Why Cameron is wrong to get so defensive about flooding

07 Feb 2014

Flooding in Morpeth

I am beginning to feel sorry for Lord Chris Smith, and not just because the chairman of the Environment Agency is rather busy at the moment.

Earlier this week, Smith penned an eminently sensible column for the Daily Telegraph defending the Environment Agency's efforts to protect the UK from the latest wave of extreme weather and arguing that the country's approach to flood protection may have to change in the future. For his trouble he has now received a public rebuke from both the prime minister and the communities secretary.

What could Smith have possibly written to justify such criticism at a time when you would expect the government to be lining up to support the agency tasked with dealing with the immediate problem of rising flood waters? After all, Smith resisted the temptation to complain about the way in which his agency is facing job cuts, including to some of the teams that work on flood management. He also opted not to provoke climate sceptic Telegraph readers or environment secretaries by pointing out that flood risks will increase as climate impacts take hold. Instead, he made the rather uncontroversial point that "difficult choices" would have to be made in the future about which areas to protect from flooding. "There's no bottomless purse," he wrote, sounding not unlike a coalition minister seeking to justify unpopular spending cuts. "We need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect."

How could such a bland truism possibly merit public criticism from the upper echelons of the government? Hasn't mankind been choosing which areas to protect from floods ever since it worked out how to build the first levee? Well, Smith's mistake – if you can call it that – was his decision to illustrate the point with a rhetorical flourish.

"Rules from successive governments give the highest priority to lives and homes; and I think most people would agree that this is the right approach," he wrote. "But this involves tricky issues of policy and priority: town or country, front rooms or farmland?" That, apparently, was enough to trigger a public dressing down from the prime minister.

Now anyone with even a passing understanding of how a newspaper column works would immediately recognise what Smith was trying to say and why he was using hyperbole to make his point. I'd wager not a single Telegraph reader put down their paper on Monday morning and exclaimed "my word, a chap here is recommending we abandon all farmland to flooding".

Unfortunately, David Cameron does not appear to understand the conventions of the newspaper column and as such the prime minister aimed thinly veiled criticism at Smith on Wednesday, telling the Commons that "there shouldn't be a false choice between protecting the town and protecting people in the countryside". Eric Pickles – standing in for Owen Paterson in the Commons yesterday after the environment secretary required emergency surgery on his eye – made the criticism more explicit, stating unequivocally: "We will work to defend both town and country. For the record, I do not agree with the comments of Lord Smith who implied there is a choice between the two."

Of course, wilfully misunderstanding someone to make a cheap political point and divert attention from underlying issues does not really constitute news any more. But this latest footnote in the long-running saga that is the government's cavalier approach to flood risk is still worth highlighting, as it goes to the heart of all that is wrong with both the coalition's flood policy and its wider climate adaptation strategy.

Smith may not have mentioned climate change in his column (and in my view he should have done), but his uncontroversial assertion that we will face increasingly tough choices on flood defence spending simply echoes the warnings climate scientists have been making for years. Smith's warning was just a gentler version of Professor Colin Thorne's prediction last month that rising sea levels and climate change meant the Somerset Levels could not be defended between now and the end of the century. If climate projections are accurate, parts of the UK will succumb to the waves, just as other parts of the world will succumb to crippling droughts and increasingly deadly storms. We are kidding ourselves to pretend otherwise.

It is understandable that a prime minister keen to win marginal seats at an imminent election does not want to tell parts of the country that they cannot expect to receive indefinite protection from the rising tides. Understandable, but also misleading and more than a little cowardly.

The fact is that if climate scientists are even half right in their predictions (and remember, unlike some of his climate sceptic colleagues, David Cameron has repeatedly said he is confident they are much more than half right), extreme weather and climate resilience will become two of the defining issues of our age – the depressing flipside to the more positive defining issue that is the emergence of a low-carbon and sustainable economy. Responsible political leaders should be engaging with this tough reality, not ducking away from it.

We know with a high degree of confidence that sea levels will increase over the course of this century, flood risks will rise, as will drought risks – long-term investment and infrastructure decisions will need to be made with these projections firmly in mind. "Difficult choices" will indeed have to be made. To consider just one relevant example, the coastal rail line near Dawlish will eventually become unviable if rising sea levels continue and storms intensify.

Businesses understand that they are increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather risks and are making investments to their infrastructure and supply chains to improve their resilience. But when the prime minister willfully misinterprets a legitimate warning about the UK's future climate resilience and the communities secretary sets out flood protection plans without once mentioning the words "climate change", it is fair to ask whether the government is taking its responsibilities seriously?

Yesterday's new funding announcements were welcome, even if the plans for new flood defence schemes appear to have ignored the south west. But the charge sheet against the government's flood strategy is now worryingly long. Ministers may be spinning furiously to show that flood spending has increased fractionally when this parliament is set against the last parliament, but Labour is right when it says that spending this year will still be below the level recorded in the final year of the last government. Spending was cut by the coalition at a time when numerous independent experts advised that it should be increasing. The promise of increased funding during the second half of the decade is hugely welcome, as is the new funding to repair damaged defences, but it is a long way short of what plenty of scientific advisors reckon is needed if we are to protect every household and business from excessive flood risks.

Add in the failure to account for climate change in the FloodRe insurance scheme, the cuts to the Environment Agency flood management teams, the move to axe regular progress reports on the Pitt Review of flood management, the decision to remove councils' duty to prepare for climate change impacts, and the scaling back of Defra's climate adaptation team, and it is no surprise the coalition's insistence it is doing all it can to help flood afflicted communities rings more than a little hollow.

The fact is the government put a man who does not think climate change is a serious threat to the UK in charge of climate adaptation, cut the budgets of the departments and agencies tasked with leading the UK's response to climate risks, and is now insisting it is doing its upmost to protect the country from precisely the kind of weather climate scientists have warned will become increasingly prevalent. I doubt flooded businesses and communities will appreciate the irony – not to mention the local economies of those parts of the country now facing massive disruption.

Flooding will always happen from time to time. But the public response to climate impacts is a bit like a football fan's response to an unfortunate defeat – if you see everyone trying their damndest to succeed then you are more likely to forgive them if things don't quite work out, but if some players are clearly not trying or have not prepared properly then you are likely to be much less impressed. The stance of Paterson towards climate warnings and the decision of the coalition to cut flood defence budgets has burnt through much of the sympathy the public may have for ministers wrestling with extremely challenging events.

Politicians who profess to take climate change seriously, including the leaders of the three main parties, have a responsibility to do precisely that. Specifically with regards to flooding, that means finding a way, even within a tough fiscal climate, to provide flood protection funding that increases as flood risk increases. Just as it means undertaking a complete overhaul of upland catchment management to hold more water back in the hills and accepting that some areas cannot and should not be protected indefinitely from escalating flood risks. More generally it means properly integrating climate risk into infrastructure decisions and being brave enough to dispense with platitudes and admit to voters that these risks will continue to increase. It also means engaging properly with legitimate warnings about future climate risks and ensuring that those ministers tasked with leading climate adaptation efforts understand that it is work of national importance.

This government probably deserves a bit more credit than it gets for its (still at times imperfect) efforts to build a low-carbon economy, but the criticism it is facing over its approach to climate resilience is fully merited – in fact, I'm surprised the government and the media haven't been even more vocal in their condemnation. Unfortunately for all of us, there is nothing "false" about the difficult choices the government will have to make to bolster the UK's climate resilience. The prime minister's argument that the government has been doing all it can to tackle escalating flood risks is about as watertight as Dawlish's sea wall.

Celebrating Good Corp

30 Jan 2014

BusinessGreen Leaders Awards 2014

In the introduction to his excellent new book, Cancel the Apocalypse - The New Path to Prosperity, Andrew Simms paints a picture of a country called Goodland. It is, as the name suggests, a pretty impressive place. It has a law "enshrining protection of its life-supporting ecosystems", its cities are green and healthy, and it boasts beautiful, low cost and environmentally friendly housing developments. It has a dynamic local banking system and a plan to phase out fossil fuels, as well a commitment to focus on policies that improve human well-being rather than fixate on blunt economic growth metrics. Oh, and the president gives away 90 per cent of his salary.

It sounds pretty utopian for a book that has the word "apocalypse" in the title, but as Simms explains "Goodland exists. It is just a little, well, spread out". "Each of the positive aspects of nationhood and urban character described above can already be enjoyed in the real world," he adds. "Just not yet all in the same place."

For example, Bolivia has a "Mother Earth Law" that requires all legislation to respect the "ecological limits set by nature", while cities from New York to Ghent and Freiburg to Havana are pioneering new thinking in green town planning. Germany's ability to insulate itself against the worst of the economic crash is partly attributed to the fact 70 per cent of its banking sector is based around small or community banks. Meanwhile, Nicaragua has committed to a near complete phase out of fossil fuels and Bhutan has famously pursued the idea of measuring Gross National Happiness. Even Goodland's putative President exists in the form of Uruguay's Jose Mujica and his commitment to "live on about £450 per month with a presidential guard comprising two policemen and three-legged dog".

But if there is a Goodland, then there is also a Good Corp. No single company has yet developed a successful operating model that is environmentally sustainable in the truest sense of the word (although it is fair to say there are plenty of individual organisations that are much closer to genuine sustainability than any individual nation). But there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of companies that have already embraced the technologies and techniques that will one day deliver a truly green, sustainable, efficient, and innovative economy.

The trick now is ensuring these highly innovative clean technologies and business models are refined, improved, scaled up and priced down so that they can be deployed across the corporate world as quickly as possible. That is precisely where we hope BusinessGreen, and more specifically the BusinessGreen Leaders Awards, which we launched this week, can play a small but important role.

In highlighting the very best of the green economy - the inspirational leaders, the pioneering clean tech projects, the most innovative entrepreneurs - we want to demonstrate to all business leaders and policymakers that Good Corp is out there. At a time when the business community is facing more than its fair share of condemnation (some of it sadly justified), these awards aim to show how responsible firms can play an absolutely critical role in tackling the huge environmental challenges we face and help build a more resilient and successful economy.

But if we are to demonstrate that Good Corp exists then we need your help. All too often green businesses have a tendency to hide their light under a bushel, rarely touting their achievements, even when they represent a giant leap forward from the unsustainable business models that preceded the economic crisis. If clean technologies and sustainable business practices are to break fully into the mainstream this reticence needs to end. As such, we want to hear from you.

Now in their fourth year, the BusinessGreen Leaders Awards are free to enter and if your organisation prides itself on its green performance then there is bound to be a suitable category for you. We want to demonstrate the huge success Good Corp has enjoyed in the past year, but to do that we need your help.

EU 2030 climate package confirms green growth is here to stay

22 Jan 2014

European Central Bank at night

Ask yourself this: Who should be happier about the EU's proposed 2030 energy and climate strategy, the chief executive of a coal company or the chairman of a wind turbine manufacturer? Does this package favour the manufacturer of gas-guzzling SUVs or the pioneer in electric vehicles? Does the promise of a new emission target for the EU suit investors in fossil fuels or investors in clean technology? As the architects of a previous project in European integration once asked - cui bono?

To me the answers to these questions are obvious. The European Commission and its most powerful member states have sent a pretty unequivocal signal that despite the biggest crisis in the bloc's history they remain committed to decarbonising the continent's economy by embracing cleaner technologies and business models. They accept the immense risks presented by climate change and the economic damage caused by footing the bill for billions of Euros of fossil fuel imports. They have done the economic modelling and concluded, with good reason, that a low carbon economic transition can be achieved at a manageable short term cost and in a way that unleashes significant long term benefits. They are telling business leaders and investors that throughout the 2020s the EU will continue to deliver sizeable annual emission reductions, will continue to increase its reliance on renewables, and will continue to push up the cost of carbon for fossil fuel companies.

And yet to judge by some of the reaction from green business groups and NGOs you would think the EU had just torched its climate commitments and sent its environmental credentials up in smoke. The Commission has become "a shadow of its former self", complained the European Wind Energy Association. It was "a depressing day for Europe", said the European Alliance to Save Energy (EU-ASE). The White Paper contains "a set of proposals that will satisfy almost no one", observed Greenpeace, with a considerable degree of prescience.

These reactions are, in many ways, justified. Given the scale of the climate change threat the EU's targets are nowhere near ambitious enough. With scientists recommending the EU should be aiming for emission reductions of more than 50 per cent by 2030 to reduce the risk of dangerous climate impacts, the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change are being generous when they say 40 per cent represents the "minimum level of ambition" that we need. The weak renewables target may make sense as a compromise with those who argue technology specific targets are economically inefficient, but it also dilutes an important long term driver of investment in technologies that could deliver low cost energy in the future. The refusal to deliver clearer and more ambitious targets for energy efficiency is little short of insane given everyone agrees it represent the most cost-effective means of reducing emissions. In this context it is easy to understand the anger and frustration felt by many within the green economy, particularly when you consider what is at stake.

But while green businesses and NGOs need to be aware of the new framework's weaknesses and should continue to call for them to be addressed, fixating solely on the problems with the package risks diluting the impact of the positive clean tech investment signals the EU's new proposals send.

Ultimately, officials in Brussels cannot click their fingers and magically guarantee that emissions are cut by 40 per cent of 50 per cent in 16 years' time. As Green Alliance's Alastair Harper argued yesterday all policymakers in a democracy can ever do is try to steer investment away from high carbon infrastructure and towards low carbon alternatives. In this respect, the new framework sends some strong signals that low carbon investment is the way forward - the EU's emission reduction trajectory will be steepened during the 2020s; investment in renewables, particularly in those countries who want a legally binding target, will continue; the environmental regulations governing new fracking projects will have to be tighter than the industry's cheerleaders think; and the overarching business case for clean technologies will be strengthened. Anyone doubting this should look at Thomson Reuters Point Carbon's early analysis of the Commission's proposed reforms to the EU emissions trading scheme and their prediction the average price of carbon will stand at €35 between 2019 and 2030 - still not high enough, but a big leap in the right direction.

The Guardian's Damian Carrington today rightly characterised the EU's proposals as a classic case of the glass being half full - given the still bleak economic backdrop in many EU countries the targets were stronger than many expected, but were still far short of what is needed. However, it is the job of green businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs to see the half full side of the glass, not least because the only way the EU can deliver the green economic growth and deeper cuts in emissions that are required is for innovators to develop even more cost effective clean technologies and even more competitive green business models that will allow the bloc to again far exceed the targets set for 2030.

As the recent rapid reduction in the cost of renewable energy technologies and the emergence of ultra-efficient new buildings and vehicles proves, such over-achievement is entirely possible. But it will only be realised if those business leaders who are committed to the green economy refuse to be disheartened by the fact that the European Commission's policies could and should be better.

Instead they should return to those original questions about whether it is the green economy or the high carbon economy who are the long term winners from today's announcements. Apologists for the unsustainable and carbon intensive status quo may be celebrating this evening having secured some watering down of the Commission's more ambitious proposals, but their celebrations look more like a retirement party than a coming of age. With the prospect of at least a 40 per cent cut in emissions within 16 years and a carbon price of €35 plus I'd much rather be the boss of a renewable energy company than the boss of a coal company. Savvy investors will realise that today's announcements represent confirmation that in the depths of an economic crisis Europe's leaders, including its most powerful economies, remain committed to decarbonisation. This decarbonisation might not be happening fast enough, but increasingly the smart money is focused on making it happen faster, not slowing it down.

The battle for the future of Europe's green economy is not won yet. Months of negotiations await and even if the Commission's proposals were adopted exactly as they stand they still fall a long way short of what is required. But these proposals provide a further boost to clean tech investor confidence and a further signal that, despite all the protestations from the right wing media, policymakers remain convinced that the low carbon transition is in their electorates' best interests.

Cui bono? All of us, that's who.

A challenge to the UK shale gas industry

13 Jan 2014

Gasometer

With a crushing predictability the Prime Minister's confirmation the UK is "going all out for shale gas" has sparked a fiercely divided reaction, as battle lines have once again been drawn between whose who wish to see a moratorium on all fracking everywhere and those who insist onshore oil and gas offers a panacea to our myriad economic, energy, and environmental woes. Meanwhile, those who argue that it is still too early to determine whether shale gas is either hero, villain, distraction or non-event have once again struggled to make their voices heard.

This more nuanced analysis is centred on two arguments, both of which make the shale gas industry cheerleading currently being undertaken by the Prime Minister and the industry look both premature and irresponsible.

The first is that the UK's shale gas potential is being over-hyped to a ridiculous degree. As numerous commentators, including former BP boss and Cuadrilla chairman Lord Browne have pointed out the UK's embryonic shale gas industry will have to deliver a "gigantic amount of gas" if it is to have a "material impact on price". The industry will have to overcome rapid well decline rates, local opposition to developments, and other technical challenges if it is to make good on government ministers' hugely optimistic predictions. Many critics maintain shale gas is more likely to provide a marginal addition to the UK's energy mix - which doesn't necessarily mean we shouldn't explore its potential, but certainly means we should resist the temptation for it to distract us from the pressing task of delivering a new low carbon energy infrastructure. As the CBI's Nicola Walker declared this morning, "it will not be the silver bullet that solves all our energy needs".

The second, and in many ways more important argument, is that if the industry's optimistic projections prove well-founded and the UK can deliver a "gigantic amount" of domestic gas then it runs straight into serious debate about the scale of both its local environmental and global climate change impacts. The government's most recent report on the UK fracking industry may have been seized upon by Ministers as further evidence that the sector presents an "exciting prospect" for the UK, but it also detailed how under a "high activity" scenario the industry would have to wrestle with "significant negative effects", including "an increase in traffic congestion, emissions and more pressure on water resources".

Today's announcements on business rates, community benefits, and Michael Fallon's erroneous assertion that a "robust" regulatory framework will only allow fracking to go ahead if it is "absolutely safe" (as I've argued before, no energy technology is "absolutely safe", the risks might be deemed acceptable, but it is misleading to suggest they don't exist) has to be seen in this context. The shale gas industry can only deliver on the scale that Conservative Ministers hope if people can be convinced that its "significant negative effects" are both minimised and not that bad after all. The promise of "community benefits" or "bribes", depending on your point of view, is clearly designed to tilt the scales of public opinion in favour of fracking.

Despite intense local and national protests against fracking, this political decontamination strategy may just work. The scale of the community benefits on offer, coupled with the promise of tough environmental regulations and safeguards could be enough to allow some projects to proceed in the next few years. If they then prove successful, it will prove extremely difficult for a cash-strapped government to resist the urge to expand the industry.

However, as the shale gas sector today attempts to reinvigorate its attempts to win over the communities, politicians, and business leaders who will ultimately determine whether it can establish itself as a large scale industry it is still failing to address legitimate concerns about its climate impacts.

As a climate hawk, I'd argue it is these climate impacts that should ultimately determine the future of the UK's shale gas industry. Yes, local environmental impacts are important and projects should only more forward at appropriate locations where these impacts are minimised. But all forms of energy generation have local impacts, be it the visual impact of wind farms, the air pollution impact of coal and gas plants, or the water impact of gas wells on the Russian Steppes or the American plains. If the UK is going to continue to use gas for the foreseeable future, and like it or not we are, there will be local environmental impacts somewhere. It is nimbyism to argue they should not be here.

However, if the UK shale gas industry can mount a strong argument that local environmental impacts can and will be minimised, the argument it can aid decarbonisation and is definitely compatible with UK, EU, and global climate change goals is far more questionable. This argument was neatly summarised today by shale gas developer Igas' Andrew Austin, who told The Guardian, "the enemy in this agenda is coal. Shale gas is the same as any other form of natural gas. If you use that locally you're supporting decarbonising, you're displacing coal and you're supporting renewables". It is an argument that has been trotted out time and again by shale gas industry supporters. Gas is less carbon intensive than coal, they argue, it can cut emissions by replacing coal while providing back-up for intermittent renewable energy sources, and can then be decarbonised further in the future through carbon capture and storage technology. The problem is, as far as I can see, the industry is doing next to nothing to make sure this environmentally responsible emissions reduction scenario comes about.

Far from replacing coal, the government's most recent report warned there were no guarantees UK shale gas would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and there was a very real chance it would lead to a net increase. It concluded that any increase in domestic shale gas production would most likely "result in substitution for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), with a negligible effect on overall emissions". Moreover, if this LNG is then shipped elsewhere, as it almost certainly would be, then global emissions would increase. It is depressing that this still needs pointing out, but if you extract and burn more fossil fuels you tend to get more greenhouse gas emissions.

The key point is that if the UK shale gas industry wants to be taken seriously as a player in the transition to a genuine low carbon economy - and there are people inside both the industry and government who sincerely claim they want this to be the case - then it has to offer much firmer assurances that it will indeed enable a sharp net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

On the policy front that means explicit and unequivocal support for a power sector decarbonisation target for 2030, a clear endorsement of the current fourth carbon budget and its stretching target for the mid-2020s, public backing for the UK's push for a more demanding EU emissions reduction target and reform of the emissions trading scheme that would push up the carbon price, even stronger regulations governing methane leakage and flaring, and the launch of a community benefit style fund to ensure the UK shale gas industry provides support for CCS demonstration projects.

The fact that the UK shale gas industry has failed to take an overtly public stance on any of these issues tells you all you need to know about its commitment to aiding the UK's decarbonisation efforts. Compare the industry's promotion of its community benefits pilot and its lobbying for a supportive tax and planning regime with its near complete silence on climate change policy and it is clear that shale gas' promised emissions reductions need to be taken with the proverbial truck load of salt.

As I've argued before there may be a case for some fracking in the UK, but if we are really to go "all out" for shale gas then the industry and government need to demonstrate much more convincingly how a large scale domestic gas industry makes sense at a time when the UK has less than 20 years to decarbonise much of its economy. We need stronger safeguards to ensure UK shale gas helps rather than hinders decarbonisation, and until we have them it will remain all but impossible for green businesses and NGOs to support UK fracking.

The world does not end in 2100

10 Jan 2014

arctic

Back when I was an English Literature undergraduate (I know, I am yet another under-qualified humanities student writing about science and technology; I am part of the problem, I get it) I spent about six months completing a course on African-American literature. It was one of those courses that would give Niall Ferguson palpitations: the primary focus, beyond familiarising students with some amazing and criminally neglected literature, was on the manner in which African-American cultural products, from Frederick Douglass to Jay-Z, were informed by the economic and political context in which they were produced.

As such the course explored numerous texts that highlighted two underappreciated, yet incontestable, realities. The first was the manner in which the horrors of slavery were experienced, albeit in searingly different ways, by all Americans, and by extension the whole world. The brutal system of slavery - as powerfully demonstrated in Solomon Northup's testimony, the memoir that provides the basis for Steve McQueen's soon to be released 12 Year's a Slave - provided the foundations for American and European economic growth and was interwoven into every aspect of existence at the time, however opaque the links may at times have appeared. It is a fact oft-highlighted by the analysis of how Bristol's 18th and 19th century success was based on plantation wealth or the observations about the number of US presidents who owned slaves. But a reading of both the canonical and neglected literature from the period serves to emphasise the all-encompassing nature of this appalling system in a way historical documents often struggle to do so.

The second reality was the way in which events from the 17th, 18th and 19th century have swept through history and generations in a way that is still painfully evident today. When you think about it, it is almost perverse that discussions about US inequality so rarely acknowledge that we are only a handful of generations on from emancipation proclamation of 1863. So many of the socio-economic challenges faced by the US, not to mention Africa and Europe, have their roots in that benighted, dehumanising system of exploitation and brutality - this fact is so self-evident that it is bizarre that it needs mentioning and yet the topic is barely mentioned in modern political and economic debates. Equally, countless cultural texts and the tropes they explore have been and are still being informed by this history, with patterns, techniques, and genres echoing through the ages. There are numerous examples, but perhaps the most well-known is the manner in which spirituals informed blues and jazz, which have in turn gave us hip-hop, before it came to shape all modern pop music.

I distinctly recall our lecturer at the time highlighting the historic proximity of slavery by demonstrating how the great grandparents, and perhaps even grandparents, of the grandparents of our almost universally white English Literature class would almost certainly have worn cotton picked by slaves. Someone born in 1920 and alive today may well have known elderly relatives born in the 1850s who either directly or indirectly experienced US slavery.

The reason I've been thinking a lot about a lecture theatre from 10 years ago is that the past few months has seen the climate change debate informed by what I regard as a highly dubious fixation on short term concerns - and by short term I mean up to 2100.

A lot has been written in the past about the tactical and strategic lessons environmentalists can learn from successful campaigns for socio-economic transformation, such as emancipation, universal suffrage, and civil rights. But what these analyses often fail to emphasise is the way in which the success or failure of these campaigns is felt decades and centuries later.

Just to be absolutely clear I am categorically not arguing that there is an equivalence between the current carbon reliant economic system and the economic systems underpinned by slavery, sexual discrimination, or apartheid. Environmentalists can learn a lot from previous economic transitions and humanitarian campaigns, just as they can learn a lot from the industrial mobilisation achieved during the war years, but the parallels are not exact. Decarbonisation is not the same as ending slavery, just as it is not the same as mobilising for war, despite the tendency of some environmentalists to equate the green economy with these historic events.

However, there are similarities in the way that the implications of historic industrial, economic, legal, and political revolutions are measured using timescales that run into decades and centuries, not just the next quarter or the next political cycle.

When it comes to climate change, this historical perspective is hugely important and oft-ignored. The vast majority of climate models run through to 2100 and warn that we face hugely damaging warming of between 4-6C unless urgent action is taken to curb global emissions with almost immediate effect. Throw in the "known unknowns" that could materialise in the form of runaway climate change trigger points and the last few decades of this century could end up looking extremely bleak. But the world will not end in 2100. Unless we get a handle on climate change in the next few decades we risk bequeathing the next century environmental challenges so great they will make our current problems look like the Garden of Eden. The relatively few projections that have been done for the 22nd Century based on business as normal emissions suggest that climate change and ocean acidification could leave generations just a few decades hence with a biosphere only science fiction directors would recognise.

Does any of this matter? None of us will be around to see it and we all know that economists discount future generations. Besides, some of the short term impacts of climate change may actually benefit us, as everyone's favourite climate contrarians keep arguing.

Well, I'd argue it does matter. It really matters.

First, some of us will see it. As I've argued before, if I live as long as my eldest grandfather I will see the 2070s. A child born today, and you'll probably each have your own young relative to think of here, has a good chance of seeing the turn of the century. The future is unknowable, but it is generationally true that many of the grandchildren of my coevals will be able to remember us in 2150. In this context, I'm not sure how much the precise year that we get an ice free Arctic Sea matters if scientific projections are right and it is a likely occurence at some point in the decades hence.

Writing about HS2 recently, Times columnist Matthew Parris expressed his bemusement of the attitude of those in late middle age who dismiss the project on the grounds that they will never be able to ride on it, as if there is no merit in infrastructure that will benefit future generations. As the famous Ancient Greek proverb goes: "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never see". Exactly the same argument stands as one of the primary reasons why urgent action to tackle climate change is not just economically sensible, but morally essential.

This is one of the main reasons I find those arguments that accept manmade climate change is happening, but insist we should relax because some climate impacts may benefit us, because we are uncertain about the precise nature of the impacts, or because a silver bullet technology will make it easier to combat in the future so flawed. Not only are they guilty of blatant cherry-picking from climate models to support their case, but they operate on the reckless assumption that in just a few decades time we will somehow solve this problem and we need not worry about it too much in the meantime. We are being asked to play Russian Roulette and the point at which we get to pull the trigger isn't even that far away. Even if the suggestion climate change benefits outweigh costs through to the 2060s is valid - and there are plenty of scientists and economists who argue that it is not in any way valid - many of us will still be alive in 2070. I'm not sure about anyone else, but I don't really want to live through the results of an experiment on the biosphere during my last few years on this mortal coil.

Of course, advocates of this relaxed approach to climate change would argue that something will turn up to address the problem and in the meantime the current generation must take primacy and we must do all we can to help poor and vulnerable communities now, including by giving them access to low cost dirty power. There is some genuine merit in this argument, but it rather ignores the fact many of these communities are already being impacted by climate change, they would prefer cost effective clean power (a reality in many parts of the world) over dirty power, and regardless of short term concerns absolutely no one will thank our generation if the worst case climate scenarios prove even halfway accurate. Moreover, simply hoping that the technology fairy will save us is the very height of recklessness when the stakes are so high.

Does this matter to businesses, particularly when they face such intense short term challenges? Well, it matters to those businesses that have been around for decades and want to be around in decades hence. There are many great corporate institutions that were founded during the last industrial revolution and want to prosper during the next industrial revolution. There are even some that played a role in either prolonging or challenging slavery, much as they may like to now forget that part of their history. Virtually all businesses will want to still be around in the 22nd century. Moreover, any political or business leader who puts any truck in the concept of legacy - and don't they all? - must realise that where they stand on climate change has the potential to echo through the ages.

There are numerous short to medium term reasons why the world should mobilise urgently to build a low carbon economy. BusinessGreen reports on them every day and they include, but are not limited to, the need to minimise the climate impacts we will experience in the next few decades, the health benefits associated with cleaner air, water and soil, the economic benefits associated with resource efficiency, energy efficiency, and less volatile energy sources, the commercial gains that will come from new green technologies, and the humanitarian benefits that could be realised through a more sustainable agricultural system and better fisheries management. But there is also a compelling long term reason for action that can best be articulated by a simple question: How do you want the students of the 2150s to remember us?