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The New Green Aristocracy

They don't work for you

By Ben Pile, 28 Oct 2008

Comment An aristocracy is a form of government by an elite that considers itself to possess greater virtues than the hoi polloi, giving it the right to rule in its own interests. Aristocrats were referred to as 'the nobility', or 'nobs'. These days we prefer decisions to be made democratically – the idea being that we can judge for ourselves which ideas serve our interests, thank you very much, ma'am.

But in recent years, politicians have sought legitimacy for their positions from outside of the democratic process. A new aristocracy is emerging from the emptiness of UK politics - and it's considerably more virtuous than thou.

Last Thursday, foreign secretary Ed Miliband announced the government was committing to an 80 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 - up from 60 per cent. This was the latest in a game of politics by numbers, in which the major parties outbid each other to commit to the most punishing targets, each party claiming that its own reduction target best represented 'the science'.

Embarrassed at being so easily trumped, environment secretary Hilary Benn announced changes to the Climate Change Bill - being debated today - last October. A new Climate Change Committee (CCC) of scientific and economic experts would advise Parliament on what targets best represented the science. Ed Miliband's announcement followed the first advice from the CCC, given to him by the Committee's chair, Lord Adair Turner, in a letter earlier in the week.

At first glance, this appears to be a sensible way of formulating policy. If “tackling climate change” is a purely technical challenge, why not leave it to the experts? The problem is that it's not a purely technical challenge, and it makes many political assumptions. Lord Turner is surprisingly candid about this:

Climate science cannot predict with absolute certainty how emissions paths will translate into temperature increases and how temperature increases will translate into damage. Deciding what level of temperature increase is harmful is therefore inherently judgemental.

Yet public scrutiny of this judgement call is disastrously absent from the climate change debate.

For example, according to the conventional wisdom, “climate change will be worse for the poor”, and this forms a substantial part of the argument for emissions reduction. But an argument for making people wealthy could have the same basis. After all, the human cost of extreme weather in the developed world is far lower than equivalent phenomena in poorer countries. But arguments for wealth are necessarily political. They depend fundamentally on us understanding our own interests. Meanwhile, the argument for drastic carbon reduction and lifestyle change is principally ethical: it claims that matters of fact exist, which dictate the terms and limits that society must respond to, or else we will face catastrophe. At the same time, the argument goes, politics can only fail to respond to these matters of fact, because people are too self-interested, and lack the ability to understand the complexities of climate science.

In other words, we lack the virtues necessary to make decisions about the future.

Moreover, politicians have mirrored the public's cynicism of politicians with their own cynicism of politics. Accordingly, they are ever keener to demonstrate their ethical credentials – their virtues – than they are in explaining the potential of their political ideas. They don't have any.

New science or nonsense?

Contrary to many a green claim, science has been unable to provide unambiguous advice from which climate change policies can be formulated. Hence Labour, the Tories, the Lib-Dems, the Greens, and various activists, have all made different policies, and argued that the others will lead us inevitably to environmental catastrophe. The CCC has been appointed in an attempt to settle the matter because matters of fact simply do not exist, and politicians lack the authority to make an 'ethical' argument for climate mitigation themselves.

According to the CCC, the 60 per cent figure which appears in the Draft Bill was based on advice given in a report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) in 2000.

“Since the report, however, new information has become available”, says the CCC.

But this information is not uncontroversial, and no matter how many climate studies have produced research which reveal isolated trends that are worse than anticipated, it is the sum of their effects which is important. The Royal Commission produced its recommendation after considering a range of emissions scenarios and their likely outcomes in terms of global temperature changes. The IPCC in 2007 did a very similar thing.

RCEP vs IPCC temperature estimates

2007 saw the IPCC more optimistic about the extent of future warming than the RCEP were in 2000. So why isn't the CCC calling for a reduction in CO2 emissions targets?

Perhaps it could still be claimed that society is more vulnerable to climate than was previously understood. But, again, this is not “science”. It’s a speculative claim about the extent to which the direction of society is determined by climatic conditions – and exactly the kind of soft judgement which Turner admits. Yet the Committee is unable to reflect on the judgements it has had to make because reflection is beyond the Committee’s scope of enquiry. Moreover, The CCC’s members have no interest in doing so. Vested interests abound.

All aboard the gravy train

Lord Turner, who is also chair of the Financial Services Authority, was a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund, and a member of the Board of Advisors at Climate Change Capital, an “investment manager and advisor specialising in the opportunities created by the transition to the low carbon economy”. Turner's colleague, Dr Samuel Fankhauser, is the managing director of IDEAcarbon, which provides financial services in the carbon finance sector. The company belongs to the IDEAglobal group, whose vice chairman is Sir Nicholas Stern. As the company's website says:

“Working with the key decision makers who are shaping the future of the market enables us to accurately predict market trends and provide tailored strategic advice to clients.”

So the people who stand to profit from markets created by climate change legislation are instrumental in creating that legislation.

Another member of the CCC is Lord Bob May, who has been increasingly vocal about climate change politics in recent years. He said in the TLS last year that “there remains an active and well-funded ‘denial lobby’. It shares many features with the lobby that for so long denied that smoking is the major cause of lung cancer." But if May is worried about 'well-funded' financial interests influencing the Government, he might well take a hard look at the CCC itself.

So the small number of people who determine the UK's response to climate change are not independent, and appear to have professional, financial and political interests in both the escalation of the climate crisis, and legislation designed to prevent it. These interests and the wider establishment's political exhaustion are hidden behind the CCC's scientific authority – a virtue in accordance with climate change ethics.

As politicians have struggled to define themselves politically, they have retreated from democratic ideas. Voting is merely a formality – there are no ideas being contested, and legitimacy is sought instead from other public institutions such as 'science'. The purpose of new committees of experts is not to inform the climate change debate, but to create ethics for politicians to clothe themselves in. It gives seemingly legitimate purpose and direction to a purposeless and directionless establishment. The purpose of the climate change bill is not to save us from catastrophe, but to set the scene for a new climate change aristocracy to rule over us in its own interests. ®

Ben Pile studies philosophy and politics at the University of York, and is co-editor of the climate resistance blog.

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