Green police

Robin McKie, science editor of the Observer, is disturbed that the green cause is turning into an opportunity to tell us how to live when it should be the time to tell government how to govern.

Consider emission controls. This is now assumed to be as much an issue of individual responsibility as of international negotiation. Petrol-guzzling 4x4s must be taxed, foreign holidays discouraged, TVs unplugged and lavatories left unflushed. After decades of waiting, the green movement has found the cause of its dreams: a crisis that gives them carte blanche, they believe, to rule our lives.

Hairshirts are being knitted and the self-righteous are gathering. The Observer’s travel desk already gets hate mail merely for highlighting interesting destinations that might seem to encourage carbon-producing air travel. No wonder those poor old deniers cringe.

But it simply does not have to be that way. For a start, air travel accounts for only 2 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. So I refuse to feel guilty because I have a family holiday in Spain and then write about the threatened glories of the Great Barrier Reef.

Indeed, if one looks at the world’s last great ecological scare, the dwindling of our protective ozone layer, it is intriguing to see how we dealt with a threat that seemed as apocalyptic then as climate change does today. Ozone depletion, caused by CFC chemicals used in fridges and deodorants, was not contained through individual sacrifice. We were not asked to sell our Hotpoint freezers or go smelly to the office. Governments and industries agreed to replace CFCs with safe substitutes. So there was no need for an army of self-appointed greenies to sniff our armpits to check if they were suspiciously non-malodorous. The crisis was contained at an industrial, not a consumer, level, as it should be with greenhouse gases.

Climate change is a bigger, more pernicious problem and will require broader, more intense efforts to cut back on carbon emissions, which, in turn, offers more opportunities for campaigners and politicians to hijack a sound cause to gain control of people’s lives. ‘That is the striking thing about global warming,’ says Myles Allen, of Oxford’s climate dynamics group. ‘It is a Christmas tree on which each of us can hang virtually everything we want.’

Thus, everyone from EU commissioners and Ken Livingstone to parish councils and writers of green-ink letters now uses global warming as an excuse to tell us how to live. Some of this advice, and attempts at lifestyle control, is sound. Some is not. Either way, it is misplaced. The lead must come from government and industry. So far it hasn’t. That is incompetence. Not conspiracy.

As evidence, see a story in the next day’s Guardian about Justin Rowlatt, BBC correspondent who lived an “ethical” life for a year.

The report that the hoodie with the pitbull saw dismayed many diehard green viewers, and resulted in protests because Rowlatt and the team had flown to Jamaica to make a film about carbon off-setting. Hardliners tore Rowlatt to pieces on his blog for selling out and using “a cheap stunt” to illustrate his report. He was taken to task for, among other things, “ill-conceived frivolity” and being “unethical and irresponsible”.

He says: “We knew that flying to Jamaica was provocative and that people will sit at home and think ‘That’s outrageous! He’s on a beach in Jamaica sipping a cocktail!’ But it seems the people who responded to the blog were outraged almost on a personal level and thought that the pollution incurred by my flight was a crime. The level of anger reflects a strain of really militant green people who are almost religious in their devotion to the cause.”