about the action that he takes, but I agree there is a moral imperative to do something about the Syria crisis, but why isn't that same moral imperative there when we are talking about people dying, not through terrorism but through climate related disasters that we are implicated in? We are complicit in that if we do not change the way we produce and consume.
So it there is a strong moral argument here and there is also a strong moral inconsistency between the kinds of arguments political leaders are bringing to bear when it comes to air strikes over Syria, let's say, and that same moral argument is not there when it comes to reducing our climate emissions.
Nick Breeze is a interviewer and filmmaker specialising in the subject of climate change. He posts regularly at Envisionation.
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