Memo to Policy reviewers: Economic policy is energy and environmental policy too

July 2, 2014 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

The recently released Adonis Review, a key plank of Labour’s emerging policy platform tries to present a comprehensive strategy for national economic renewal without any apparent thought to how this strategy chimes with the other unavoidable story of our time; decarbonisation. Some may have barely noticed this oversight, or think they are completely separate things, but if you are motivated by dealing with climate change as the Labour party still claims to be, this disconnect is little short of embarrasing.

The critique that follows is not directly about The Labour party. Indeed, I felt John Cruddas’s speech at the RSA yesterday was outstanding, even Obamaesque, though again the story of decarbonisation was conspicuous by its absence, as it was, more or less, in IPPR’s condition of Britain report. (What’s going on here?…)

I’m sure the Adonis Review was the product of diligent research and careful political judgment, but I reach for the word ‘embarassing’ because the review is a particularly striking example of policy blindness that should no longer be considered permissable; it is simply not sane to continue presenting economic policy as if it was not also energy and environmental policy.

There are some timely ideas about economic decentralisation in the report, many of which echo the emphasis in RSA’s City Growth Commission about spreading the skills and infrastructure required for economic development beyond London.

It’s an ethical and intellectual derliction of duty to present economic and industrial policy without even paying lip service to the idea of ecological constraints and the need for a transition away from fossil fuels.

But here’s what is missing (I am grateful to an RSA fellow for this list:)

“- any mention of global climate change;
- any mention of planetary boundaries and global resource constraints;
- any mention of the need to decarbonise the energy system;
- any mention of sustainable development, sustainable growth, green growth,
- any mention of rethinking of growth, GDP, quality of life, prosperity;
- any mention of demand management;
- any mention of the rethinking of consumption going on in relation to sharing / collaborative models;
- any mention of the circular economy;
- any recognition of global trends”

In short, for those with even the slightest inkling of the connection between the economy and the world’s ecological constraints, there is no analysis or vision to believe in. In 2014, you really shouldn’t be able to get away with that! It’s an ethical and intellectual derliction of duty to present economic and industrial policy without even paying lip service to the idea of ecological constraints and the need for a transition away from fossil fuels.

Perhaps the people behind the policy review would say they deal with environmental and energy issues elsewhere, which, to my mind, makes things even worse. I look forward to seeing how they do that, and how it connects to industrial strategy, but already it’s a huge conceptual mistake to seperate these things out – it suggests a fundamental misreading of how to join up prospective government policy, avoid unintendended consequences, and plan for a viable future.

The saddest part of this story is that Lord Adonis ends his introduction to the report in a way that might have been inspiring:

“Governments can no longer spend their way out of difficulty. My overriding aim is to promote a smarter, not a more expensive, state. We need to build on the best of Britain – the spirit of the industrial revolution – and be optimistic that the best is yet to come.”

That sounds like a good technocratic charm offensive at first blush, but then it hit me: the ‘spirit’ of the industrial revolution would not have achieved much without the coal of the industrial revolution. You can’t blame eighteenth and ninteenth century industrialists for making the most of the available fossil fuels, which no doubt kept their spirits up as the money kept rolling in.

But six years after the 2008 Climate Change Act which commits the UK to reducing national greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 relative to 1990, which was expressly designed to decarbonise the economy and which was brought into law by then Secretary of State Ed Miliband(!) one would have hoped – in a Labour Party policy review document – for at least a passing reference to the connection between industrial strategy and the need to decarbonise the economy.

The tragedy is that herein lies the missed opportunity for the Labour party and the country as a whole. There is a Social Democratic tradition of community energy that should be part of the story, and there is obviously an R&D investment story in renewable infrasructure to be told.

So by all means celebrate the spirit of industrial development, but if there is going to be another industrial revolution in the 21st century, as Jeremy Rifkind and many other have argued is necessary, it has to be qualitatively different kind of story.

What is called for is not a revolution that is utterly and unselfconsciously dependent upon a particular kind of energy that we now know to be toxic to planetary systems, but rather a revolution driven and shaped by the urgeny of a transition away from that, informed by our shared need for an economy powered – as soon as possible- by renewable energy. If we can work towards that, we might genuinely keep ‘the spirit of the industrial revolution’ alive.



  • Matthew Parsfield

    Excellent blog Jonathan. And it gets worse; the present government’s new Infrastructure Bill, set to come into statute next year, directly contradicts the Climate Change Act by legally requiring that the UK ‘maximises the economic recovery of petroleum’. See George Monbiot’s piece from last week:

    “So the government, which has a statutory duty under the Climate Change Act 2008 to minimise the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, will have a statutory duty, under the Infrastructure Act 2015, to maximise them.”

    • jonathanrowson

      Yes, I saw that, thanks Matthew, and I almost linked to it here to show that it’s not just a Labour thing. It sometimes feels like the political class has simply given up on climate change in practice, despite claims made to the contrary.

      • Guenier

        Jonathan: you said, “It sometimes feels like the political class has simply given up on climate change in practice …”

        Perhaps it has. And there’s a sound reason why it might have done so. As I said at the end of my response to your “A New Agenda on Climate Change” paper, ( “… Britain should face up to the reality that there’s no longer much point in emission mitigation and, instead, take account of what’s actually happening in the world by an overall strengthening of its economy, energy supply and infrastructure and the prioritisation of long-term adaptation to whatever climate change may occur.” My response sets out in detail why UK mitigation is pointless.

        And prospects for a Paris deal, already dismal, have worsened even further since I wrote my response. For example: (1) see my comments re the second Bonn conference here:; and (2) see this article: As Prakash Javadekar (India’s new Environment Minister) said, “India and developing countries have the right to grow. These are the emerging economies … unless we eradicate poverty,
        we cannot really address climate change … our net emissions may increase”.

      • Guenier

        Jonathan: the first and second links in my earlier reply to you failed to open. Apologies. Here they are again:


        • Jonathanrowson

          Robin, I am conscious I still owe you an email, so thanks again for taking the time to contribute. I disagree with many elements of your case, but many of those disagreements are at a level where agreement is not likely to be forthcoming; at the level of values and ideology, the nature of political hope, social contagion, and deep assumptions about what it means to say action is ‘pointless’ and so forth.
          I will respond to your case with commensurate detail as soon as I can, but for now let me say how much I appreciate the constructive and respectful spirit in which you make your case, unlike some others who appear to have similar views, but who can’t resist stating them along with an unfortunate and gratuitously insulting tone.

          • geoff Chambers

            intrigued by your mention of disagreement about “..the
            nature of political hope, social contagion, and deep
            assumptions about what it means to say action is ‘pointless’”. All
            three seem to me relatively uncontroversial concepts.

            hope is always to be judged by its realism; social contagion happens
            when people catch on to the fact that action has some practical
            advantage; an action is pointless if it has no effect.

            Britain were to sink below the waves tomorrow, taking its 1.5% of world greenhouse emissions with it, it would have no conceivable effect on global temperatures. That’s pointless. It’s currently trying to achieve the same effect via expensive, inefficient, unworkable renewable energy, destroying its industry and its countryside in the process. This is unrealistic and is unlikely to catch on with our commercial rivals. It might possibly serve as an example to the rest of the world, but not in the way its proponents think.

            The Adonis Review was very wise to avoid the subject.

            I recently put in a request on an earlier thread, which you may not have seen, for the questionnaire and survey results of that form the basis of the “New Agenda for Climate Change” report. I’d be grateful if you could indicate where this information is available.
            Thanks in advance.

          • Guenier

            Thank you for this, Jonathan. I look forward to your detailed reply which looks as though it may be the prelude to an interesting – and hope fully productive – exchange.

            Two comments on your note above:

            1. I didn’t say “action is pointless” – but that, for the reason stated by Geoff Chambers, unilateral action by the UK is pointless.

            2. So far as I’m aware, there are very few people whose position is similar to mine. I’m wholly unaware of any who use gratuitous insult. Perhaps you’d be helpful and mention one or two? Thanks.

          • Guenier

            Climatelearner seems to be happy to use the gratuitous insult. But I’ve no reason to believe his/her views are similar to mine.

          • jonathanrowson

            I conflated things there and there is always a danger of loose quoting- sorry.

            I initially had Paul Matthews in mind “Completely obsessed”; “Where do I start?” etc set me off, but yes, Climatelearner seems to fit the bill even better.

            Your tone and view is quite different, I believe and I would rather keep the discussion at that level of critical inquiry.
            I hope to be in touch by email before long.

          • Guenier

            I believe that there are only two public figures with views that are broadly similar to mine: Bjorn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson. Neither, I think, has or is likely to indulge in gratuitous insult. Sadly that would appear not to be true of some of those who disagree with them.

            Even your paper got pretty close to gratuitous insult of Lawson’s GWPF – see my response.

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  • Paul Swann

    Very well said. But a third industrial revolution without addressing the problem of patriarchal capitalism? No thanks! The political ecofeminists (Maria Mies, Vandana Shiva, Ariel Salleh, Silvia Federici and others) identify this as the root cause of both environmental destruction (including anthropocentric climate destabilisation) and social oppression in all its variants. I believe they’re correct.

  • Paul Matthews

    It’s a review about the economy.
    It may be hard for you to understand, but most people are not fanatically obsessed with climate change.
    In fact you should be able to understand this, because you wrote a report about it.

    • jonathanrowson

      And what is ‘the economy’ exactly, without the energy and natural resources it depends upon?

      I don’t see anything fanatical here. The 2008 Climate Change Act is on statute, and was driven by the current leader of the labour party, but appears to be completely ignored in an economic review that has a direct bearing upon the targets it contains.

      Moreover, the idea that you can separate the economy from ecology is precisely the mistake that should not go unchecked – I suspect that’s the bit you find hard to understand, but please tell me where you think I’m wrong.

    • Paul Matthews

      Where you’re wrong? Where to start? The report does mention energy capacity problem. In fact it’s the daft climate-related energy policies that have got us to the state of threats of blackouts and sharply rising energy costs damaging the economy (“400 jobs to go at Tata steelworks in Port Talbot”).

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  • Paul Matthews

    I have written a blog with a response by Robin Guenier to Jonathan Rowson’s report on ‘stealth denial’, and the inability of some people to understand why everyone else is not in a panic about climate change.

  • ClimateLearner

    Your list of things missing is a list of low-quality catchphrases that any thinking person should be pleased to see missing. The contagion of sloppy analysis combined with slick phrases and slogans brought about by eco-zealotry should be resisted. We should see them, and the zealots themselves, as enemies of free thought and rational discussion.

  • Jonathanrowson

    To Robin and Geoff,

    Thanks for your comments.

    The survey was devised, conducted and analysed over several phases of correspondence with a group of researchers around the beginning and middle of last year. To look again at the relevant documents and emails about the questions, draw out the raw data, remember why we chose to analyse the data in the way we did, which inferences were made, what Yougov advised, what colleagues who are no longer with us thought and did, what we inferred and so forth is quite a bit of work that I haven’t found time to do justice to- but I respect the requestion and do hope to as soon as I can.

    What I can assure you of for now though is that there was no skulduggery involved. Keep in mind what we were claiming from the survey and what we weren’t. This was not a positivist project trying to measure the size of a lump of reality. This research was open about having a particular purpose on perhaps the most complex issue of all time.

    Our goal was to highlight forms of climate ‘denial’ that we believe (based on literature and testimony highlighted in the report) are more subtle but also more important than the denial of facts. I actually don’t care that much about conventional climate denialism or the propagation of misinformation. I think we waste far too much time worrying about that; if anything it is a way of reinforcing stealth denial in the general population because it allows us to displace our own responsibility to feel and act in a way that is commensurate with our current understanding.

    I am by no means alone among those you might consider ‘climate hawks’ who believe this kind of denial (NB among the professed climate believers) is the heart of the matter- the phenomena is sometimes called climate ignoring, sometimes called disavowal, and based on the data we chose to create a composite term from question responses and call it ‘stealth denial’ (to allude to the open-secret nature of the problem).

    The national survey was (openly, transparently) a blunt device to help make that case by showing (fairly openly even with what is published in the report I believe) that forms of ‘denial’ of this general nature (it is really difficult to be more precise about exactly *what* nature – we rely on interpreting question responses and our own interpretation for that) are pervasive, and may even apply to to the majority of the population.

    This was the first *survey* of that kind, and could therefore not claim to be axiomatic for a broader diagnosis or policy prescription, but that doesn’t mean that the *idea* we tried to use the survey to highlight was not of central importance – I believe it is. If I could do the survey again I would devise slightly different questions and may get different results, but I am open to the possibility that the entire quasi-empirical endeavour is misplaced, and those who believe it is important may have to content themselves with a theoretical account of climate disavowal and not dare to venture to measure how pervasive it is.

    Let me also reiterate that in experience thoughtful climate sceptics are generally much more informed than many people working for climate mitigation. Many of them grasp the nuances of the science and the limitations of policy much better than those who scramble around saying we have to do something without saying who, how, when and where.

    However, I also find that sceptics sometimes help themselves to a vision of political realism that is highly contentious if not defeatist. On the issue of what is realistic and sensible for the UK in the context, I dedicate a section of the report to why the UK has influence on this issue that goes beyond the mere 1.5% of global emissions(which is a production based figure; consumption based figures, were they available, would probably be at least double that).

    I would also encourage you to look at the source at the end about the plural rationalities that apply to any given wicked problem, which fleshes out what I meant below about values and ideology informing our ideas of what is ‘reasonable’ in the context.

    Bye for now,


    (CLUMSY SOLUTIONS FOR A COMPLEX WORLD: THE CASE OF CLIMATE CHANGE, MARCO VERWEIJ et al. Public Administration Volume 84, Issue 4, pages 817–843, December 2006

    • ClimateLearner

      That ‘quite a bit of work’ you have not yet found time to do is basic due diligence for any survey from which any inductive inference is to be published.

      • jonathanrowson

        I agree, and that due diligence was taken, it just has to be revisited, and in the context of my other work I see that task as high in importance but low in urgency.

        • Guenier

          But, Jonathan, you published a paper part of which was based on the findings of research. But you refuse to publish the questionnaire and findings. That, not to put too fine a point on it, is poor practice.

          As I’ve said: take a deep breath – go ahead and publish. Let us judge for ourselves. You’ll find it’s surprisingly easy.

    • Guenier

      But, Jonathan, as you know I have a professional background in opinion research. Rather than go through all the complex iterations you outline, why not simply publish the original questionnaire and the findings? It’s normal practice – particularly when a published paper or report relies on the findings – and has always been my company’s practice. It’s hard to see why you think your practice should be any different. Don’t be shy: publish and let us judge for ourselves.