The climate change moment
Steve Richards has a very interesting piece in today’s Independent that is well worth reading. He argues that Wednesday’s Climate Change White Paper is a seminal moment in British politics as it is the first time that government as a whole (rather than individuals within it) have begun to face up to the challenge of climate change.
I think he is right. His account that the Prime Minister only got climate change once he had read the Stern Report is entirely believable. I also suspect that the PM is not the only one who now “gets it”. Lots of people in public life have learnt to insert climate change into their rhetoric without thinking through what that means. Call that greenwash if you like, but you can also see it as a transitional phase in a journey from not caring about it all to understanding the full implications. My guess is that many are now someway along that road.
This has implications. Much environmental campaigning to date has understandably concentrated on getting the government to appreciate the threat and to start to take appropriate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of course that needs to go on. Governments are always being pushed in various directions, and even if progress has been made, the pressure needs to be maintained if ministers are not to be blown off-course.
But it also suggests a wider agenda. As Steve Richards notes, the government has been attacked for not wanting to take action against cheap flights*. But this may be wise politics. In a democracy, government has to have minimal levels of consent for any long term change of course. Obama clearly gets global warming (and helped the G8 make more progress than expected) but even his climate change adviser has said that there is a limit to what they can do without destroying political consent for any action at all. Now of course governments tend to be cautious and look for excuses for inaction. But while it is right to test such statements, there is also much truth in this.
Action against climate change cannot be left to the market as the White Paper recognises. Not only do we have the traditional problem that environmental costs are externalities that individuals and companies can easily impose on others, greenhouse gases do not even cause immediate damage. By the time global warming is sending really strong market signals – such as floods in the middle of London – it’s too late.
Of course some price changes as well as artifical market signals such as carbon trading and environmental taxes will play their part, but even more important will be regulation and direct spending by the public sector.
Yet what Steve Richards calls a revolution starts in about the worst possible place. There is near total cynicism about government. Reducing the budget deficit, reducing regulation and shrinking the state seem to be the dominant political ideas at the moment. And of course most climate change deniers are small-state libertarians too.
So if you want to do anything about climate change the task is much bigger than persuading this government to go further. You also need to win public support for the radical action needed; help legitimise again the role of the state and public policy; and fight against a politics that puts budget cuts above everything else.
This is why trade unions here – and throughout the world – have been stressing the idea of just transition. I’m not sure I’m too keen on the phrase but the idea that adaptation and the move to a low-carbon economy must be done in a way in way that doesn’t make the world even more unfair and unequal is absolutely right.
It really is jobs, justice and climate.
*Incidentally on air travel – a modified version of David Milliband’s individual carbon account might work. Everyone could have an air-miles allowance, but beyond that travellers would pay more and those that did not use their allowance could sell it on, thus transferring money to the poor. Last time I looked at the stats most cheap flights seemed to be taken by people making multiple trips each year, rather than a single holiday.