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Time for a more Radical Plan?

Dec 13, 2013 by | 2 Comments

In 2014, England will follow the example set by Wales and Scotland and intro­duce a car­rier bag charge. If the Welsh and Scottish exper­i­ences are any­thing to go by, the policy will drastic­ally reduce the number of bags in cir­cu­la­tion, keeping unne­ces­sary waste out of land­fill and removing a little poly­thene from the diet of our cities’ seagulls.

Like recyc­ling, re-using car­rier bags has become some­thing of an iconic “sus­tain­able beha­viour“. But whatever else its bene­fits may be, it is not, in itself, an espe­cially good way of cut­ting carbon. Like all simple and pain­less beha­vi­oural changes, its value hangs on whether it acts as a cata­lyst for other, more impactful, activ­ities or sup­port for polit­ical changes.

The evid­ence from Wales is not encour­aging. My col­leagues at Cardiff University ana­lysed the impact of the intro­duc­tion of the car­rier bag charge. Although their use reduced dra­mat­ic­ally, rates of other low-carbon beha­viours among the gen­eral public remained unaffected.

To be clear: fewer plastic bags would be a small, good thing. But as a major two-day con­fer­ence at the Royal Society headquar­ters in London this week made clear, “every little helps” is a dan­ger­ously mis­leading mantra when it comes to cli­mate change.

The Radical Plan meeting fea­tured con­tri­bu­tions from across the phys­ical and social sci­ences, as well as civil society. The organ­isers – Professors Kevin Anderson and Corinne Le Quere of the Tyndall Centre – posed con­trib­utors a bru­tally simple ques­tion: what would need to happen if we were to do more than simply pay lip ser­vice to the idea of avoiding dan­gerous cli­mate change?

The answers were undeni­ably rad­ical – and none men­tioned re-using plastic bags.

Scientists and engin­eers described the unpre­ced­ented scale of energy system change neces­sary to decar­bonise rap­idly. Social sci­ent­ists argued for a trans­form­a­tion in the way we view ourselves, our con­sump­tion, and our role in society. Economists demol­ished the idea that eco­nomic growth could be main­tained forever in a fossil-fuel driven, finite world. Policy experts ques­tioned whether our cur­rent carbon tar­gets were fit for purpose.

But across almost all of the papers presented at the con­fer­ence, there was an ines­cap­able con­sensus: a fun­da­ment­ally dif­ferent eco­nomic system is required, if we are ser­ious about avoiding dan­gerous cli­mate change, based on nur­turing well­being rather than stoking cor­porate profit.

This is, of course, not a new idea. But what was striking was the con­ver­gence across con­trib­utors from the breadth of the phys­ical and social sci­ences. The clear mes­sage was that unres­trained cap­it­alism is incom­pat­ible with decar­bon­isa­tion: the sums simply don’t add up.

Many scep­tics see the issue of cli­mate change as no more than a figleaf for ush­ering in a new era of socialism. The con­clu­sions of the Radical Plan con­fer­ence are unlikely to con­vince them oth­er­wise. But for the vast majority of us – who say we “get” cli­mate change, but still somehow cling on to the idea that small, incre­mental beha­vi­oural changes will be suf­fi­cient – the con­fer­ence should be a wake-up call.

Nudging, tweaking, or cajoling people into piece­meal beha­vi­oural changes like re-using plastic bags is not a pro­por­tionate response to cli­mate change. Engaging the public through their per­sonal carbon foot­prints is really only a means to an end – and that end is a polit­ical and eco­nomic system that has sus­tain­ab­ility as its central organ­ising principle.

And if these sound like rad­ical state­ments, unbe­coming of the stately, reserved sen­ti­ments asso­ci­ated with the Royal Society, then con­sider the pro­spect of a world that is four or even six degrees hotter and the havoc and suf­fering that would be inev­it­able. This is also a rad­ical choice.

Clearly, eco­nomic sys­tems do not over­haul them­selves – and in a demo­cracy, majority sup­port is a pre­requisite for any sig­ni­ficant soci­etal shift. Politicians do not take risks if they don’t think the elect­orate will sup­port them. And civil society cannot func­tion without a diverse supporter-base.

This means that public engage­ment still lies at the heart of the chal­lenge of cli­mate change, but it is a form of public engage­ment that goes way beyond plastic bags. And any public cam­paign that treats minor beha­vi­oural change as a valid goal in itself is also taking a rad­ical stance: com­pli­city in a dan­ger­ously warmer world.

Article ori­gin­ally pub­lished by Guardian Sustainable Business 13.12.13

2 Comments + Add Comment

  • “Like recyc­ling, re-using car­rier bags has become some­thing of an iconic “sus­tain­able behaviour“.”

    I used to re-use car­rier bags, but then some­body made some change to their com­pos­i­tion that res­ulted in them going brittle after a few months, and even­tu­ally falling apart into a mess of tiny white flakes. Very annoying!

    Who did that?

    “a fun­da­ment­ally dif­ferent eco­nomic system is required, if we are ser­ious about avoiding dan­gerous cli­mate change, based on nur­turing well­being rather than stoking cor­porate profit.”

    Stoking cor­porate profit *is* about nur­turing well­being. Corporate profit is what pays our salaries, funds our pen­sions, and puts goods in the shops and food on the table. Not under­standing that may explain why the cam­paign isn’t working.

    “The clear mes­sage was that unres­trained cap­it­alism is incom­pat­ible with decar­bon­isa­tion: the sums simply don’t add up.”

    On the con­trary. The sums *always* add up — which is your problem. Decarbonisation costs a huge amount, which can be meas­ured in human well­being, and which has to be paid. Your problem is that you keep on trying to get the decar­bon­isa­tion without paying for it, or by dis­guising the costs and pre­tending to everyone that we’re not paying for it.

    The fun­da­mental blocker to inter­na­tional nego­ti­ations on cli­mate action is explained in the Byrd-Hagel res­ol­u­tion, and is that in order to be effective every nation has to decar­bonise, including the devel­oping world. There’s no point oth­er­wise. But the devel­oping world refuses to even coun­ten­ance that, nat­ur­ally, because of the immense cost in human wellbeing.

    People have tried manip­u­lating the energy market to sub­sidise renew­ables and pen­alise fossil — the net effect of which has been higher energy prices, fuel poverty, the eld­erly dying in the cold, and half the cost hidden in taxes to pay those sub­sidies but still paid for by the people, a burden on the eco­nomy and employ­ment and so on. More human suffering.

    It has often been sug­gested that if everyone who believed in the global warming crisis was to per­son­ally decar­bonise — stop using fossil fuels, stop using any­thing made or trans­ported with fossil fuels — then the use of fossil would drop dra­mat­ic­ally overnight, the price of fossil fuel would drop, taking all the profit out of it, the price of renew­ables would skyrocket, motiv­ating and funding the devel­op­ment of new tech­no­logy and a rapid shift in energy gen­er­a­tion, and even­tu­ally when the new tech comes along and prices fall again, everyone else would follow suit too. The reason why believers don’t — and why some of the loudest voices for decar­bon­isa­tion are among the most con­spicuous for energy use — is that this means the well­being costs would fall on *them*. That’s not their idea at all! They want the global bene­fits of decar­bon­isa­tion, but they want the well­being costs to fall some­where else. Everybody wants some­body else to pay — not real­ising that ulti­mately the chain of trade loops around and they’ll end up paying for it anyway.

    Decarbonisation means suf­fering and poverty — con­tinued for some, a return to it for others. And vir­tu­ally nobody is con­vinced that the price is worth paying. They’ll play along if they think they can get some­body else to foot the bill, but not oth­er­wise. And that’s the problem.

    “Many scep­tics see the issue of cli­mate change as no more than a figleaf for ush­ering in a new era of socialism.”

    Heh! Yes. That much is obvious.

    But there are free-market solu­tions if you’re willing to listen. In my exper­i­ence, nobody is — which tells me that imple­menting the pro­posed solu­tion (socialism and state con­trol of every aspect of private life) is more important to them than solving the problem.

  • […] the Talking Climate blog we reported back from the Tyndall ‘Radical Plan’ con­fer­ence that was held just before Christmas at the Royal Society in London, and also asked […]

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