Last week, Ed Miliband, Minister for Energy and Climate Change, announced that future coal-fired power stations can go ahead only if they commit to using a technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to cut their carbon dioxide emissions. The move has been widely welcomed. An editorial in The Guardian praises the move: '...the shape of real climate change policy is beginning to emerge.'
Others have been rather less enthusiastic. George Monbiot has argued that the plan is more or less meaningless. The envisaged CCS technology might not arrive, or not in a commercially viable form. What happens then, with the coal-fired power stations already up and running? It is virtually inconceivable that a government would then close them down. In other words, Miliband is making a commitment which is unenforceable - and so not a real commitment at all. Until the CCS technology is up and running, we simply should not go for more coal-fired power stations.
With critics like Monbiot in mind, the Guardian editorial acknowledges that 'deep greenies' might object that the plan leaves 'too much wriggle room' to energy companies. But it concludes that 'given that he had to meet the challenge of technology that is still unproven on such a scale, Mr Miliband is to be congratulated for what he has achieved rather than berated for what he has not.'
In other words, its a step in the right direction.
Now Fabians are very keen on 'steps in the right direction'. Fabians are gradualists. They see that big bang social change is usually unfeasible, and sometimes undesirable since it often requires a heavy concentration of power in the state which is liable to misuse (step forward, V.I. Lenin).
But gradualism has its limits.
Imagine a business that has systematically spent more than it earns for years. It faces bankruptcy. It responds by cutting its spending, though it still spends more than it earns. The managers of the business say: 'Well, at least we're heading in the right direction.' But because the fundamentals haven't changed, the business still goes bankrupt. It doesn't succeed, albeit slowly. It simply fails.
There is a strong case for saying that this is where we are at the moment in the politics of Climate Change. What we need are not simply steps in the right direction, but radical measures commensurate with the risk of catastrophic and irreversible climate change that we now face.
This is why Ed Miliband is indeed to be congratulated for his comments over the weekend about the need for popular mobilization around Climate Change to put additional pressure on politicians for effective action. The Guardian is probably right that Ed Miliband achieved the best deal he could over CCS in the current situation. That, however, is not only a cause for congratulating Ed Miliband. Even more, it is a cause for realising just how much more pressure politicians need to face if they are to take action on the sources of climate change which isn't as flawed as the Miliband plan appears. (For I can't see any fault in George Monbiot's criticisms.)
Ed Miliband comments that people are welcome to protest against him. Excellent. For the best way to support ministers like Ed Miliband against the powerful energy and business lobbies is to go out and continue environmental protest.
Its our job to support Ed - by protesting against his policies.