Three economic approaches to global ecological risk

June 14, 2013 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

I received a lucid and helpful email in response to yesterday’s post on reaching the centre-right on climate change, from Ian Christie FRSA who is a research fellow at the sustainable lifestyles research group at the University of Surrey.

I am posting it below with very minor edits and Ian’s permission because Ian’s response helped to pinpoint the slight feeling of unease I had in response to COIN’s report. In essence, while the first round of the challenge of engaging the right on climate change may indeed come down to the framing the message, the real battle feels like it’s in the framing not so much of the message, but of the issue itself.

As context and further reading to make sense of the issue, the two key questions (with indicative quotes) are:

1) Is Climate Change best approached as an environmental issue?

“Simply stated, as long as we think of climate change as an environmental issue we allow it to be something outside of our lives. When we realise it is not an environmental issue, it is harder to carry on as we have been before”

2) Is the continued pursuit of economic growth on a physically finite planet possible?

“A no-growth economy is a curious creature to think about, but as Sherlock Holmes once put it: once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Guest Post by Ian Christie FRSA

The point you make about growth is important. I think there are broadly three positions on global ecological risks and the economy, and they don’t fall that neatly into the existing political spectrum, as you note:

1) Business as usual growth – is desirable and achievable, and we can either disregard climate change etc or adapt to it.

2) A new model capitalism – Business as Usual can’t be restored but we can have a new model capitalism (cf the B Team, Plan A, Unilever etc) that generates economic growth while respecting planetary boundaries.

3) An economic model that eschews growth: 1) is suicidal, 2) is well-meaning but delusional; we need to rethink economic systems entirely and pursue wellbeing and go beyond growth, which cannot continue indefinitely and is in any case not generating the benefits we tell ourselves it is.

Each view is pretty accurate about the others’ weaknesses

1) has incumbent power on its side, makes immediate ‘common sense’ (we don’t feel at risk from the environment) but has pretty well every climate scientist and ecologist against it;

2) has at least a chance of winning more adherents in business and politics, but is still very marginal;

3) has ecological and thermodynamic logic on its side, but almost no adherents in business and government.

Each view is pretty accurate about the others’ weaknesses. The problem for 3) is that there is no political and economic narrative of transition that makes sense (so far). Approach 2) is attractive as a transitional model but still falls foul of the objections from 3).

The centre-right was left out of the climate change script in the USA when Al Gore became the face of climate concern, and things have never recovered from that and from the subsequent integration of climate into the culture wars, in which evidence is assessed on the basis of ideology and motives.

I suspect the situation will only change when there is a critical mass of ‘defectors’ breaking ranks in the authoritative core groups of centre-right thinking and practice – from concerned CEOs, influential media commentators to elected members of the Republican Party and Conservatives. And that seems likely to happen only if they can frame climate action as an economic opportunity and national security issue.

Which raises your key point: is climate change an environmental issue? No – it’s a major risk to economic and social order as well as to ecosystem integrity. There are people from the centre-right who get this, and who in consequence are embracing 2) above – growing numbers of food industry leaders, for example, whose businesses are in direct jeopardy from climate disruption. But they have not got a political constituency yet with Republicans and Conservatives.

Comments

  • Benjamin D

    Is there an appeal to the centre right through the ‘old fashioned’ conservative (i.e. pre-Thatcher)? While old school Conservatives want to maintain the social status quo – they also want to protect England’s green and pleasant land through controlling development (alas, including wind farms) and preserving architecture etc. Interestingly, there are sometimes overlaps between socially-liberal Greens and conservatives over issues of pollution and development.

  • ian greenwood

    There is no question of criticising Lord Giddens, the Matrix, the RSA or the comment below. These are valuable comments. Beyond them at a practical level there needs to be unity of message (1) focus on minimising fossil fuels (2) minimising personal consumption and ‘whim-led’ transport to raise monetary savings and DIRECT those savings into GROWTH to get RETRO-ECO (retro) investment levels SUBSTANTIALLY HIGHER QUICKLY; (3) to facilitate this, getting a “floor” on bank savings rates to encourage youth to see savings grow at least at the level of inflation (thus also protecting the value of the savings of the elderly). If the savings are then used properly as well as a feedback loop created from bank money creation into retro-eco investments rather than just spending, then that is anti-inflationary as it brings cost of living down long-term. that’s what UK needs, but the most successful people may not be affected enough to wish to see change?
    WHY NOT ? “Silos” over-specialisation, lack of hand experience
    (4) Cap on commercial bank mortgage rates is needed to ensure the wealth generated in industry is not eaten up in bank charges and interest. this cap should not be the same on created money as on savings/deposits etc re-lent. especially on that element of “free” money – wherever commercial money is created via lending it should attract a charge (might need Registered Money so all new money can be identified). such measures would allow LENDING FOR RETRO-ECO PURPOSES. The criminal confusion and waste of time in the UK (after Green Deal was first suggested by NEF).was that it took too long – AND that the green bank was limited by the rules given to not undercutting the banks when actually undercutting them could have forced them to come down the offered interest rates on lending. Competing at a fair and attractive level IS EXACTLY WHAT’S NEEDED TO ENCOURAGE new money to be made – thus stimulating both green and non-green investment more (but rules should favour green).
    That fixes lack of motivation and finance – THEN – here are the targets for the INVESTMENT MONEY (max 2% rate on secured loans, 0% finance to GET STARTED until retro-eco is fixed):

    The extra money created (to do the fololwing (as debt supported by promises to repay by wage-earners are used to get super-insulated, more or less off gas, etc etc.

    A) Retro-eco insulation quilt 30 mm thick offers CONTROL of LOSSES half the levels of heat loss (also HALF the HEAT GAIN) of current Building regulation recommendation (why not ask for an explanation over the phone? +44 (0)121 449 0278) or ian.greenwood@phonecoop.coop ENABLING

    B) a heat-store under floors that gives free warmth lasting through the winter – just from the untapped resource of thermal mass topped up year on year FROM THE SUN solar-thermal hitherto merely a minute fraction of the potential there is is being used. Doesn’t that answer the Doubters? [apologies for lack of editing - get the gist?]

    SUMMARY (please copy and circulate to hand to friends after dinner with my number, above on) IT’s A Structural Problem: it needs an Engineer of structures to help simplify and solve it:

    A) Floor on interest rates for savings accounts protecting the young and vulnerable, encouraging them to save their money in accounts (at least 3% on all deposits).

    B) Ceiling on lending rates – secured loans to be 2% max on housing, 3% on risky commercial IF THE MONEY IS CREATED MONEY. Return the base rate to the Exchequer for Transition (clean energy) purposes

    C) Super-insulate externally and put summer-solar heat transfer tanks under floors in houses. bigger building locate sedentary areas away from the perimeters So they can benefit from the MASSIVE UNTAPPED RESOURCE of thermal mass.
    (Copyright Greenwood Structures 0121 449 0278 or 07702 569 077 released if you consider a donation and inform by email). UNITY – PROGRESS then BECOMES POSSIBLE.
    Thank You!

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks for the response Ian. I could be wrong, but I suspect you planned to post this comment under a different blog post. I’ll send a link to this one there.

      For now, there is too much to respond to in detail here but I will come back here to consider some of the ideas in more detail. I personally feel that engineering is an important part of the story, but not the most fundamental part.