When the art of the possible won’t cut it

by | Jun 18, 2010

Halfway between Copenhagen and Cancun, international climate policy seems to have reached an inflection point – on both policy approach, and narrative framing. Alas, as discussions I’ve taken part in over the last week at both Ditchley and IPPR seem to confirm, the political momentum is all the wrong way, on both counts.

Copenhagen produced a pledge-and-review deal based on a tacit low-ambition consensus between the US and the BASIC countries. Looking ahead to Cancun, all the talk is of sectoral packages for renewables, energy efficiency, avoided deforestation and adaptation – but not binding targets. At Ditchley, I even heard one of the main architects of the Kyoto Protocol saying that voluntary targets and national policies and measures were the way to go, for everyone other than the EU.

There was more of this line of thinking at the IPPR seminar I spoke at yesterday, where one of the other presenters was Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute – one of the main cheerleaders for the technology-led bottom-up approach and, conversely, a key critic of cap-and-trade or indeed the whole idea of carbon pricing.

When, he asked, has that kind of approach ever been a spur for innovation in the past? On the contrary, the key, he says, is to “drive down the price of clean energy technologies with large-scale public investments in research, development, demonstration and deployment”. Kind of like the Apollo program.

But he doesn’t stop there. More fundamentally, Shellenberger says, we’ve had the whole framing wrong. As he argues in his (excellent) book with Ted Nordhaus, he wants “a new politics for a new century – focus on aspirations, not complaints, human possibility, not limits”. 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?

Let’s start with where I think we all agree: the political space is just not there right now for an all-singing, all-dancing comprehensive global climate deal of the sort I want to see. There’s a recession on. The Climategate saga has damaged climate polling numbers – in the US, here, around the world. The politics on Capitol Hill are horrendous: never mind that moderate Republicans like Lindsey Graham aren’t supporting Kerry-Lieberman; 11 Democrats are opposed, too. The BASIC countries aren’t really ready to talk turkey on climate – or any other multilateral agenda.

And at a deeper level, politicians understand that they don’t get rewarded for preventing risks from kicking in. Look at swine flu, where they did great – with the result that everyone’s now criticising them for overreacting.

So like Michael Shellenberger, I’m not holding my breath for a global Grand Bargain on climate any time soon. And in truth, I’m happy to concede that there are plenty of sensible, bottom-up things we can usefully get on with in the meantime.  But here’s where Michael and I start to differ on the policy. Michael thinks the bottom-up stuff will be enough. I’m crystal clear that helpful though these voluntary actions may be, they will not get us to climate stabilisation.

Of course Michael is right that the key here is to bring down the price of clean technologies. That’s stating the obvious. Michael is also right that there’s great potential here for snowball effects. Once everyone’s buying a technology, it gets dirt cheap. That’s why I can buy a DVD player at Sainsbury’s for £29.99.

The real question is about how we overcome the immediate problem that today, clean tech is more expensive than the dirty sort, because environmental costs have never been reflected in prices – with the effect that whoever moves first to take up the new technologies will end up paying most.

Now it’s perfectly true to say, as Michael does, that one way through this is that governments could just subsidise the hell out of new technology until it’s widely deployed. But I’m at a loss to make out which OECD governments he thinks can afford this. The US? The Eurozone? Not holding my breath. China could afford to, sure – but they don’t exactly seem to be queuing up to bankroll the low carbon economy. The Gulf states’ sovereign wealth funds could, too, but – well, turkeys and Christmas and stuff.

So while it’s a great narrative to compare decarbonising the economy with the Apollo program, the comparison simply doesn’t stand up. The Apollo program didn’t involve overcoming massive price externalities. The US government was one hell of a lot more flush with cash in the mid-1960s. And there’s the small matter that getting a man on the moon didn’t entail any inconvenience, or direct expense, for any member of the public.

So I still don’t see how we decarbonise the economy without carbon pricing. And I have to profess myself just bemused by Michael’s bizarre contention that carbon pricing has no record of making change happen. Why does he think everyone in the US drives 4 litre cars while Europeans drive 1.4s – if not because of the difference in gasoline taxes?

And this is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Reducing emissions costs money. It just does. It involves getting rid of lots of expensive stuff before the end of its life – power stations, cars, industrial plants – and then buying new, cleaner stuff to replace it.

Michael and the rest of the All Must Win Prizes crowd have an answer for that: we need to emphasise the positives involved in the energy transformation that we have to make.  We should all be pointing to all the fantastic new green collar jobs that would be created, if only we would embrace the Green New Deal.

But again, I just don’t buy it. Sure, there’ll be some new jobs putting up windmills, insulating attics and making fuel cells. There’ll also be lots of jobs lost in (where to start?) coal mining, aviation, oil exploration and refining, long haul tourism, shipping, ports, energy intensive industries… and so on.

Now we can have an argument about whether we’re looking at a net gain or a net loss in employment terms. But let’s be clear that while we’re having it, everyone who works in the above sectors will be mobilising like hell to oppose anything that threatens their interests (anything effective, in other words). As David Steven and I observed a while back, the problem with climate action is that it has the opposite dynamic to chess:   

With every step that is taken towards an endgame, the number of pieces on the board will grow, not shrink. Swarming behaviour will become increasingly evident, as factions of all kinds are suddenly, and with unpredictable effect, galvanised into a passionate attempt to protect their interests.

My problem with the ‘all must win prizes’ narrative of Green New Deals, then, is that it’s disingenuous in its Pollyanna-like optimism. It overlooks that doing anything effective on climate will create both winners and losers – and that the losers will tend to be noisier and more visible.

So, you may by now be wondering, what am I arguing for?

Well, we could start by being straight with people about what dealing with climate change will involve. At a minimum, it will involve inconvenience, expense, hassle and cost. Probably – given that we all seem resolutely set on keeping our heads in the sand as long as we can – it’ll go a good deal further than that, and also involve danger, sacrifice, damage and strife. Most fundamentally, it will involve facing up to limits – and yes, that means quantifying them – and the equity implications of them, which I continue to believe, as I have for a decade, means equal per capita shares to the atmosphere.

Yes, yes – I’m being very unrealistic.

But I’m focusing on what’s necessary, not what’s possible. If, as I argued at the beginning, what’s necessary is not yet possible, then I’m not standing in the way of anyone who wants to try bottom-up action; I just want us all to be clear that it won’t, on its own, get us where we need to get to.

Rather than being realistic, then, I think the key thing at this stage is to be ready.

What will open the political space for comprehensive solutions  – alas – will be impacts: impacts that are tough enough to frighten people badly, but not so bad as to overshoot irreversible tipping points. Imagine a climate impact on the same scale as, say, the collapse of Lehman Brothers –that  scares the hell out of everyone, but doesn’t lead to meltdown – and you’re on the right track.

Now these kind of moments are full of risk. When everyone’s running scared, there is just as much chance of panic-driven kneejerk responses  as of sensible policy. Look at the US after 9/11.

But equally, they’re full of opportunity too – if people (policymakers, NGOs, journalists, whoever) are ready to take advantage of them, by channelling the generalised state of fear towards a sense of purpose about what it’ll take to solve the crisis.

Everyone, by now, knows the Rahm Emanuel quote about not letting a crisis go to waste. But (regular readers know what’s coming) Milton Friedman said it better:

Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

It’s interesting to compare Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain on this point. Chamberlain was all about telling people what they wanted to hear and being “realistic” about what he could achieve; and everyone loved him for it, right up to the moment it all fell apart.

Churchill, on the other hand, resigned himself to a lengthy spell in the wilderness as he warned that Germany was rearming. Recognising that no-one wanted to face up to the issue, he waited for the debate to come to him; then, at the moment when the crisis became apparent, he was ready, to channel public fear into public endeavour.

Seventy years ago today, he said:

What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.

Now that’s a narrative.

What Churchill understood, one suspects, is that 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. Renaissance follows Black Death; national sovereignty follows Thirty Years War; UN follows World Wars One and Two. 

Perhaps with climate change we’ll make the shift before we hit the disaster – we can, after all, solve this any time we want to.

But 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.

We may not want to think about that just yet. But it doesn’t stop it from being true.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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