John Osmond hears veteran campaigner Jonathan Porritt deliver an American message to Welsh environmentalists

July 23rd, 2009

Our politicians should take a leaf out of President Obama’s book when it comes to selling measures to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change, according to Jonathan Porritt, outgoing Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission.

On a swing through Wales during a UK farewell tour after ten years in post Porritt, charismatic campaigner on all things green, spoke to an admiring audience of fellow campaigners, NGO activists, and others of the committed in Cardiff’s City Hall. His main message was that they weren’t getting their message across. This was because they were focusing on the apocalyptic ‘end of life as we know it’ dimension of the impact of climate change, rather than emphasising upbeat possibilities around adjusting to it.

The Sustainable Development Commission acts as a ‘critical friend’ to the UK and devolved governments, producing detailed assessments of the impact of policies across the silos of government departments. It created controversy in Wales last year when – to the dismay of many Welsh environmentalists, especially in the RSPB – it gave a guarded welcome to the notion of a Barrage across the Severn as a source of green electricity.

Today Porritt said he had been forcibly struck by Obama’s approach when selling his carbon reduction plans to the American Congress. “First he spoke about energy security. It was vital in America’s national interest that they become less dependent on outside sources of oil, especially from the Middle East.

“No-one could disagree with that.

“Second Obama spoke about the jobs that would be created by moving the economy in a green direction. New industries, new factories in all parts of the United States – on a massive scale.

“Then he spoke about the research and development possibilities of investing in innovative approaches to generating energy from renewable sources, opportunities for at MIT, Berkeley and other leading Universities around the country.

“Only then did he mention climate change and the targets that would be met in reducing carbon emissions by all these activities. And for good measure he added that all this would mean the United States would be leading the world in tackling climate change – failing of course to acknowledge that America has led the world in getting us into the climate crisis in the first place.

“But it was upbeat, persuasive and above all smart.”

On the other hand the British Government’s approach was to begin by setting out the dire consequences of failing to adjust to climate change. The severe weather patterns that would result in floods, deaths caused by heat waves, water shortages, and backwashes into Britain from mass migrations from other parts of the world. All this was correct but not smart, Porritt said, and designed to stop people listening.

But he praised the British Government’s commitments to reducing our carbon footprint, recently outlined in the Climate Change. The important thing was that all three major parties were signed up to the agenda – a global first.

Porritt was asked whether the Government could be regarded as serious about facing up to the challenge when it was also committed to a third runway at Heathrow and had made clear that cheap flights for generally middle class passengers would remain untouched. He replied that he believed Ministers were moving in the right direction. “For instance, if the decision were being made on Heathrow today, I don’t think it would be the same.

“Gordon Brown has come a long way in the two years he has been Prime Minister. Up to that point climate change had been Tony Blair’s thing and because of that didn’t give it much attention. But I’ve watched him develop over the past 18 months into a man who is getting his head around this issue big time. At the G8 summit last week he laid out an understanding and grasp of the scene that could easily have been Blair’s.”

Porritt said that when he steps down from the Commission in a few weeks he will be concentrating on working with the Forum for the Future environmental ‘think tank’ he co-founded, and devoting more time to campaigning on PR and civil rights issues. “I’ve become convinced that the sclerotic governance system we have in the UK is the source of many of our problems,” he said. “I’m particularly worried about the way the UK government has used the threat of terrorism to undermine human rights, dissent and the right to protest.

“All this feels different in Wales and Scotland, where devolution has let some air into the system. Proportional representation in Welsh and Scottish elections has allowed the smaller parties a voice and you have a sense of greater engagement. In Whitehall, by contrast the place is half dead. In Wales and Scotland you feel that the structures are allowing some energy to get into the system. In Whitehall the system is simply killing off the energy we need.”

Porritt who remains a member of the Green Party which he once chaired, added, “The simple and unavoidable fact is that the mainstream parties still remain wedded to consumption-driven economic growth which is simply unsustainable.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

One Response to:“Getting climate change message across”

  1. Nigel Hollett says:

    good analysis and feedback John. I've despaired for years about the lack of connection between a low carbon world and the excitement of achieving this through a massive increase in green jobs and improved quality of life for communities. I'm impressed with Ed Miliband's commitment to embracing the new world, but as Porritt said it would be nice to have more excitement from the Government

    (Report comment)

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