Climate Change: Left, Right and Wrong
As part of a new project proposal I’ve been thinking again about the politics of climate change. I have a sneaking suspicion that the left-right spectrum is a heuristic that does more harm than good, especially on ecological questions, but it is still useful for highlighting why certain problems appear to be intractable.
On the right, you have some who deny(rather a lot in the US) many who accept but downplay(rather a lot in the UK), and some who accept the gravity and urgency of the problem and believe the solution lies in a combination of technology and market solutions, especially a functioning carbon market. One recent example of a coherent account of this position is given by Republican Bob Inglis. The McKinsey Global Institute report on ‘The carbon productivity challenge’ is also worth a read. Although not explicitly politically, it does seem to lean to the right, by making certain credible but questionable assumptions about the need for a certain amount of economic growth and the level of emissions that may be permissible.
On the left, you have many who get the problem and think ‘something must be done’, but are too busy or habituated to do it themselves, some proposing various kinds of government regulation on emissions, and also some ‘watermelons’ – green concealing red- who use climate change to smuggle in Marxist political ideology. In a recent interview, Naomi Klein give s a lucid account of this kind of challenge:
“If you have an egalitarian and communitarian worldview, and you tend toward a belief system of pooling resources and helping the less advantaged, then you believe in climate change…. Climate change confirms what people on the left already believe. But the Left must take this confirmation responsibly. It means that if you are on the left of the spectrum, you need to guard against exaggeration and your own tendency to unquestioningly accept the data because it confirms your worldview.”
Climate change confirms what people on the left already believe. But the Left must take this confirmation responsibly.
My own view, not shared by all parts of the RSA, is that Tim Jackson’s argument appears to stack up. He is not ‘anti-growth’ but I think he is right that ‘prosperity’ is a social and psychological issue as much as an economic one. In so far as we all share the goal of increasing our prosperity, we need to recognise that pursuing it exclusively through economic growth (in the developed world at least) appears to undermine the social and ecological conditions on which our wider prosperity depends. We can’t take economic decisions as if they were not social and environmental decisions too.
It may be politically naive to think it could ever be possible to have a capitalist economy without economic growth being the goal, but if it begins to look simply necessary, as I believe it is beginning to, then we may have to try. In this respect I am reminded of Aristotle’s line: “If at first you do what is necessary, and then do what is possible, soon you find you are achieving the impossible.”
We can’t take economic decisions as if they were not social and environmental decisions too.
In this context I believe the challenge for the right is that continuing to pursue economic growth in the developed world within ecological limits necessitates the impossible- namely a level of social and technological innovation several orders of magnitude higher than the industrial revolution. (Jeremy Rifkind is one of the few visionaries who has considered how this might work as ‘the third industrial revolution’) I think it is a fair rejoinder for people on the right to say- yes that sounds (almost) impossible, but no less so than trying to create a no-growth economy.
This balance of impossibilities and competing necessities is important to keep in mind- climate change is a truly wicked problem.
But here is what really worries me. The conventional wisdom on solving climate change is that we need to throw everything at it – a bit of behaviour, a bit of regulation, a bit of technology, a bit of design, a bit of economic incentivising and so forth. But what if we get in each others’ way? We have some arguing that we need green growth and investment in green technologies, and others saying no, we need to change the paradigm, stop seeking growth and reduce consumption. When the remaining time to act is so scarce that it is frustrating to be on tracks that don’t seem to support each other and if anything are somewhat contradictory. Collectively, in so far as this is an issue, it is one we should collectively accept is neither left nor right, but simply wrong.
It is in this context that I believe the Common Cause Report was profoundly right about the need to think of how different types of climate change intervention reinforce certain kinds of values. Let’s stop pretending that those who share an understanding of the problem are natural allies, and start thinking more deeply about the values we share and the values that separate us. We will continue to disagree, but it would be great if we could begin to understand the nature and depth of the disagreement well enough to help each other deal intelligently with the shared problem at hand.