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The Government should restrain the wealthy

13 December 2006

by Michael Northcott

‘Rich individuals are the most profligate users of carbon’

Prince Charles announced last week that he was going to ditch the Bentley and the Rolls, and buy two biodiesel Jaguars instead; he also said he would use scheduled planes and trains when possible rather than private jets, and try to reduce the carbon footprint of his many houses and offices.

On the same day, Gordon Brown put up fuel duty in his pre-Budget report by a miserly 1.25p per litre, added £5 tax on plane journeys, and promised, rather hubristically, to abolish stamp duty on carbon-zero houses by 2016. But these measures are a spare response indeed to the serious threat to the earth represented by climate change, as described in the Stern report (News, Comment, Features, 3 November).

Satellite data published last week in the journal Nature revealed that, as phytoplankton in the oceans die when ocean temperatures rise, and, as ocean temperatures are rising at 0.2° centigrade a decade, large areas of the ocean could be organically dead within 50 years.

Phytoplankton are the key nutrient in the oceans on which all ocean life depends. They play an essential part in regulating the climate, since they daily consume 100 million tonnes of carbon through photosynthesis, which is then locked into the ocean as they are eaten by other creatures or drop to the ocean floor.

The oceans are literally the source of life, as both Genesis and Darwin tell us. This is why scientists were jumping up and down on seeing photos from Mars last week indicating that there is water there.

Stephen Hawking recently told the Today programme that the only hope for the human species is that we find another planet to move to after we have wrecked this one. But this is a dangerous scientific illusion. The reality is that the earth we live on is the only planet capable of sustaining the myriad species, including human beings, who dwell here.

YET IN HIS pre-Budget report, Gordon Brown proudly boasted that, on his watch, the personal wealth of the British had increased by an average of 60 per cent. But most of this wealth belongs to a tiny number of people, such as the CEOs who pay themselves 30 per cent extra every year, and the city bankers whose bonuses are driving a house-price boom that means that children will not have teachers in the capital city where they make their billions.

As a recent paper, “Rich in CO²”, in the journal Atmospheric Environment reveals, it is rich individuals who are the most profligate users of carbon, because it is they who travel the most, and heat and cool the largest houses.

If Prince Charles and the Chancellor are serious about climate change, they need to find a way to redress the ecological injustice that sees one per cent of the global population travelling vast distances around the planet, and enjoying large or multiple homes, while Tanzanian farmers are unable to feed their families because of long-term drought brought on by humanly caused increases in the temperature of the Indian Ocean.

What the Chancellor in particular does not seem to grasp is the extent to which climate change challenges the neo-liberal economics that makes him reluctant to restrain the carbon profligacy of the rich to save the planet from meltdown. Neo-liberal economists believe that the nexus that connects us all, and that makes us happy, is the market economy; and that laws that prevent individuals’ maximising their preferences create inefficiencies, which reduce collective happiness.

That is why the Government published a report by one of the Chancellor’s economic advisers last week, which recommended that planning laws should be swept aside to allow more housing, offices, and supermarkets to be built on greenbelt land.

The human economy does not exist in a vacuum, but in the precious envelope of gases, topsoil, and oceans which is the only environment in the known universe that can sustain animals enlivened by what the Hebrews called nephesh, which means both life-blood and spirit.

Climate science shows that the Hebrews were right to see our warm-blooded bodies as physical analogies for the oxygen produced by the biosphere, and as the spiritual crown of the divine creation.

Climate science also reveals that the Hebrews were right to embrace divine commands that restrained excessive inequality and covetousness, because it is precisely these manifestations of sin that are making the planet gradually uninhabitable for warm-blooded mammals. Today it is polar bears and Tanzanian farmers whose survival is threatened. In 50 years, it could be the residents of southern Spain, and, in 100 years, our grandchildren here in Britain.

my old car failed its MOT last week, and I decided not to replace it, since my main mode of transport is a bicycle. Cars are the single most carbon-profligate technology on the planet. Their manufacture, fuelling, and repair, and the building and maintenance of the roads and car parks they occupy, are together responsible for more than 40 per cent of the carbon emissions of the UK.

In contrast, the bicycle is the most energy-efficient transportation device ever invented. But, so long as the roads are full of cars, few of my neighbours will dare to ride a bike. But to have the heir to the throne on a bicycle — that would be a royal ritual that might teach us all how to respect God’s good earth.

It is the truth that it is God’s earth which is lacking in the current discourse about climate change. So long as we imagine the earth as a bundle of randomly evolved “natural resources”, we will find it hard to restrain the voracious tendency of our industrial civilisation to convert these resources into consumer objects.

The central image of the incarnation sets Christ in a stable in the midst of the other creatures with whom we share this good earth. When we recall that we are co-creatures on this earth, and that, in the incarnation, God gives us the supreme revelation of the graced character of all creatures — then we might find it possible to embrace the kinds of restraints on our desires without which 40 per cent of our co-creatures face extinction from climate change.

The Revd Dr Michael Northcott teaches Christian ethics in the University of Edinburgh.

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