Three economic approaches to global ecological risk
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:
“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.