Guardian columnist Zoe Williams writes At last I have good news on the climate crisis: all of us really can do something about it. What does she prescribe?
People across the political spectrum broadly agree on the fundamentals and the urgency of the climate crisis, and yet we probably won’t do what we need to do because we’re just too useless. Society is too fractured for people to make altruistic choices.
While there may be broad agreement that human CO2 emissions are one of the causes of global warming, the urgency of the problem and what we need to do are far from agreed on.
Poverty is too endemic for many to be in a position to make changes.
This I agree with.
Financialisation has subverted democracy, so even if the demos was able to make a good, collective decision, it would be thwarted. Even if, by some miracle, the UK managed to overcome these obstacles to make good on its net-zero pledges, the same problems would play out on a global scale to prevent other nations from doing the same.
Pure democracies can be very evil via the Tyranny of the Majority. This is why systems like the American republic and Canadian confederation are not pure democracies. If the majority of Canadians (who live in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver) could directly control policy, Alberta would secede. If the majority of Americans (who live in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle) could directly control policy, Texas would secede. Direct democracy does not work for a large heterogeneous country. My government, which was elected by a minority, makes commitments that have dire consequences for the people, I hope that they fail to overcome the obstacles to meeting them.
The first two components of reaching net zero are basically in the hands of the government: cleaning up the energy supply, and becoming more efficient in the energy we use. Throughout the 2010s, we assumed that both the major parties were equally committed to tackling the climate emergency and merely differed on whether the state or the market should pay for it. This seemed like a reasonable assumption – the Conservatives in opposition, after all, were behind the Climate Change Act, an inspiringly strong piece of legislation – except for the fact that it was plainly not true.
The government can’t clean up the energy supply. They can try to use regulation to incentivize industry to change and for consumers to favour more energy efficiency. The incentives use to promote electric vehicles currently subsidize the rich in their purchase of new vehicles that, even with discounts paid for by all of us, are unaffordable to most.
Conservatives committed to arresting the climate crisis wouldn’t have talked about “green crap”. Nor would they have wasted five years on Brexit, or wanted to leave the EU in the first place.
A lot of the so called “green agenda” is crap that has nothing to do with the environment. Needing to support the globalist EU’s labyrinthine bureaucratic policies is likely to make government less able to influence the energy industry and consumers, so I would guess Brexit could be a huge benefit to a government wanting to take action.
The price of entry to the grownups’ conversation was to pretend that all politicians wanted broadly the same thing, by a different route. This was a peculiarly low point for common sense, and it squandered time, fostering a sense that even when those in power wanted to tackle the climate crisis, still nothing constructive could be achieved. Even as recently as September, when Rachel Reeves described at her party’s conference the state spending a Labour government’s green new deal would entail, it was still normal in climate policy circles for people to describe the parties as equally committed to constructive, large-scale change.
Politicians are mostly committed to their reelection to power. Tackling climate change is only a means to that end. As soon as people start realizing the damage that Labour’s green new deal will do to them, they will drop their support for it like a rock.
But it is no longer necessary to pretend that the Conservative government means well, keeps promises or has any long-term plan for tackling the climate crisis. Removing it from power has become more urgent than ever. Accepting these facts is now, paradoxically, less daunting than the effort of papering over reality.
Long term plans are useless. If large scale nuclear fusion were achieved, pretty much anything else the government is doing would become a waste of time and money. We would have cheap electricity to power homes, industry, and electric cars. With the cheap green hydrogen, which we could generate via electrolysis, we could replace oil and natural gas for heating, and power hydrogen fuel cells in long range electric vehicles. But if we don’t achieve fusion, we might be better to invest in more efficient heat exchangers, better battery technologies, kinetic energy storage, and safer nuclear fission. It’s important to be agile, and quickly adapt to changes in technology. This is were industry excels, and government fails.
The third plank towards net zero has always been behavioural – are people prepared to stop flying and eating meat, and change to bikes and electric cars? And even if you are personally committed to these things, what about those who don’t care, or can’t afford to make adjustments, and what about young people and their fast fashion, and didn’t Greta Thunberg once buy a salad wrapped in plastic? There is a tendency to respond to every climate aspiration with a darting list of the insufficiencies of humankind.
Videoconferencing has finally become common and inexpensive enough to help make business travel much less important than it was. Expecting people to stop eating meat when there is no cost effective alternative is foolish. I know plenty of people who stopped being vegetarian because it was too expensive. Bikes are useless for anyone who doesn’t live within a short distance of their place of work, which is most people who aren’t rich enough to afford to live in the city. Electric cars are not affordable. As long as being green requires being rich, it’s not going to be mainstream.
Yet the granular work done by the Climate Change Committee shows the lifestyle changes this crisis will ask of us are in fact pretty manageable. The most demanding will probably be the switch to battery-powered cars (60% of vehicles by 2035). Otherwise, the number of miles per driver will need to reduce by 4%; plane kilometres per person by 6%; meat and dairy consumption by 20%. Arguably, this is the time to start new conversations – is net zero, in this time frame, ambitious enough?
The mass transition to electric vehicles may happen, but it won’t until they are cost effective and charging infrastructure is ubiquitous. Reducing travel via telecommuting and videoconferencing seems feasible. Here is one area where government can help, by funding public rapid transit projects for those unable to telecommute. Meat and dairy will be consumed until there are cost effective substitutes. As Beyond Meat and other companies continue to ramp up, this may soon be a reality.
Can the disproportionate carbon usage of the affluent somehow be reflected in redistributive policy, so everyone has an allocation of plane miles and those who can’t afford to use theirs can sell them instead? Would it make sense to subsidise meat and dairy alternatives in the same way renewables were initially supported? Is it feasible to make a carbon budget, as a nation, that doesn’t take into account the footprint of your imports? (Not really.)
Who would enforce redistribution? Big government? No thanks. I would rather my taxes were not used to subsidize yet another product that only the wealthy can afford. I wouldn’t be against imposing tariffs based on the CO2 emissions required to produce imported goods. This might help convince India and China to start moving away from coal, on which they currently rely heavily.
What is now unarguable is that all this is within our grasp. Radicals and progressives may maintain the longterm goal of bringing down capitalism and re-evaluating what life is for, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing constructive that we can do in the short term. I’m not sure that I would make a different or more certain prediction of what life will look like in 30 years’ time. But the idea that the changes required are too radical or the people who need to make them too timid, I’ve completely put aside.
I’m arguing. Elimination of fossil fuels is not currently within our grasp. Currently, returning to net zero emissions would require a massive genocide. If that’s what you mean by “in our grasp”, you will be fought. Bringing down free market capitalism is just another way of saying “implementing communism”. If that’s your idea of being constructive, you need to be locked up.