Climate change and modern society - the politician's double bind

Wednesday, 23 September 2009 at 16:46

I went to an open meeting yesterday with members of local government about making our city sustainable and doing our bit to minimize climate change. I came away with a heavy realization - that if we leave things to government as it is, we are screwed.

Although the speakers I heard were well meaning, they just didn't seem to have much sense of urgency. They blathered and went on tangents and didn't have important facts at their fingertips, or even available (like what the estimated percentage reduction of CO2 was over the next couple of years, if their plans were put into action). Sustainability is just one of several dozen issues they have to deal with on a daily basis, but even so, the presentations felt like a perfunctory passing down of official notes and far off targets, dressed up with a few anecdotes.

I was left with the distinct feeling that government will only give climate change appropriate attention if the public leave them with absolutely no alternative. But why is this? Surely they are aware of the science, the evidence and the immeasurably grave consequences of insufficient action? I think they are, so what is going on?

I thought about this and it seems government are stuck in a double bind. It's not just about getting elected again, although that is no doubt a big part of it, it's about what they were elected for.

We vote for counsellors and political parties we think will champion our values and improve our lives - and there in lies the problem. We value many things, like personal economic prosperity, because it gives us personal freedoms and luxuries. We value the ready availability and affordability of the things we like to eat and wear and otherwise buy. We also value health and education, security and liberty. Oh, and a fast growing number of us also value looking after the earth and not wrecking it any more than we already have.

With the exception of liberty, all of the above cost 'money' and some are in direct conflict with having a sustainable society. So, the message from the public is:

a) "Give us cheap travel and consumables and affordable housing (and also keep us in good health, safe and educated). If you don't, we'll vote for someone else who convinces us they might be less bad at the job."

b) "Use your power to protect our planet and the future of humanity. If you don't we'll lose what faith we had left in you and lay the blame at your feet (even if we still vote for you until the water's at our door)."

They cannot escape this situation or ignore the issues. They have been elected, and they as individuals probably want to satisfy both demands. It's a double bind conflict. They must do something and they are wrong whatever they do.

Of course this is only the beginning of the problem. We've not considered industry yet and the media they own, or lobby groups or plain ignorance, denial and addiction to power, or the excuse 'if everyone doesn't do it, what's the point in us doing it?'

But then, why aren't government putting more effort into educating the public about the issue and more money into R&D for renewable energy? Our total budget for renewable energy development this year was £450m, which includes assisting businesses in using existing renewable technology. The money spent on actual research and development will be much smaller.

To put that into perspective, a report by market researchers Datamonitor found that in 2004 Britons spent £400m on chocolate (£920m in total on 'premium treats'). We currently spend around £1b every year on cosmetic operations.

Perhaps the conflict runs deeper than concern for conflicting public opinion? Perhaps we need to consider our status as a nation? Any move to a more sustainable society that results in a shrunken economy or a threat to the business-as-usual establishment would fly in the face of deep rooted ideas of what 'progress' means (free markets and continuous economic expansion). We would risk becoming less 'developed' in the eyes of other countries that did not take similar action. We may lose international clout beyond simply what a reduced economy would dictate. Again, what government would warm to that idea?

Just imagine what would happen to the UK if we did something 'crazy' like commit to an 80% reduction in CO2, not by 2050 (our current target, actually one of the more 'ambitious' amongst rich countries), but say in the next 8 years? If we were the only country to do it our economy would most likely soon become the Sierra Leone of the Eurozone. We'd be forced to be almost entirely self-sufficient (because we'd lack the money to buy much from outside). Our status as a global centre of finance? Bye, bye. Our liberty to drive around town in range rovers? Bye, bye. The availability of cheap plastic goods for everything from food wrapping to car parts? Gone. You think electricity is pricey now? Just wait. You get the idea. (Yes it's possible if we focus our efforts we could come up with incredible developments in sustainable technology that we could trade with other countries to ease our transition, but we can't rely on that.)

Can you see that policy flying in Westminster in the next year or two?

Taking a brief look at some figures, in several studies published in Nature [1,2,3] this year, the latest research indicates some alarming things. In order to have only a 1 in 4 chance of going over the 2 degree temperature rise (measured from 1990) we must limit our total CO2 emissions from 2000 to 2050 to under 1000 billion tons. This 2 degree rise is thought to be a tipping point for the climate, after which we can expect drastic temperature and sea-level rises, loss of coast lines, whole cities and even countries, massive global food shortages and other delights. However, from 2000 to 2006 we already blew 234 billion tons, or around 39 billion tons per year on average. Since 2006 China (along with many other countries) has significantly increased it's CO2 emissions, exceeding even the US. If we assume an average yearly rate then of 40 billion tons from 2000 to 2010 that's almost 400 billion tons so far, leaving us with 'just' 600 for the next 40 years, or on average 15 billion tons per year, about 37% of our current usage. But remember that's just to get a 1 in 4 chance of averting cataclysmic disaster. Supposing we wanted to pop for a 1 in 8 chance? How much would we have to reduce emissions then? I don't know, but I bet it's by a lot more than 63%. Given what's at risk, even a 1 in 100 chance seems like an awfully big gamble. The government's current target, which many consider ambitious, is barely in line with giving us that 1 in 4 chance. (Yes, the bold action of any one country would have to be followed by the rest to avert disaster, but at least if we take the initiative we move in the direction of hope rather than despair.)

What about industry? Actually some parts of it have been quicker to respond to the demands of the sustainability movement than government. There is valuable commercial opportunity there (besides the quick buck seekers some good examples are renewable energy tech and plant based plastics industries and local organic farming businesses). However other parts of industry have spared no expense in impeding the adoption of greener policy, because the cost benefit analysis doesn't work out for them (the planet is generally not included in calculations). Think petrochemical and coal industries. Yes they currently provide much of the life blood of our society, but unfortunately that doesn't exclude them from being a big chunk of the problem.

There is certainly more opportunity for business to form part of the solution here, but there are also conflicts between commercial opportunity most often being tied with economic growth and that growth being tied to growing consumption and thus growing energy and resource usage. I'll leave that issue to another day. Part of the difficulty is also infrastructure. We have huge investments in old unsustainable production systems, which are currently doing rather well at making profit, paying shareholders and helping some people live the dream. What company board would vote to dismantle that in the face of competition that wasn't following suite?

Yes you will get the start-ups catering to a growing niche, but for business at large, it's going to be a very slow transition until they get an unmistakable picture of mass public demand for sustainable alternatives, and a willingness to pay the price for them. So quite like government in that sense.

Demand of course is shaped not only by basic needs but by emotional drives for things like sex, status and positive self-image (as the Machiavellian mind of Edward Bernays proved to staggering effect). Demand is also affected by how well informed people are. Those last two factors are strongly influenced and utilised by the vast rivers of cash that make up the marketing and media budgets of our global consumer industries. So we have a feedback loop here that helps keep things as they are. The situation is a bit like "we give you what you tell us you want (after we've told you what you want)".

Now consider the question the public is faced with (but many still don't even think about): Either carry on as you are, whether you're struggling to make ends meat or enjoying the luxuries you've become accustomed to, or make some significant sacrifices and habit changes for the sake of something you can't yet see or hear or feel in front of you and is too big to really comprehend anyway.

With all these combined factors we can begin to perceive the cogs of a giant machine we've built up around us. It has a flashing sign on it that reads 'self destruct - in progress'. Is there any hope at all? Yes, I think so, there is still an abort procedure.

Essentially the above question needs to shift to one of social pressure and acceptability. There needs to be a strong social drive to change habits and expectations. There needs to be a sense of having no option but to change.

Can we see real examples of where large scale reductions in CO2 emissions have occurred, and how has that affected quality of life?

Look to Cuba in the 1990's. When the Soviet Union broke apart, Cuba's oil supplies fell by over 70%, pretty much over night. (Not only that but the US sanctions prevented most of the other imports a country might need from getting in) It wasn't easy, but they coped. Initially there were food shortages, but the country rapidly adapted to localized organic farming (having previously been one of the highest users of pesticides). They reduced the need for commuting by building more schools and housing in cities, promoted cycling and found ways to harness the sun and wind. Communities banded together to support each other and, you may be surprised to learn, during the 90's the general level of health care and education in Cuba equalled or exceeded that in the US, despite having a tiny fraction of its GDP. So, health and education do not have to suffer in a low carbon economy. They actually had lower rates of obesity and heart related illnesses because people were more active and had a more varied diet. So the transition to living with much less oil (and much less energy) can be done, in a matter of 2 or 3 years, and it doesn't mean going back to living in wooden huts. Cuba, though didn't have a choice. Our trouble is that we do.

(From Cuba's recent activity it's clear this is a habit hard to kick (their CO2 emissions have recently started rising sharply again as they grow their gas and diesel usage), but the positive message to take from this is that it is possible to adapt, quickly, when it seems like that's you're only option.)

So even with our more advanced renewable technology and engineering prowess, we are still nudging the issue around the table. What will change this? A critical mass of people inspiring other people to take action (and forcing government to take action). It has to become the accepted social norm to live sustainably. To not do so needs to become socially unacceptable. Then almost any other inconvenience will be tolerated. It will take new tools for organization (watch this space for those of you who know about the PePol project) and possibly a radical act from government, such as forming a coalition government, or a rock solid pledge to share a common environmental and energy policy, to weaken that side of the double bind.

The media has a big part to play too (despite the thoroughly unwholesome influence of the 'business-as-usual' establishment owned media empires) in the solution. We're already seeing the effects of Indie media in this area working with other inspired people and activist groups (for a recent example look at The Yes Men at their best.). If you're hearing a lot about something and you're getting the clear facts, you're in a much stronger position to take intelligent action and you're more likely to become inspired to actually take it.


  1. Meinshausen et al. Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C. Nature, 2009; 458 (7242): 1158-1162 DOI: 10.1038/nature08017
  2. Allen et al. Warming caused by cumulative carbon emission: the trillionth tone. Nature, 2009; 458 (7242): 1163-1166 DOI: 10.1038/nature08019
  3. Allen et al. Nature Reports Climate Change. The exit strategy: Emission targets must be placed in the context of a cumulative carbon budget if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. Nature Reports Climate Change, 2009 DOI: 10.1038/climate.2009.38


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