Time to ‘Act’ on Climate Change. Yes, but how?

September 30, 2013 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

“The People need to rise before the seas do”Alice Bell

I felt a little bemused by the reactions to the IPCC report on Friday for three main reasons.

First, for those thinking about climate change for the last few years there was little new in the report. The most generous way to interpret the international public shift in understanding from ‘very likely’(90%) to ‘extremely likely’(95%) is that before Friday we merely knew that climate change is a real and present danger and caused by humans, now we know that we know.

Second, so many sceptics focused on the so-called fifteen year ‘pause’ in planetary warming of surface temperatures despite an ongoing increase in carbon dioxide. On the one hand this is fair and fundamental: if you say more X leads to more of Y, and there has been more of X, but no more of Y, people are entitled to question the relationship. On the other hand, there are really robust answers that the sceptics tend not to mention. First climate scientists don’t think it matters in terms of overall trends because the time window is too short(more X leads to more Y in the long term with periodic exceptions). Second, we have had a similar pause before, mid century, followed by a subsequent rapid increase in temperatures which is likely to happen again, and third, and for me most compellingly, those 15 years began with an outlier: 1998 was an exceptionally hot year because of a particular climactic event, an El Nino. If you take 1998 out of the picture, there is no pause.

Third, almost everybody seemed to be saying ‘we need to act‘, ‘time for action‘ and so forth, but few commentators said exactly how we should act. Alice Bell is right in her evocative line above- if the people don’t mobilise, governments won’t ‘act’ with sufficient speed and scale, markets won’t respond in their investment decisions, and the patterns of energy supply will continue.

I’m currently writing up a report on climate change that is about that ‘how’. Writing almost always takes longer than planned and is subject to Hofstadter’s law but in this case the delay has a more substantive basis. Shortly after writing the post “what kind of behaviour change does climate change call for” I realised that the difference between behaviour change for reducing domestic energy demand (how do you get people to insulate their lofts, turn down their thermostats, wash at lower temperatures, buy less imported goods from China etc) and behaviour change that might actually address the global challenge are not just slightly different, but based on completely different readings of the climate problem. Climate change is partly about behaviour and partly about technology, but I have come to believe that it’s mostly about money and power.

Simply stated, changing the domestic demand for energy, or ensuring that energy is used more efficiently in homes, offices and transport may have intrinsic benefits in terms of saving money, and not wasting precious resources. However, such changes do not contribute to addressing climate change unless they have a knock-on impact on global energy supply, and that is often a huge lacuna in particular policies, including the green deal.

Globally rising emissions(reductions in the developed world are entirely cancelled out by increases in the developing world) are caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which are the lifeblood of the global economy. Short of a global reduction in energy demand, as long as fossil fuels are significantly cheaper relative to other forms of energy, a global energy market will continue to use them, and we won’t be any closer to preventing significant planetary warming. And of course, fossil fuels are currently significantly cheaper than they might be because they are not taxed in a way that is commensurate with their social harm, indeed they are effectively subsidised; while the investment in renewable energy and carbon capture and storage are not incentivised by government in the way they need to be.

There is a role for decreasing energy demand and consumption more generally, but once you see climate change as being first and foremost a supply-side problem(the main goal is to keep fossil fuels in the ground) what you do about energy demand has to be much more focused, such that the impact on supply is more immediate and tangible. In the forthcoming report this idea is fleshed out with a detailed examination of how we might address rebound effects and patterns of climate denial in the British population.

The challenge then shifts from localised goals of reducing consumption or improving energy efficiency to something more ambitious: How can we use behavioural insight to get people to change, in ways that get governments to change, in ways that get markets to change. The crux of what it means to ‘act’ therefore involves recognising that markets follow government signals to make energy investment decisions, and governments follow democratic signals to make political decisions. The people need to rise before the seas do.

But how? I am tempted to say watch this space, but two of the main policy answers I am beginning to believe in are a rapid divestment in pension funds that invest in fossil fuels and an alternative to the EU Cap and Trade scheme known as ‘fee and dividend’ that ‘taxes’ carbon at source, but gives the money as a flat fee to the population, rather than to Government, while still incentivising reductions in energy demand.

Identifying policies to get behind is important to make sense of what it means to ‘act’. To gain traction the incipient climate movement we need to swiftly galvanise will require a positive story to believe in, so that when we are called upon to act, the action is not just against something intangible, destructive and dominant, but for something tangible, progressive and credible.


  • http://www.facebook.com/angela.kennedy.100 Angela Kennedy

    One problem is ‘act HOW’? There is every chance that government policies, if ‘forced’ into action by ‘the people’, will focus on measures that will damage certain people: getting rid of those deemed ‘useless eaters’ such as disabled people in the name of combating ‘overpopulation’; blaming fat people when Kylie Minogue and her gold lame hot pants have a higher ‘carbon footprint’; putting up fuel prices so the poor cannot function due to hypothermia; installing water meters so the poor can’t afford clean water; trying to force women back to washing nappies etc. The one understanding that is conspicuously absent from the vast majority of discourse on AGW and how it might be combated is how conflict and power relations might adversely affect the already disadvantaged while allowing carbon footprint as usual for the advantaged. Until these issues are ironed out, people are, I strongly suspect, understandably wary of calls for ‘action’: because when it comes to the global neoliberal world order we currently live within, it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’.

  • Rich

    One obvious place to start would be the promotion of the reduction of meat in people’s diets. This is something that every consumer can do to make a real change to their carbon footprint, but for some reason it’s seen as some kind of impossible goal. The opening of four vegan supermarkets in Germany has seen a 600% increase in interest in veganism over the last three years. Surely just this simple switch to address the supply of ‘transition’ foods and get the idea of meat free meals into our culture would be an easily attainable goal?
    I’ve written to the RSA three times (to three different people) regarding this subject and have yet to receive a response. It’s this kind of inertia that will help see us past a point in our climate change that it will be very difficult to come back from.

    • Jonathanrowson

      Hi Rich,

      I think dietary changes, particularly eating less meat(especially beef) could make a significant difference, but it won’t be straightforward to make that change and it’s not clear how quickly it will effect the supply side problems mention above. Even the ideas of ‘meat free monday’ or ‘weekday vegetarianism’ struggle to take hold and getting people to do if *for* climate change is altogether more difficult.

      For what it’s worth, although it is up against huge forces of cultural and political inertia, I personally feel the case for eating less meat is very strong on a number of fronts (health, ethical, environmental) and if you haven’t heard it already you might enjoy the Jonathan Safran Foer event at the RSA on the subject.


      Feel free to email me personally if you have a tangible idea of how to turn this into a fundable practical research project.

  • Warren Davies

    This is a really important point. No one is talking about leaving fossil fuels in the ground — if we become more efficient it’ll take longer to burn the oil, but we’ll still do it.

    As you say, too many powerful people get and keep money from fossil fuels for them to stop burning it. They care less about climate change than maintaining their status, so it seems unlikely that it will stop.

    However there might be a few benefits to getting people to turn their lights off when they go out:

    1) it buys us more time to get the political and technological solutions into place
    2) changing peoples behaviour might change their attitudes, although if I remember the research supporting that idea is pretty weak. If true though, it might help bring about the democratic pressure you mention here.

    That said, I don’t think we’ll stop burning fossil fuels and we should start thinking about what the effects of climate change will be and start preparing for that, and also investing more in carbon sequestration technologies to suck carbon out of the atmosphere in a cost-effective way.

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  • http://www.hksuperh.com/ Harold Forbes

    “I have come to believe that it’s mostly about money and power.”
    Couldn’t agree more.
    Money is entirely of the human imagination but it is also the most powerful tool we have ever invented. Unfortunately it is based on a fatal flaw: the assumption that the Earths resources and natural systems are so enormous and robust that we can consider them infinite