At a dinner on UK climate policy last night, there were – as always – several people around the table lamenting the fact that in generally messing up on how they communicate climate change to a sceptical public, policymakers have in particular failed to make more of the ‘green collar jobs’ argument. Climate change shouldn’t just be presented as a problem, the argument goes; doing that just makes people feel depressed. No, we should present it as a huge opportunity: this, after all, is Britain’s chance to make money from the jobs of the future.
I must admit, I always think there’s something a bit disingenuous about these arguments. True, some countries will do very well out of particular export sectors that emerge from the need to reduce emissions: think of the Danes and offshore wind, for instance. But all countries are talking about green new deals etc., and logically, not all of them are going to win prizes (a point particularly germane in the UK, you might think, given we’re 25th out of 27 EU member states on renewable energy; only Malta and Luxembourg perform worse).
For most countries, the realistic best case scenario is that some new jobs will be created, while some old ones will be lost. True, Britain has a small fuel cells sector that might yet go places. But if you work in aviation or steel or cement or road haulage or coal mining or any of the other sectors with a less-than-rosy future in a low carbon world, you might worry about whether your kids should follow you into the same line of work. Just to focus on the jobs being created might make you feel good, but it’s hardly the whole picture. And this is before we even consider what happens to employment if – as you might reasonably suspect – the medium to long term effect of climate change is that we all have to (gasp!) consume a bit less.
So if you’re convinced that the only way to get people to take action on climate change is to persuade them that there will be vast benefits, then it’s unclear to me that green jobs is the best place to pitch your tent. I think instead you need to show people the money: not just the few thousand of them who get green collar jobs, but all of them, through some mechanism such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax, or a system of domestic tradable quotas (i.e. personal level emissions trading).
But I have to say, I’m not convinced that the ‘climate change is a huge opportunity’ argument has any clothes anyway. The blockage we’re up against here is laziness, inertia and inconvenience on a large scale. Reducing emissions is a big hassle. We know this, because even though study after study shows that it’s essentially cheaper than free for people to insulate their lofts, they still don’t.
But we’re not just talking insulating lofts. We’re talking about changing the entire energy system – how you heat your home, how you get to work, how your power is generated, how it’s distributed from there to you. It’s like the hassle involved with changing your bank, times a hundred and forty seven. If someone told you that the quid pro quo for incurring that much hassle was the creation of 12,000 new engineering jobs in the north-east of England, you would look at them and say, “So?”
The “opportunity” argument just doesn’t stack up against the tedious, time-consuming, expensive, unglamorous reality that will be the transition to a low carbon economy – and I think we’re doing ourselves no favours in sticking with it.
I think we need to look seriously at the last time Brits were persuaded to take on this much hassle – namely rationing, during and after World War Two – and ask how they were won over. It wasn’t about opportunity. The arguments that got them to put up with it were not about how much healthier they’d be on their new diets (true though this was). Instead, they were persuaded by a story about personal sacrifice that would make them part of a heroic shared undertaking in the face of an existential threat.
And even then, they moaned like hell. Continue reading