Many people have the sense that our current system just isn’t working. The urgency of tackling climate change is becoming ever more obvious. Most people are poorer now than they were in 2007, and with the real possibility of a no-deal Brexit, they fear that they may become poorer still. And vital national institutions like schools, the NHS and the Police Force are struggling.
It seems as though there are problems wherever you look. And trying to fix them all sounds like a pipe-dream. Taking just two of these issues, climate change and mass impoverishment, it is reasonable to ask whether we can actually solve both, or whether we should just focus all our efforts on one of them.
The good news is that the two issues share common roots – in fact they are so deeply interconnected that attaining one objective will attain both – so that by tackling together, there is every prospect of accelerating success:
- The effects on both wealth and health of climate change are already severe – there is clearly no way to end mass impoverishment without tackling climate change
- Conversely, the climate change movement will not succeed unless it tackles the roots of its problems – and these are also the roots of mass impoverishment
- The two movements are therefore more than just compatible: they are so deeply intertwined that combining the forces of both will accelerate success.
We Cannot End Mass Impoverishment Without Tackling Climate Change
Even in developed countries, the effects of climate change are already severe:
“Climate change is a significant threat to the health of the American people. … These climate change impacts endanger our health by affecting our food and water sources, the air we breathe, the weather we experience, and our interactions with the built and natural environments. As the climate continues to change, the risks to human health continue to grow.”
And in many less-developed countries, the impact will be even more severe. According to the Economist, climate change discriminates against the already poor. And the scale of the impact is staggering – the World Bank estimates that over 140 million people could be displaced from these vulnerable regions.
These people will lose their homes and their livelihoods, and some of them will lose their lives.
There is clearly no way to end mass impoverishment without tackling climate change.
But what about the other way round? Could we tackle climate change, and leave mass impoverishment until later?
We Cannot End Climate Change Without Tackling Mass Impoverishment
Ending, or at least mitigating, climate change is not straightforward, as the IPCC report made clear. The pathways to a 1.5C increase in temperature involve large scale and complex change, but they do not conflict with the ideals of economic justice:
“Climate change impacts and responses are closely linked to sustainable development which balances social well-being, economic prosperity and environmental protection. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015, provide an established framework for assessing the links between global warming of 1.5°C or 2°C and development goals that include poverty eradication, reducing inequalities, and climate action. (high confidence).”
Being able to stick to these pathways will require major changes in government policy, and in the behaviour of large corporations. According to 99%, there are five things we must do to end mass impoverishment – and each of these is also vital to tackling climate change:
- making it a constitutional duty for an elected government to govern for the benefit of the entire population, not for that of a small but influential subset;
- formulating policy on the basis of fact not myth;
- cleaning up capitalism;
- investing wisely in the future;
- focusing policy on shared growth initiatives, balancing captured growth initiatives and avoiding vulture policies.
Making it a constitutional duty to govern for the benefit of the entire population
Of course, climate change risks blighting the lives of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people. But for some of the wealthiest, it offers the possibility of building yet further wealth. Land prices, for example, will fluctuate wildly: in some areas land will become virtually worthless, but in others land prices will increase dramatically. Unfortunately, there are some extremely influential people with a strong financial interest in not seeing climate change tackled.
Though they are small in number, they are great in political power, and without constitutional reform it will be hard to stop them exercising that power.
Formulating policy on the basis of fact not myth
There are two great myths which are holding back policymakers from tackling climate change:
- that the science is not yet clear, and it would be rash to act prematurely;
- that we simply cannot afford to act.
In most of the world, the science has been accepted at least in principle – but of course there is one extremely important exception: the United States of America.
The myth of unaffordability, however, remains far more widespread and is therefore even more damaging. In the UK, for example, the former Prime Minister Theresa May wished to commit the UK to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, did not deny the science, but he claimed that acting as May wanted would cost the UK economy £1 trillion by 2050, implying that this meant that it was unaffordable.
Even if the £1 trillion figure were accurate – and it was disputed – and even if all of that money had to come from government, it would clearly be affordable. (It was not hard for the government and the Bank of England to create more than £400 billion out of thin air to stabilise the economy after the Global Financial Crisis and to provide almost a further £1 trillion in loans and guarantees to banks).
On this occasion, as on many others, it was the myth that drove policy, not the facts.
Cleaning up capitalism
Capitalism is an enormously powerful force, and at the moment that force is too often acting in opposition to the necessary changes.
As Appendix IX to 99% makes clear, the root of this problem is that companies are rewarded for externalising their costs: polluting the environment without paying for the clean-up; employing workers at below the living wage in the knowledge that the rest of society will pay the difference; avoiding taxes while taking advantage of the infrastructure and investment that the taxes of others have paid for.
In our current system, unethical businesses receive a hidden subsidy from the rest of society, while ethical ones do not. Of course, this tilts the playing field to the advantage of the unethical businesses. A business which externalises its costs becomes a powerful engine for environmental degradation and mass impoverishment.
Fixing climate change without changing the way that businesses are measured and rewarded is like swimming against a powerful tide: it may be impossible.
Focusing policy on shared growth initiatives and avoiding vulture policies
Once capitalism is cleaned-up, and businesses no longer receive a hidden subsidy for polluting the environment or underpaying their staff, all growth becomes good growth. Businesses will be able to grow their profit by going green; they will not be able to increase profit by destroying the environment.
What does this mean for policy-makers? The answer is surprisingly simple: government should focus policy on growing the pie and sharing it fairly.
Although individual policies may be complex, in this framing, there are only four types of policy:
- captured growth policies which grow the pie but share it unfairly;
- shared growth policies which both grow the pie at a reasonable rate and share it fairly;
- vulture policies which neither grow the pie nor share it fairly; and
- balancing policies which do not grow the pie but improve the fairness of sharing.
Investing wisely in the future
Tackling climate change will require major investments in energy generation, storage and efficiency measures. These investments must include everything from early-stage research and development, through support for commercialisation, all the way to implementation of large-scale infrastructure.
Once policymakers are freed from the myth of unaffordability, they will find that they can do these things just as in 1948 (when the UK government debt to GDP level was over 200%), the government found that it could invest to create the NHS and the welfare state.
These investments should be the backbone of the Type II policies.
The Two Movements Are Deeply Intertwined
The Green movement has an enormous base of highly motivated supporters, a strong scientific basis for its proposals and it has built a growing consensus in society around the need for action.
99% has created an extensive fact-base which clearly identifies the roots of the problem and demolishes many of the arguments against action; it has a simple way of framing the issues and their solutions which can help campaigners and policymakers to tackle both climate change and mass impoverishment.
Working together to tackle the five critical issues will accelerate progress on both objectives.