Climate change, the hidden emergency and lifestyle choices

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By forgoing relatively superficial freedoms, such as eating large amounts of meat and other manifestations of Western over-consumption, other people's fundamental freedoms could be preserved, said Andy Atkins, international director of Friends of the Earth.

But he cautioned that at present, "climate change is an emergency that's hidden from most people."

Simon Retallack, assistant director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, pointed out that opponents of action often cited infringement of freedom as grounds for their position: he gave the example of Daily Mail's "Save the light bulb" campaign.

Freedom to express greenhouse gases was not a fundamental right, he said.  People would still be able to travel, but they would use alternative methods and fuels.

"We can't let the technology save us – it won't," David North, Tesco's director of government affairs, told the audience. Fundamental lifestyle changes would have to be made.

North said that necessary actions included the setting of an international carbon price and a planning system that faced the 21st century rather than 20th century problems of conservation.

He considered it unlikely that politicians would take the necessary actions to combat climate change – "So what we can do is to make governments act."

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone said that everything hinged on holding global temperature increase to a maximum of 2 degrees, but "it's no longer possible to achieve this target".

After 10 years of talk, few actions were being taken, he said. Yet at the time of the last  big crisis, the Second World War, everything was done to defeat the Nazis. It was vital to mobilise people and to ensure that they understood the savings that could be made. Livingstone gave examples: existing energy output could be produced with half the input; changing to low-energy light bulbs and switching off electronic equipment at night would save about 10 per cent of climate-harming emissions; water for lavatory flushing did not need to be drinking quality; "Giving up meat is more important than giving up your car."

Other points from the discussions included:

  • "In eight years I never spoke to a government minister with a real understanding of the implications of climate change or the backbone to do something about it" – Ken Livingstone
  • Don't stop importing beans from Kenya: it would make little difference to UK emissions but would have a huge impact on Kenya – Gabriel Walker, commentator specialising in energy and climate change
  • "I've no difficulty at all with direct action, but I'm not sanguine that direct action by a minority will make the difference. We need direct action by a majority" – David North 
  • "Climate change slipped out of the headlines at the end of the year. Several people have said to me, 'Climate change? That was last year's problem." – Gabriel Walker


The event was part of a programme of activities that accompanies the British Library's Taking Liberties exhibition, 96 Euston Road, NW1 until 1 March. It is free. Info: 0870 444 1500. From OneWorld UK.

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