What’s the right response to the politics of climate change – realism about the current impasse or holding out for the change that must surely come? A couple of weeks ago foreign policy expert Alex Evans posted a long piece on the Global Dashboard website, partly in response to an argument he was having with Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute at a recent ippr event. Here’s our perspective.
Alex starts by bemoaning the fact that an increasingly widespread response to the failure at Copenhagen is to argue that legally-binding international agreement with environmentally effective targets, along with global carbon markets, is currently impossible, and instead we should be trying to support national policies, like expanding renewable energy and driving through energy efficiency measures.
He then lays into Shellenberger for proposing an aspirational framing of climate policy in place of the more traditional environmentalist frame of limits. Alex has no time for this kind of talk:
“So enough with all the doom and gloom. Focus on the possibilities! The new jobs! The gadgets! Green new deal! All must win prizes! Well, I hate to be the party pooper, but – seriously? Are we all really drinking this Kool-aid?”
His dismissal of the so-called “bottom up” approach to policy, and a framing that appeals to the positive side of human nature, is based on two main points.
First, bottom up, voluntary actions won’t get us to where we need to be. No government in the OECD can afford to subsidise new low carbon technologies. In the end, decarbonisation costs money, and we can’t do it without carbon pricing.
Second, the Green New Deal story is unconvincing, and those who lose their jobs in the high carbon economy will mobilise more effectively to block change than those who might get new jobs in clean energy.
His alternative proposal is an international agreement for “equal per capita shares to the atmosphere” based on climate science – i.e. Contraction and Convergence. The idealistic nature of this position is for Alex its strength, because he is playing the long game. As he puts it: “rather than realistic…I think the key thing at this stage is to be ready.”
What he thinks we need to be ready for turns out to be climate impacts, which have the Cinderella quality that they are “tough enough to frighten people badly, but not so bad as to overshoot irreversible tipping points”. A kind of Lehmann Brothers moment, or rather, a Poland moment, since Alex goes on make much of the contrast between Neville Chamberlain’s realism in the face of Hitler and Churchill’s years in the wilderness, preparing for a war that only he knew was inevitable, and the sacrifices that would be needed to fight that war: “What Churchill understood, one suspects, it seems to be in the nature of our species that we don’t get to ‘broad sunlit uplands’ without first going through a battle.”
At the end, Alex spells out the bottom line: “I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that we can get through this without facing up to the need for principles on how we share out access to a world of finite resources, or the fact that this will involve sacrifice from those of us in the rich world.”
This is powerful, if morally loaded rhetoric, portraying Evans as the hero and Michael Shellenberger as an appeaser. But I am not convinced, for reasons arising from the fact that both the future – whether political or climate – is fundamentally unknowable.
Shellenberger says that a narrative based on limits and sacrifice will never work politically, and that we should invest heavily in technology because it may provide a solution that will be environmentally effective in the end. It has to be said that the evidence is with him on the first point, so far.
Alex says that there is no guarantee that the technology will work without targets and carbon pricing, and that we should prepare for the inevitable climate shock by investing in a politics of limits and sacrifice and a plan to go with it. I have some quibbles with Alex on the affordability of low carbon technology (it’s actually happening through higher energy bills, not higher public spending) and the distinction between carbon pricing and technology policy (read Chapter 16 of the Stern Review), but the main weakness of his argument lies in the second part.
There is simply no reason to believe that a climate shock big enough to bring about major changes in thinking will come along before we reach a tipping point (how would we know?). Climate change is by its nature long-term and insidious, more like a frog in a warming pot than a sudden Anschluss. And we have already had Hurricane Katrina, which demonstrated two things: first, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to authoritatively attribute single weather events to climate change, and second, that in such events, attention is immediately focused on what they show about the societies in which they happen.
In the case of Katrina, the story was not about what terrible things would happen with a changing climate, but about how the deep racial and class divisions in American society were laid bare, and the hopelessly inadequate response by the Bush regime. This indeed is the problem – most people are more interested in other people than they are in nature.
We have already had a generation of climate impacts. They will certainly get worse, and of course eventually they will impinge on the public mind that they do become a clear and present danger. But there is absolutely no reason to think that this will happen in the time frame that some action is needed. Bottom-up action may not get us there – that’s a real risk. But waiting for the flood is an even bigger one.