Gwyn Prins: Beyond Climate Hubris

  • Date: 08/06/10

An open letter to Chris Huhne calls for a new pragmatic approach to rebuild public trust.

Chris Huhne, isn’t it? Congratulations on your appointment to the Department of Energy and Climate Change with its dramatically daunting agenda, starting with the overriding electoral imperative to keep the lights on in a country with an incoherent energy strategy. The figures which stick in my mind are that during January 4-7, with high pressure stable over the country and the highest peak electricity demand in the coldest winter for 30 years, wind power contributed 0.6 per cent to the Grid. The Grid issued only its second-ever Gas Balancing Alert to divert gas to power stations and the coal stations were ramped up to 43 per cent. I witnessed at first hand the South African electricity supply crisis escalate between 2006-08 and you will know soon, if your officials haven’t already briefed you, how swiftly and decisively Pretoria batted aside its anti-nuclear and green opponents, advanced its nuclear construction with Chinese help and increased its coal stockpiles.

I don’t suppose that on the morning of May 11 you expected to be where you are sitting as you read this? Frankly, my 13 co-authors around the world and I were also taken by surprise. We had not intended either to launch our collective analysis of what to do about the other side of your portfolio on what, thanks to the creation of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, became for other stories (like ours) the worst news day in Britain in decades. (You can find a condensation of our case, by Professors Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia and Steve Rayner of Oxford, and me, on the Standpoint website.)

That said, The Hartwell Paper in multiple translated editions, has been making good headway. It led the news in Finland on publication day. In The Netherlands, it was described as a fundamental paradigm shift. There has been good coverage in German-speaking countries, despite the denouement of the euro crisis. This month, in Rome, there will be a seminar with your Italian counterpart to consider its proposals, and briefings will occur also in New York and on Capitol Hill. More briefings in Tokyo, Geneva and elsewhere, including in your shiny old haunt on Rue Wiertz at the European Parliament, will take place as the early summer rolls on.

In Britain, despite media preoccupation with the novel experience of coalition-making, we much appreciated the thoughtful online review by the Economist on May 11. It grasped the essence of our message to you and to others charged with responsibility for this puzzling and troubled thing called “climate change” policy. The BBC Radio 4 Costing the Earth programme on May 12 also devoted itself to our arguments on how not to waste this good crisis.

We recognise that it is always easier to admit to error once a realistic alternative is in view. Now that we Hartwellites (as the Economist calls our new tribe) have brought together for the first time in one place, to our knowledge, a scientifically literate, politically attractive and economically pragmatic outline of what a department like yours could start to do differently tomorrow morning that might actually work, we also invite calm acceptance that the conventional wisdom and strategies that you have inherited are conceptually broken, have never worked and never will.

Full letter


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