Like one of those characters from the old Warner Brothers' cartoons stumbling from one painful disaster to the next Tony Blair has once again walked into a controversy of his own making with his counterproductive and misguided thoughts last night on how science will tackle climate change and allow us all to continue to take guilt free long haul flights.
Speaking on Sky News for its week long series on Green Britain, the prime minister defended his penchant for environmentally damaging long haul holidays by trotting out the old chestnut about technology and science being a better way of tackling climate change than getting people to change their behaviour and take fewer flights.
"I personally think these things are a bit impractical actually to expect people to do that," he said, before adding that "I think that what we need to do is to look at how you make air travel more energy efficient, how you develop new fuels that will allow us to burn less energy and emit less. How – for example – in the new frames for the aircraft, they are far more energy efficient."
His comments may have directly addressed the issue of air travel but they are in danger of being interpreted as a broader philosophical position – namely that science will save us from climate change.
This is a high risk philosophy for both businesses and individuals to adopt as it implies that tackling global warming is an either/or equation between changing behaviour and changing technologies, rather than a problem requiring a combination of both approaches. The flip side of Blair's assumption that technology will bail us out is that no action is required by anyone except engineers and scientists – his comments are perfectly designed to encourage complacency.
The problem with predictions of a technological panacea for climate change is that they have the ring of truth. Scientific developments will indeed be central to any fight against climate change. But it is an act of faith rather than reason to predict they will be so successful that nothing else needs to change.
As Jared Diamond points out in his excellent book on environmental sustainability Collapse new technologies have a nasty way of having unintended negative consequences. He points to the motor car as a development that was originally considered clean and efficient when it replaced horse drawn traffic only for us to finally realise years later that it had dangerous environmental consequences.
A similarly unintended negative impact can be seen occurring with the lighter, more fuel efficient aircraft that Blair holds up as a solution to global warming. It is well known that low budget airlines such as Ryanair operate newer, cleaner aircraft than their larger rivals, but their improved fuel efficiency is one of the factors that has allowed them to offer very cheap flights that encourage millions more of us to fly than would otherwise have been the case. The net impact is that emissions have risen and will continue to do so as the low budget market expands.
The other problem with placing sole faith in technology is that even when a new technology is scientifically feasible it can take decades to develop and then reach the mainstream. Renewable energy technologies have been around for decades but are still a long way from widespread adoption; cavity wall insulation has been around for almost as long as walls and still most homes don't have it.
Again, looking at Blair's aircraft example, many scientists believe that Richard Branson's plans to develop bio-fuel powered aircraft are unfeasible and would have little impact on climate change. Even assuming it is possible to develop green aircraft we are decades away from doing so and major advances will be needed if we are to make any transition before the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached catastrophic levels.
Blair defended his position by claiming no politician was ever going to come out and run for office by saying people should not fly.
But this statement, while true, displays a complete disregard for the prime minister's responsibility as an elected official. The government has to deal daily with activities that people are quite rightly free to pursue, despite the fact that the net impact on the long-term national interest is negative.
Smoking and drinking are just two examples of activities that, just like flying, give people pleasure and provide a short term boost to the economy, but in the longer term cause damage to individuals and society. The government would, quite rightly, never ban them, but invests millions letting us know they are not ideal and passes legislation to make them more expensive, before leaving us to make our own decision.
Blair insisted that you couldn't instruct people to fly less as it would be "like telling people you shouldn’t drive anywhere". But members of his government are close to doing exactly that - trying to influence where people drive through the congestion charge and current plan for road pricing.
There is no reason why a similar political strategy should not be employed with air travel, which the scientific community now firmly believes fits into this same model of providing short term economic gains that are more than offset by longer term environmental and economic damage.
We all hope Blair's faith in science is well founded, and indeed many of us share his belief, but such wooly-minded reasoning only encourages everyone to sit on their laurels. Publicly committing himself to this science will save us school of thought, while simultaneously distancing himself from the need for firms and individuals to modify their behaviour, will go down as yet another act of gross irresponsibility from the twilight years of the Blair government.
How many environmentally-minded organisations could now see their attempts to cut down on corporate air travel undermined by the Prime Minister saying it is "impractical" for them to do so?
Imagine if you will the CSR and IT manager at a large firm who this very morning are preparing to pitch to their CEO and CFO an expensive new video conferencing system and travel policy designed to slash the number of corporate trips the board takes.
"It's a nice idea" says the CEO. "But I saw Tony Blair on TV last night and he said new light weight aircraft would solve the problem..."
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