Climate Change Denial

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October 19, 2007


George Marshall @ 12:00 am

We heard this week that the government wants us to drink long life UHT milk because it is better for the climate. The reporting of this trivial proposal says much the denial strategies we are adopting to avoid real action.

This is the source. In a leaked report the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) proposes that British consumers should be encouraged to follow other Europeans in choosing heat-treated UHT milk. It alleges that there could be a substantial  environmental gain because UHT milk does not require refrigeration.

This is all tosh. Supermarket fridges are already chock full of things that don’t need to be there. Ten years ago Proctor and Gamble set a precedent by insisting that supermarkets had to stock Sunny D, a goopy allegedly-orange kids drink, in the chill cabinets even though it was so sterile you could use it to dress wounds. The rocketing sales proved that consumers associated coolness with freshness. Now supermarkets cool anything they can including fruit, potatoes and pasteurised fruit juices. You’d better believe they’d put the UHT in there too.

And I’d bet that UHT is way worse that fresh milk in loads of other ways. Once something can be preserved it can be shipped in from wherever in the world offers the lowest wholesale price. Once again small British family farms will be unable to compete with huge agribusiness estates on the other side of the world. None of this sounds environmental to me and I’ll bet that the total emissions prove it.

But none of this is particularly relevant to climate change anyway. The emissions involved in trucking or cooling milk may be large in aggregate but are tiny in terms of an average person’s emissions. And, in any case, they are dwarfed by the methane emissions from the cows.

Not that you would ever guess this from the milky froth generated in the British newspapers. Regardless of their editorial leaning all newspapers and columnists took the same line- don’t lecture us about what to do. So the leader of the right wing Daily Mail warns the government “Don’t Nanny Us”. Philip Hensher in the liberal Independent says “People are always going to weigh up saving the planet against the benefits of their ordinary pleasures.”

Now this story is not news by any definition- it is, after all, a tentative and irrelevant suggestion hidden inside a minor internal report. The newsworthiness has been generated because it fits so neatly into a powerful and familiar trope: ‘zealots’ under the pretext of ‘saving the planet’ want to take away our ‘little luxuries’.

People are now being offered a range of ready formed and well constructed arguments to avoid (or at least stave off) taking any action on climate change.  They are offered evidence that it is a lie, that it is politically motivated scare, that it has been exaggerated, and that it might be a good thing. 

But this argument is, I fear, the most dangerous. It does not refute the reality or seriousness of the problem. Only a fool would. Nor does it deny that we should take action to reduce emissions. But by trivialising the solutions and presenting them as impositions by do-gooders it helps to reject the need to change.

Like so many of our denial strategies it is the defense of an addict. I knew an alcoholic once who used to rail with indignation at the self righteous po-faced party-pooping do-gooders who were trying to take away the little pleasures that made his life such fun.

Of course he’s dead now.

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