The wind of change: how a marsh in Kent became a symbol of the fight for our future

The countryside needs to be crammed full of wind turbines and, yes, they can be noisy and ugly
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The Independent Online

Weather of Mass Destruction is here, and it is on the rise. Every week, at least one major scientific study hurls yet more evidence at us. In the past seven day, researchers with the British Antarctic Survey have found that the huge ice sheet in the western Antarctic appears to be already collapsing. Scientists from George Bush's Department of Energy - those tree-hugging hippies - found a "stunning correlation" between the rise in ocean temperatures over the past 40 years and atmospheric pollution. And the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research conducted one of the biggest computer simulations of climate change - using all this new data - and concluded: "The danger zone is not something we are going to reach in the middle of this century. We are in it now."

Weather of Mass Destruction is here, and it is on the rise. Every week, at least one major scientific study hurls yet more evidence at us. In the past seven day, researchers with the British Antarctic Survey have found that the huge ice sheet in the western Antarctic appears to be already collapsing. Scientists from George Bush's Department of Energy - those tree-hugging hippies - found a "stunning correlation" between the rise in ocean temperatures over the past 40 years and atmospheric pollution. And the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research conducted one of the biggest computer simulations of climate change - using all this new data - and concluded: "The danger zone is not something we are going to reach in the middle of this century. We are in it now."

That's just one week in the chilling (or warming) world of climatology. It might seem a long way from these catastrophic predictions to a marsh in Kent - but there is an intimate link. Over the past year, there has been a bitter debate about whether to build a wind farm in Romney Marsh, a large, lush, nature reserve which is home to thousands of birds. The wind turbines wouldn't destroy the marsh, but they would kill some birds and - according to local protesters - destroy the aesthetics of the landscape. Is that a price worth paying to provide 80 per cent of the area's population - 55,000 homes - with totally clean electricity? This debate is about to reach its climax. Last week, the public inquiry in Romney closed, and Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, is expected to make a decision by the end of the year.

The debate in Kent - like the debate that is accompanying the building of wind turbines across the developed world, from Cape Cod to Berlin - has thrown up two interesting divisions. The first is the most obvious. It's between people who see that climate change is a real and massive problem and are prepared to make sacrifices to deal with it, and people who don't.

Here in Britain, it's a simple and refreshing Labour vs Tory split. The current British government has a mixed record on climate change, and recently it disgracefully blocked an ambitious EU proposal for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 60-80 per cent by 2050. But Tony Blair deserves credit for ploughing huge sums of money into wind power. The Government is on course to ensure that 10 per cent of our energy needs come from clean wind power by the end of this decade, and 20 per cent by 2020. It's nowhere enough, given the scale of the global crisis; but it's a start.

Yet - as with all worthwhile political acts - there's a cost. It means that the countryside needs to be crammed full of wind turbines and, yes, they can be noisy and ugly. Here's where the division in British politics kicks in. The Conservative Party has come out aggressively against wind power. Michael Howard has given a "not round 'ere" speech in Romney, and the Conservatives have made it clear they will give up nothing - not even a pretty view - to deal with climate change. They are supposedly committed to the Kyoto targets, but proposals to achieve them without a significant transition to wind power and other renewables are pretty unconvincing.

Even if the Tories prefer nuclear power as a way of cutting carbon emissions (wrongly, in my view), it would take 15 years for new stations to become operative. We would still urgently need wind power in the meantime, or we would crash out of Kyoto. (You can make the transition to wind power in your own home by going to www.ukgreenpower.co.uk. It only takes five minutes and it might even save you money on your current energy bill.)

The Tory-Labour division on this issue is important but pretty predictable. But there is a more interesting and genuinely surprising division thrown up by the Romney debate, and by the hundreds of Romneys across the world. It's among environmentalists themselves. In Kent, there are greens on both sides of the debate. English Nature and David Bellamy have campaigned against the turbine, stressing the certain damage to local wildlife and the area's natural beauty. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have strongly backed the project. Greenpeace's executive director, Stephen Tindale, explains: "The people of Bangladesh could have their lives and nation wrecked by climate change. It would be immoral to tell them we couldn't do much because we didn't want to spoil the view."

This points to a tension within environmentalism that has always been there and is only now - as European governments at last realise the greens' warnings were often correct - coming to the fore. There has long been a romantic strain to environmental thought that can be traced back to Wordsworth, Blake and the first generation of humans to witness the contrast between large, sprawling industrial cities and the countryside. They tend to believe that gaining a connection to the rhythms of the land or just directly experiencing a meadow or a rainbow offers spiritual truths not available in a "soulless" urban life. As a result, their main impulse is to conserve wilderness from destruction by humans.

It's not hard to understand why - from this perspective - tampering with a natural and beautiful ecosystem, even for environmentalist reasons, seems like a bad thing. Isn't the whole point of environmentalism to save natural sites and stem human arrogance? Their every reflex is to prevent yet further human interference in areas like Romney Marsh; they find talk of "managing the global environment" hubristic and obnoxious.

But there is another shade of green: a pragmatic, utilitarian environmentalism that believes the problem of climate change is now so vast - and so urgent - that we cannot limit our actions to preserving existing chunks of nature. We now have no choice but to become proactive. We need to start acting to alter the balance of nature - as carbon emissions have already been doing for decades anyhow - by developing new forms of clean energy and creating carbon sinks. This means that sometimes there will be tough decisions.

I'm a pragmatic environmentalist. I don't think climate change reveals underlying spiritual emptiness or a shameful disconnection between modern man and nature. I just think it reveals that there's far too much carbon in the atmosphere, and if we don't deal with it, lots of people - and potentially the human species - will die. We don't need a new religion. We need an urgent, global political programme to reduce carbon emissions, along with stopping other acts of environmental vandalism like desertification and the destruction of rainforests. Not because they are magical places - give me Piccadilly Circus at rush-hour any time - but because without them, we can't survive. Sometimes, places like Romney and its birds will pay a price for that survival. But if we don't bring climate change under control, those birds and that marsh are going to face terrible problems anyway.

So the war of Romney Marsh is not just between Labour and Tory, or Nimbys and people with a sense of global responsibility. It is - in its own small way - a barometer of the future direction of the environmentalist movement.

And here's a prediction: over the next seven days, there will be more evidence that if we don't kick our carbon habit, future generations will be living smack bang in the middle of a global Ground Zero. And the week after. This is no time to get romantic about a marsh; we have a planet to save.

johann@johannhari.com

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