Prince Charles is right about climate change

Ignoring global warming and its causes is a comforting path for politicians paralysed by self-interest and the consolations of denial

Share

The old man who used to live next door was almost 80 and still smoking. His wife did not like it and made him take his ciggie outside. We would chat over the back fence if I was in the garden. "It's a rum do," Mr T would say, "Smoked all my life. Never did me any harm. My old ma lived till she was 92 and she was a smoker too."

We choose the evidence which suits us. The facts on smoking are overwhelmingly clear to scientists and statisticians. But anecdotes and exceptions can provide a handy excuse to ignore the facts when it suits. Denial is a classic human fallibility.

So what is the story with the current extreme weather? We have Met Office warnings of gales and floods bad enough to endanger human life. The Somerset Levels have been under water for weeks. California yesterday announced that its drought is so bad it has run out of water for rural areas, while north America has been gripped by a polar vortex, which has sent temperatures plunging to minus-50C. There are bush fires in Australia and floods in New Zealand. The Amazon has had two once-in-a-century droughts since 2005; Bangladesh has had two once-in-a-lifetime major cyclones in three years. The Philippines has had its worst-ever typhoon.

Climate change is the elephant in the room. In the face of all this "global weirding", as one climatologist calls it, discussion on what we are going to do about global warming is notably absent.

Weather is a freaky business. Always has been. You cannot link a single unusual weather event to climate change, we are constantly told by professional weathermen and climate change deniers alike. There is no provable causal link.

True. But nor is there a causal link between one of Mr T's individual roll-ups and the emphysema from which he eventually died. Yet the connection between smoking and pulmonary disease, cancer and heart disease is overwhelming. The parallel with our climate is inescapable: you can't link climate change to individual weather events, but you can link it to extreme weather trends. Unless you are one of the climate change deniers, whom Prince Charles last week called "the headless chicken brigade".

A firefighter battles the flames in Australia last year A firefighter battles the flames in Australia last year Denial has many roots. It offers the opportunity to exercise hobby-horses, like the Tories who see the flooded Somerset Levels as the fault of the worst kind of quango (the body which diverted cash from dredging into building a new nature reserve). It offers men of "common sense" the chance to mock the earnest killjoys who want to stop them flying off for cheap city breaks on untaxed air fuel. It offers endless opportunities for deniers to parade their little learning: how can there be global warming when some of the freak weather is making us colder? And what delicious irony there is in scientists getting stuck in ice on an expedition to measure how much that ice is melting. Except that, as any fule kno, sea ice is not fixed and gets blown about the ocean by the wind.

Some of this is scientific illiteracy. Warm air holds more water vapour than cold air. So as the air temperature rises, heavy snow will initially increase as the planet warms. Warmer air will also destabilise the whirlwind of cold, dense air at the poles, so the polar vortex wobbles southwards, like a drunk on his fourth Martini, as a climatologist memorably put it.

Some of it is an inability to set in proper context the blizzard of information with which the media blasts a public that prefers reading about the bizarre rather than the representative. There are a fair few wobbly assertions in Alain de Botton's new book The News: A User's Manual but he is correct in his baseline assertion that too many decontextualised facts are as unhelpful as no facts at all.

A popular philosopher might look more productively at how consumerist materialism has come to alter social time frames. Some three decades ago, a revolution in attitudes to credit occurred. Where Margaret Thatcher's parents' generation saw "living on tick" as seedy and shameful, their children were offered credit cards which would "Take the Waiting out of Wanting". With the death of deferred gratification came a new disregard for the future. The devaluation of pensions by irresponsible bankers has only boosted short-term hedonism.

The limited political horizons of our politicians do not help. They have long been reluctant to take hard decisions which will bear fruit only after they have left office; electoral strategy routinely trumps responsible management of the economy. Climate change is even more problematic for them, because it requires transnational as well as intergenerational vision.

All that is the antithesis of the modern political agenda. It is, then, a double irony that the problem receives its most vehement articulation from the unelected heir to a monarchy many deride as outdated and lacking political authority. Why, Prince Charles asks, do we "accept what science tells us about everything – until it comes to climate science", when "a barrage of sheer intimidation" insists "we must abandon all our faith in so much overwhelming scientific evidence". In practice the Prince, like the House of Lords, offers a useful practical long-term antidote to the short-term posturing of elected politicians.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, this week conceded that he "strongly suspects" the abnormal weather is caused by man-made climate change. Yet the PM has appointed a climate sceptic, Owen Paterson, as the Environment and Agriculture Secretary who is charged with preparing, or adapting, Britain for global warming. He is the man who must now co-ordinate the change in farming practices that the National Farmers' Union yesterday conceded is needed to reduce the impact of climate change.

Yet, Mr Paterson, the man dubbed "the fool of the floods", is overseeing a 41 per cent decline in spending on domestic climate change initiatives this financial year, a Freedom of Information request has disclosed.

It is indeed, as Mr T was wont to opine across the garden fence, a rum do.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor of Public Ethics at the University of Chester

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine