Time for a naked protest against global cant and in support of Jeremy Clarkson
I was all set to join some of my more liberated neighbours on York’s Naked Bike Ride last Friday, until I discovered that it was yet another protest against ‘global oil dependency’. The debate about climate change, carbon emissions and who is doing what to the planet has reached such a fever pitch of self-righteousness and middle-class guilt that it is time for sensible people to start backpedalling. The first thing that made me want to launch my own naked protest against global cant was the pronouncement by Dr Antonio Filippone of Manchester University that if half a million drivers attach England flags to their cars for the duration of the World Cup, the extra fuel consumed because of the drag factor will generate an additional 2.8 million kilogrammes of carbon dioxide. It was brave of Tessa Jowell to fly her flags on the ministerial limo anyway (perhaps she hasn’t got much to lose these days) and characteristically slick of both Cameron and Blair to find carbon-neutral alternative ways to fly theirs, respectively on a bicycle and up a Downing Street flagpole. It is only surprising that these manoeuvres were not followed up by a report from a centre-Left think tank — swiftly endorsed by ‘Treasury sources’ — proposing a new car-flag tax. There is, after all, an established principle that it is easiest to tax the things that the public can be persuaded are harmful as well as pleasurable, even though the tax raised is rarely spent repairing the supposed harm caused.
Then there is the continuing row between Sir Jonathon Porritt, grandee of the Green lobby and head of the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, and the messiah of shameless motoring, Jeremy Clarkson. Porritt recently labelled Clarkson ‘an outstandingly bigoted petrolhead’ for his cheerful advice to buy a 4×4 if you feel safer in one, ‘recycle your vegetable peelings if it makes you feel less guilty’, and look forward to the day, ‘not soon enough, sadly’, when global warming causes Greece to slide into the Mediterranean. After Radio Four’s Any Questions? panellists were invited to take potshots at the Top Gear presenter in absentia, an audience show of hands confirmed the presence of an overwhelmingly pro-Porritt majority; the only plea offered in Clarkson’s defence (by the farmer Oliver Walston) being that he is an amusing chap who probably realises he is talking ‘bollocks’.
Well, I’m no more a petrolhead than I’m a rabid England football fan — in fact I would be perfectly happy not to own a car at all — but there are sound arguments to be put on Clarkson’s behalf if he ever feels he needs my help. His basic message is that it is acceptable to enjoy revving your motor and to take an interest in differences of style and performance between one car and another. And the reason that is a morally sound position is because — even if you would be perfectly happy not to own a car — you really have no choice: your local railway station closed in 1963, the bus service is hopeless, there are no decent shops within walking distance and the prospect of trying to take your child to school on a bicycle pillion through an urban war zone is too terrifying to contemplate. What’s more, your basic family runabout costs at least £4,000 a year — including £2,500 of depreciation, which is steeper than it used to be because of heavier environmental regulation, and £750 paid to the Treasury in fuel duty, road tax and VAT — so you have every justification for taking a Clarksonian interest in what you drive, and trying to get a bit of fun out of it. And if all Spectator readers declared in ecstatic unison that they would never rev their motors again except for the most essential, utilitarian purposes, would it compensate the planet for the operations of a single Chinese coal-fired power station or illegal Brazilian logging gang? I doubt it, I really do.
Likewise, I am indebted to the Economist for the information that flying a fully laden Airbus A380 superjumbo is the equivalent, in energy use, of running a nine-mile-long convoy of cars on the road below, or no less than six cars per air passenger. Aviation is in fact responsible for only around 3 per cent of the emissions blamed for global warming, but is predicted to become a much bigger polluter in decades to come — and jet aircraft are especially damaging because their gasses go straight into the upper atmosphere. Well, that’s a fair cop, then, isn’t it? We should all feel deeply embarrassed at our enjoyment of low-cost, fun-filled flights across Europe (OK, I confess, I’m writing this from France again) and ready to cough up double or treble the current air passenger duty. But again, what is needed in this part of the debate is more balance and less self-flagellation. Why doesn’t Professor Filippone of Manchester make himself useful by calculating the economic and social benefits of flying a superjumbo full of business people, tourists and skilled migrants from one continent to another, to set against the weight of carbon dioxide generated? If we take the climate doomsters’ arguments lying down, there will only be one outcome: governments will find even more opportunities to tax our guilt and waste our money.
The other reason I decided not to take part in the Naked Bike Ride was that it coincided with National Pro Bono Week, which I mistakenly supposed to involve mass expressions of support for that self-righteous old Irish rocker who takes every opportunity to remind Western leaders of their collective guilt in the matter of Third World poverty and debt, and is no doubt gifted with unique insights into the causes of climate change as well. I found myself possessed by a terrible vision of pedalling along behind Bono’s ginger-freckled buttocks while he lectured his devotees through a loudhailer about their shameful carbon footprints. Too late, I discovered that Pro Bono Week was in fact a worthy initiative by the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Institute of Legal Executives to encourage solicitors and barristers to offer free advice where legal aid is not available. Our learned friends doing something for nothing? Now there’s a cause worth tearing your clothes off for.