Our Easter Island Moment: is it already too late to save the environment?

8 June 2010


Sarah Mukherjee delivered CSaP's third distinguished lecture having recently left her role as the BBC’s Environmental Correspondent. She promised a commentary unmuffled by institutional constraints, and she delivered handsomely on that promise.

Sarah's core argument was that the relationship between the political system and the media is preventing the UK from getting to grips with climate change and leading the UK down the path to disaster as surely as the Easter Island settlers who exhausted their resources and perished.


The political context

Sarah argued that the short political cycle and the electoral process are not well suited to long-term decision making.

She spoke about (unnamed) Conservative MPs who saw environmentalism as a tool to change people's views about the Conservative Party; now that the party was in power these politicians considered that they should ditch any commitment to it. At the same time the Liberal Democrats have been the most environmentally hardline in part – according to one anonymous LibDem MP – because they never thought they would get into office.

Despite such cynicism there was enough cross-party consensus in the last parliament to agree that deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are necessary over the next few years and decades. This consensus led to the Climate Change Act in 2008 – a landmark piece of ‘meta-legislation’ into which all other legislative considerations were supposed to fit. However immediate economic concerns have superseded it and some suggest that the only way that the UK will meet its near-term carbon reduction targets is if we stay in recession. Sarah argued that the UK now “leads the world in climate change rhetoric” and mocked the sanctions in the Climate Change Act – judicial review – as ineffective in the face of economic priorities.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg both ‘get’ climate change. So why is there no action? Sarah proposed three reasons to do with public opinion and the media; public opinion and the energy gap; and NGOs.

Public opinion and the media

Since 2009 following the ‘Climategate’ scandal public certainty that man-made climate change is real and that something needs to be done about it has been falling.

We live in a political world where public opinion leads long-term decision making. Most of the political elite Sarah suggested have spent the majority of their careers in politics; for these individuals being ‘in touch’ means understanding public opinion through polling data and the media.

But taking a political cue from the media is problematic. Media people are neophiles – nothing kills a story as quickly as an editor’s “we’ve done that”. Moreover a typical news cycle builds someone or something up before knocking him her or it down. This is just what happened with climate change. Having spent a long time building up climate change as an issue when the concerns were new suggestions of impropriety at UEA's Climate Research Unit (coupled with a cold winter) were the perfect opportunity to knock it down.

Despite the fact that newspaper circulation is low (the Guardian for example is read by only 300000 people and if it were a radio show it would be taken off air) newspapers carry enormous power over the decisions that politicians take punching way above their weight. Sarah suggested that this may in part be because the political elite and the media elite are the same people: privately and Oxbridge educated the majority having only worked in their narrow fields.

Public opinion and the energy gap

Another problem Sarah suggested is illustrated by the looming energy gap. By 2020 two-thirds of our electricity-generating capacity needs to be replaced. How can this possibly be achieved? Why was it not sorted years ago? Because the last thing on the minds of people taking part in focus groups is energy concerns.

Answering the question ‘what concerns you most?’ people prioritise what worries them in the present: health education jobs and so on. Public opinion Sarah suggested will not shift sufficiently strongly to force politicians into action until the lights actually go out. And when the lights do go out the most pressing concern is likely to be to get them on again which will mean burning more fossil fuels.

Sarah provocatively asked whether if the announced pilots of carbon capture and storage do not work those fossil-fuel burning stations would be decommissioned?


Finally the NGOs have played their part in (ironically) slowing down action particularly at an international level. When international climate change negotiations started there were relatively few people present. Deals were made when people bumped into each other in the corridors. The meetings now are inoperably large; the NGOs attended Copenhagen in such large numbers that they effectively collapsed the meeting from the inside. There was also a feeling that large numbers of the people there had an anti-capitalist motivation rather than a motivation to reduce carbon emissions. This did not help.


Sarah concluded by suggesting that the root cause of the problem was the “deadly embrace” of the political and media classes. To break the deadly embrace our education system needs to refocus so that it produces a population of individuals who are equipped to understand the complexity of the scientific process and the kinds of risks and trade-offs that issues such as climate change present. She suggested that the UK should be investing more in the brightest children either through grammar schools or other selective mechanisms. She also suggested that the teachers of subjects that are most useful to the nation's future (such as the sciences) should be paid more. Unless we do this the politicians’ claims that we “will think our way out of problems” like climate change and that we will be competitive in the global knowledge economy are hollow.

If we are to escape the worst of climate change major changes will have to be made. Sarah cautioned that we should look at those Easter Island statues very carefully; that could be Big Ben.

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