There is a wide range of attitudes to climate change exemplified on one side by President Trump, who apparently believes that it is no more than a Chinese hoax, and on the other by seriously-concerned scientists who believe that it may be all too late.
What position should a rational, non-expert, citizen take?
The rational position is to avoid either extreme: to stay in the Action Zone and support rapid transformation of our economy:
- Denialism equals disaster;
- Catastrophism is equally dangerous;
- The Action Zone is where we can find practical solutions.
Denialism Equals Disaster
As the diagram above indicates, there are shades of denialism, ranging from disbelief in the existence of climate change at all, through acceptance that climate is changing but denial that mankind, and our economic activities, have anything to do with it, to the belief that, if it is a problem, then (like all other problems) the magic of market forces will fix it.
None of these positions is credible. Let’s consider them in turn, outright denialism first.
Climate science is not new. The French mathematician Joseph Fourier first identified the possibility of greenhouse gas effects in 1824. By 1896, the possibility of a link with the burning of fossil fuels had also been established. By the 1960s, the link was scientifically established and its importance was becoming clear:
“… from 1957, Roger Revelle alerted the public to risks that fossil fuel burning was “a grandiose scientific experiment” on climate. NASA and NOAA took on research, the 1979 Charney Report concluded that substantial warming was already on the way, and “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late.”
And from the 1970s, the climate change denial movement became active, especially in the United States. An extraordinarily well-funded and increasingly well-hidden movement, the Climate Change Counter Movement (CCCM) has been following the same strategy used by the tobacco companies. As Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University has pointed out, around $7 billion has been spent on manufacturing the appearance of controversy on a topic where in reality 97% of scientists agree:
“A well organized CCCM … played a major role in confounding public understanding of climate science, but also successfully delayed meaningful government policy actions to address the issue.”
The danger of denialism is undeniable, but what about just trusting to the ‘magic of market forces?’
Relying on the magic of market forces is equally incredible. As we have argued at some length, the profit motive is extremely powerful – and it is not aligned to tackling the problems of corporate externalities, of which climate change is one of the most serious.
Leaving it to the magic of market forces to solve the problem is equivalent to refusing to solve it.
Catastrophism is Just as Dangerous
At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that the problem is so great that we need some form of revolution to tackle climate change – or even that it is too late: nothing can be done.
Neither of these positions has a plausible path to solving climate change. Let’s first consider the revolutionary approach.
Those who say that we need to abandon capitalism altogether have made the correct observation that our current form of capitalism is part of the problem – as stated above – but have concluded, wrongly, that transformation is impossible and that the only solution is a non-capitalist society.
There are over 200 countries in the world, and none of them, not even North Korea, has abandoned capitalism completely. This fact on its own should be enough to give pause for thought. But in addition, it is undeniable that wealth and power are tightly connected, and the capitalist system is immensely powerful. Total abolition of capitalism would not happen peacefully, and it does not have popular support.
The idea that abandoning capitalism represents a rapid and certain route to solving the climate emergency is far-fetched.
Slightly more plausibly – at least at first glance – comes the arguments that the solution lies in abandoning growth. The world has had some experience of abandoning growth (not voluntarily) as a result of COVID-19, and we can see the results. There has been a reduction in environmental damage, but there is also been an enormous increase in inequality and poverty.
Since COVID struck, the world economy has shrunk by $4 trillion or around 5%; at the same time, the combined wealth of the world’s billionaires has grown by $1.3 trillion or around 27%.
The World Bank predicts that in 2020 alone,
“COVID-19 could push 71 million people into extreme poverty in 2020 under the baseline scenario and 100 million under the downside scenario. As a result, the global extreme poverty rate would increase from 8.23% in 2019 to 8.82% under the baseline scenario or 9.18% under the downside scenario, representing the first increase in global extreme poverty since 1998, effectively wiping out progress made since 2017.”
We should not be aiming to make this happen every year.
And, unsurprisingly, defeatism is no more likely to lead to success.
Some recent papers have suggested that certain irreversible processes may have been triggered by climate change, and given some the impression that there is now nothing can do. These are serious papers, but they do not represent a scientific consensus that it is too late to act. It is too late to avoid any impact; it is not too late to mitigate and adapt.
And concluding that there is nothing that we can do if that is not true is not very different from denialism.
The Action Zone is Where We Can Find The Solution
When we turn our attention to what could be done in practice, we see some encouraging data:
- the structure of the economy naturally lends itself to decoupling;
- we can see the sorts of changes needed to produce that decoupling;
- we can therefore map out a demanding but plausible plan to tackle the climate emergency.
The structure of the economy naturally lends itself to decoupling
Let’s start by looking at the issue of good growth and bad growth.
We can split all economic activities into three ‘buckets’:
- the good bucket which contains all activities that do not harm the environment: planting trees and insulating houses, for example would fit into the good bucket – growth in these activities would, obviously, be good not only for the economy but also the environment;
- the could-be-good bucket which contains activities which, though desirable in themselves, have at least some environmentally harmful consequences – agriculture, public transport and energy generation would be in the could-be-good bucket – growth in these activities, without transforming the way in which we carry them out, would be harmful; but we can see how we would transform them;
- the bad bucket which contains activities such as burning fossil fuels which we would be better off without – growth in these activities would be good for the economy but bad for the environment, and we cannot see a way in which we could transform them.
Once we know what sits where, we can aim to grow the good bucket quickly; to transform the could-be-good bucket – for example by switching to renewable energy for electricity generation – and to shrink the bad bucket as fast as we can.
When we look at the UK economy that way, the picture looks a bit like this.
So you can see that about 80% of the UK’s GDP is already in the good bucket – at most very minor transformation is required. Most forms of entertainment, the arts, media, sport et cetera fit into this bucket. So do healthcare, many business services, finance and real estate activity.
And most of the rest is in the could-be-good bucket. There is major transformation needed – but in principle we can see how it would be done. In the UK, it is really only the extraction of fossil fuels that cannot be transformed and sits in the bad bucket.
The structure of the economy, in other words, greatly simplifies the challenge of decoupling.
We can see the sorts of changes needed to produce that decoupling
Agriculture is a good test case, both because it has the highest intensity of emissions per £ of GDP which makes it a particularly difficult area to tackle and because we cannot simply de-grow agriculture without starving many people.
So what can we do?
A report commissioned by The Lancet explored this problem on a global scale. Agriculture is a major source of global climate emissions, the population is growing, if we continue to farm in the same way, but just more of it, we will both struggle to feed the population and create enormous environmental damage.
Their solution? Adopt what they call ‘The Planetary Diet’ – a plant rich but not completely vegetarian diet. By switching to this plant-rich diet, they found, we can both feed more people and reduce environmental damage significantly.
What would happen if we tried this in the UK?
Adopting the Planetary Diet and switching the freed-up land into arable farming would both reduce emissions (by about 20%) and increase the UK’s self-sufficiency in food production. Significant decoupling already. Furthermore, in the UK, at least 24% and maybe up to 30% of food which is edible when it leaves the farm ends up being wasted, much of it in the home. If that 24% can be reduced to around 16%, and if instead of diverting the freed-up land to arable farming, we divert it to forestry, the reduction in emissions will be almost 75%. A significant culture change will be required to achieve these dramatic reductions, but no technological breakthroughs or magical thinking are needed to make them happen.
Similarly, with other major sources of emissions like energy generation and transport, if we commit to the transformation, we can produce dramatic reductions in emissions.
We Can Therefore Map Out a Plan to Tackle The Climate Emergency
If we target investment at growing the good bucket and transforming the could-be-good bucket, while shrinking the bad bucket, we can both produce economic growth and reduce emissions. We discussed this point at some length here.
Remaining in the Action Zone, gives us a practical way forward.
If we leave the Action Zone, there is no credible path to solving the climate emergency.
But if we remain in the zone and undertake transformation of our key greenhouse gas-producing sectors, we can fix it. All the evidence suggests that it is possible, so we should commit to building a more prosperous, fairer and greener world.
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