Last night we went to hear Peter Harper, Coordinator of Zero Carbon Britain, speak at the Sydney Town Hall. The topic was ‘Zero Carbon by 2030 – Britain’s dream or reality?’ As the advance publicity put it, Zero Carbon Britain is
a plan offering a positive realistic, policy framework to eliminate emissions from fossil fuels within 20 years. Zero Carbon Britain(ZCB) brought together leading UK thinkers, including policy makers, scientists, academics, industry and NGOs to provide political, economic and technological solutions to the urgent challenges raised by climate science.
Governments and businesses seem paralysed and unable to plan for a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy. ZCB shows what can be done by harnessing the voluntary contribution from experts working outside their institutions. The ZCB report, released in June 2010, provides a fully integrated vision of how Britain can respond to the challenges of climate change, resource depletion and global inequity, with the potential for a low-carbon future to enrich society as a whole.
(Download the PDF here.)
The talk itself was a great mood lifter. First, the setting: it’s hard to be gloomy about the future in the elaborate colonial prettiness of the refurbished Town Hall Foyer. Then the introduction by Robyn Williams, icon of enthusiasm for scientific enquiry: after an obeisance to current ABC pusillanimity with the mantra ‘I’m from the ABC and I have no opinions of my own’, he told us that the Science Show had broadcast three programs on Peter Harper’s base, the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, over the years, and generated a lot of interest. The audience was great, producing a supremely lively, smart, on-topic Q & A: as one of my friends said, when an event receives this little much publicity in the mainstream media, the people who know about it are likely to know a lot about the subject.
Peter Harper is a scientist with style. He began and ended with photos of his granddaughter. ‘Why am I doing this?’ he asked at the start. ‘Because of her.’ He went on, ‘I often ask my great-great-great-granddaughter what to do next, and though she hasn’t been born yet, she’s a sharp tongued little hussy and says good things.’ He characterised the ‘leading thinkers’ who had prepared the framework as greenies and geeks, and put his argument for a strategic approach to climate change (as opposed to much frantic activity around short term projects that often turn out to be cul de sacs) with wit, warmth and a lucid slide show.
One of my take-homes is what he called the Canute Principle. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with British lore, he told the story of King Canute ordering the tide not to come in so as to demonstrate to his obsequious courtiers that there are limits to kingly power. The principle: ‘Physical reality trumps political reality.’ That is, there may be any number of political reasons not to act on climate change, or to take short term actions that lead nowhere, but any plan that aims to actually deal with the dangers needs to take account of the physical world. Let me say that again in bold: Physical reality trumps political reality. Isn’t that elegant?