Stanford Progressive

The United Kingdom Looks Aghast at its Former Colony’s Climate Consensus

By Andrew Schein, published December, 2010


A few weeks ago, a few students and I ran two phone banks against California’s Proposition 23 from Oxford, England. We called hundreds of voters and reached some 50 of them. It was a drop in the bucket as far as California elections are concerned, but it felt good to help – both for us Americans abroad and for the eager Brits involved.
As good as everyone felt to help, the collaboration brought our different national experiences into sharp contrast. British volunteers were amazed at the idea of halting such basic climate change legislation. Further, the idea that corporate money could push policy so directly – Proposition 23’s funds came mostly from Texas oil companies – seemed otherworldly to them.

The consensus here is that climate change is real, that it is exacerbated by greenhouse gas emissions, and that human industry, transportation, and electricity production release a lot of those emissions. Last year, all three major candidates for the slot of prime minister took anthropogenic climate change as the scientific given that it is. The winner, Conservative Party leader David Cameron, pledged to be the United Kingdom’s most environmental administration and to “decarbonise” the economy.

There’s some grumbling among environmentalists here that Cameron’s zeal for cutting the UK’s budget takes priority over efforts to control national emissions. However, as a United States citizen, this Conservative leader’s stated principles are mind-blowlingly sensible about the realities that 1) global warming is happening, 2) it is manmade, and 3) the main step needed to mitigate it is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (In case you were wondering, the UK is not some strange mirror image madhouse of the States where the liberal wings of the political spectrum are the ones whose members doubt climate change science. The platforms of the left-of-center Liberal Democrats and the more decidedly leftwing Labour parties both view the above 3 “realities” as, well, real!)

The contrast between this consensus and the American situation is startling. All but one Republican running for Senate this election cycle had some doubts about climate change or distrusted the science outright, according to an October 17th New York Times editorial. A friend of mine once told me that he supported whatever party did not hold the Presidency. That way, neither party could “go too far.” But when one party so stridently opposes the scientific consensus on an issue of such vital importance to national security, it seems fantastically dangerous to give that party’s members the power to block legislation, no less to make it.

The connection between climate change denial and religion in the United States surprises my British friends. The highest-ranking House Republican in charge of environmental and energy policy, John Shimkus of Illinois, denies climate change on religious grounds. He quotes from the Bible that God promised Noah: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though all inclinations of his heart are evil from childhood and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done.” Paradoxically, he also suggests that compared to the time of the dinosaurs the planet may be carbon-starved. How does one believe in dinosaurs while taking the Bible so literally?

I am also surprised by this connection. I am not religious myself, but I take the lessons that religion teaches seriously, foremost among them the value of compassion. As for Shimkus’ specific point, no one predicts that climate change will kill all living creatures or destroy the Earth. Scientists predict it will create extreme weather patterns, drive temperatures up, help spread mosquito-borne disease to current population centers, disrupt food and water supply lines, and generally hurt and kill many people. The “harassed and helpless” for whom Jesus Christ felt compassion also deserve compassion now, in the form of action against climate change.

Basic economic theory supports this idea. When a good has a negative externality such that its social cost is higher than its private cost, government intervention is necessary to bring production down to efficient levels. How inefficiently are we behaving? The highly respected (and aptly named) “Stern Report” from the United Kingdom estimates that letting emissions soar ever higher under “business as usual” could cost five to twenty percent of a country’s wealth (measured in GDP) each year. Reducing emissions to avoid global warming’s worst impacts could cost around one percent of GDP.

California legislators attempted to avert the catastrophic effects of “business as usual” with the 2006 “Global Warming Solutions Act.” It mandated that the state bring its emissions levels down 25% by 2020 compared to what they would be in that year in the absence of regulation. In other words, the 2020 level of emissions needed to come down to what emissions were in 1990. Proposition 23 threatened to “take out” this bill, in the words of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the end, over 60% of the state’s voters voted “No” on Proposition 23. I was thrilled that my state had sent such a strong signal to the world. At least in California, regular voters view climate change as a real danger that we can and should confront. Of course, that view is already par-for-the-course in the United Kingdom. Now we just need most of the rest of the States to catch up.


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