Soon there will be more cycles on London's roads than cars - is that something to be frightened of? Photo: Andreas Kambanis via Flickr (CC BY).
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There's only one real climate change debate, BBC: what should we do about it?
Liz Hutchins / Friends of the Earth
22nd March 2016
After a succession of the hottest years and months ever recorded, climate is a hot topic, writes Liz Hutchins. But BBC1's 'Big Questions' climate change debate last Sunday completely missed the point. Instead of debating the only real question - how should we respond? - the BBC ran yet another repeat of the so-over 'believers versus deniers' ding-dong. Why do they still not get it?
Would better insulated homes powered by renewable energy that are both more comfortable and cheaper to run be a problem? Cyclists are about to outnumber cars in central London - is that something to be feared?
On the weekend I debated climate change with someone who denies the Earth is warming and someone who denies CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Today's flat Earthers.
The debate was on prime time TV with over one million viewers - BBC1's The Big Questions.
The topic - 'Has the time come to take climate change seriously?' - was chosen following NASA data showing February 2016 was the hottest month on record - and it is welcome for such important developments to be discussed on prime time television.
The arguments of Piers Corbyn and Rupert Darwell were ridiculed - including by host Nicky Campbell - and anyone watching would have known they are marginal views beyond the scientific consensus.
There is no shortage of scientific data to confound their arguments but the debate format did not allow for a serious exchange of evidence. Indeed when I proposed a climate scientist be invited I was told this is a programme about morality not science.
The format of The Big Questions is four guests invited to debate each issue (guests are also encouraged to pitch in on other topics). In this case two guests invited to debate climate change were climate sceptics or deniers, and two represent the position evidenced by science.
There's only one real climate change debate: what should we do about it?
When I agreed to appear, sceptic Rupert Darwell had been invited but not climate denier Piers Corbyn. I pointed out that the BBC has previously been slammed for 'false balance' in their reporting of climate change and strongly argued that their fourth guest should not be a climate denier - and should be a climate scientist.
Host Nicky Campbell raised an important point that a survey has suggested that 56% of Conservative MPs doubt climate change is caused by human activity - and that misconceptions need to be addressed.
But these views will be changed by serious attention given to scientific evidence, and by halting the constant reinforcement of the perception that there is a meaningful debate to be had about whether climate change is happening - not by a Sunday morning dose of people confusing opinion with evidence.
All this would matter less were we not in a time-critical period - global climate changing emissions must start to decline in a handful of years to prevent runaway temperature rises.
Already some of the Earth's systems that we rely on are under extreme stress - the Amazon rainforest is drying, the frozen tundra that traps millions of years of the powerful greenhouse gas methane is thawing, and Arctic sea ice extent is at an historic low.
We don't have the luxury of rehearsing debates of yesteryear and reinforcing the idea that the debate focus is whether climate change is happening or not.
What if climate change is a hoax and we create a better world for nothing?
My challenge to the climate deniers is what are they scared of? What if climate change is a hoax and we create a better world for nothing?
The economic and social benefits make many low carbon policies and approaches worth pursuing regardless of climate change. There is clear evidence that countries at different levels of economic development can achieve stronger economic growth, reduce poverty, advance development goals, and reduce climate risk at the same time.
More than a decade ago it used to be argued that tackling climate change would cost economies. Now we know that using resources more efficiently, creating co-benefits like healthier workers, and giving access to electricity - through solar power - to millions of people previously relying on wood stoves is good for economies as well as the wellbeing of people and the planet.
What would be so bad about curbing deforestation, restoring nature, creating more sustainable agriculture that doesn't devastate soils and pollute waterways? Is there a problem with limiting our runaway use of plastic that is becoming a toxic slurry in the oceans and bloating landfill sites? If we only used the energy-intensive drinking water that we need would we really suffer? Or would we just have to get used to slightly different habits?
Is getting to grips with your central heating timer and switching the light off when you leave a room too terrifying? Would better insulated homes powered by renewable energy that are both more comfortable and cheaper to run be a problem? Cyclists are about to outnumber cars in central London - is that something to be feared?
UK remains stuck in the dirty past
There will be winners and losers in the shift to a low carbon economy. The fossil fuel industry is on its way out. We need to ensure a genuinely supported and joined up transition for the people involved in fossil fuel industries - seizing their skills for the new low carbon, high tech, resource-efficient economy. Globally there will be winners and losers too.
China is cutting its carbon even faster than promised - with net emission falling by 1.5% last year. It has announced a halt to building coal power plants, is closing many down. It is by far the biggest investor in solar energy in the world and is becoming the market leader in many clean energy technologies like electric buses.
The UK risks being a loser. We are the only G7 country to increase subsidies for fossil fuels - compounded by a further £1bn giveaway in last week's Budget, and even after David Cameron joined world leaders in Paris in December last year pledging to keep global temperature rises to 1.5C. If we are wedded to obsolete high-carbon energy and infrastructure it will become an increasingly expensive drag on our economy.
If we want a debate about the morality of climate change let's not debate whether climate change is happening - that isn't a matter of opinion. Let's debate how we make the transition to a low carbon economy in the fairest way. Let's debate who will be the winners and losers and whether we're getting the balance right.
Let's debate the morality of the UK's responsibility for cutting carbon in relation to the rest of the world. Now they are really Big Questions.
Liz Hutchins is Senior Campaigner in the Political and Legal Unit of Friends of the Earth England, Wales & Northern Ireland.
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