The truth about what will really enable us to tackle climate change effectively

December 8, 2015

Posted by: Frances Lawson

At the heart of any discourse are assumptions that are taken to be beyond question. The dominant climate change discourse encircling the current COP21 negotiations is based on several such assumptions which therefore lie outside the scope of what is being discussed, not only by ministers and negotiators, but by also commentators. Challenging those assumptions crosses some red lines into territory that is deeply unpopular, even scandalous. At least some of those assumptions are, however, what lies between us and an effective approach to tackling climate change.

Assumption 1: Limitless economic growth is both a good thing and compatible with climate change mitigation

There are, of course, many who challenge the economic growth doctrine and call for a more ‘distributive’ and ‘just’ economic model. Those people, however, are immediately marginalised into the ‘extreme left’ of the political spectrum and stripped of any mainstream credibility. Anyone who wants to be listened to and taken seriously by decision-makers has to endorse the ‘economic growth’ agenda as the only legitimate approach. Consequently, even some in the NGO world have begun to tacitly accept the narrative of ‘growth’ in their literature.

There is no need for an economics degree in order to understand why the current ‘growth’ model is inherently incompatible with effective climate change action. The need for growth is taken to be endless, infinite … it is the motor for the global economy, and consequently there will never be a point at which we can step off its hamster wheel. There are two preconditions in order for the economy to grow endlessly – the first is that everyone on the planet continues to consume more and more ‘stuff’ … we buy more goods, throw things away quicker, replace them quicker, own more than we need etc. That is what retailers, manufacturers, producers rely upon to generate higher and higher profit levels, which in turn produce rising levels of GDP. The other precondition is that there are ever more consumers on the planet, in other words, an ever higher global population.

No politician, no commentator, no analyst, no researcher has, to my knowledge, explained how we can have ever greater levels of consumption and successfully tackle climate change in line with the scientific consensus. There is much talk of how consumption habits can be made ‘greener’ and ‘more sustainable’. Making consumption less environmentally harmful is, however, is very different from those consumption habits being consistent with total decarbonisation and the limiting of warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The reason, I suggest, for the absence of an explanation as to how ever-greater growth, and the ever-greater consumption it relies upon, can fit with the overarching objective of the UNFCCC is due to a mixture of denial and a resolute refusal to discuss it where it needs to be discussed most.

Assumption 2: Economic growth is needed in order to eliminate poverty

The rationale for maintaining the economic growth doctrine is an emotive one. It is impossible to argue against the desirability of reducing, or ideally eliminating, poverty. Within the climate negotiations, developing countries proclaim a right to economic growth, and therefore to emit greenhouse gases, in order to ‘eliminate poverty’, an objective reinforced by the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in September 2015.

We only have to look at our own countries for abundant proof that our current economic growth model does not lead to poverty elimination. Every morning in Paris, I walk past at least half a dozen homeless people either begging in the street, or wrapped up in a sleeping bag. The picture is equally dismal on my home territory of Islington in North London. One of the great ironies of the climate negotiations is that developing countries are asserting a need to pollute in order to adopt a development model that has comprehensively failed to eliminate poverty in the developed countries that they wish to emulate.

No reasonable person would dispute that we should aim for a world without poverty, or at the very least, without a poverty extreme. What we are failing to ask ourselves, however, is whether a world without poverty means that everyone has the right to own and drive a car? To own a detached property with private garden? To have satellite TV? Multiple mobile phones? The developing country discourse in the UNFCCC seems to suggest that everyone in their countries should enjoy the standard of living that some, but not all, in the developed world have available to them, as if these things are the benchmark of a ‘life without poverty’. Such a discourse overlooks not only the viability of everyone on the planet having these things without that very planet being destroyed, but also whether these things are what enable people to live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life. Questioning this discourse, however, tends to result in being labelled as someone who wishes to see the perpetuation of poverty-induced suffering.

Assumption 3: Everyone can have it all

This assumption ties together the two previous ones. The reason for the reticence of the Parties to the UNFCCC to bind themselves to legal obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent required by the science is because they fear it may harm their short-term economic interests to do so. What underpins this reticence is said to be the desire to ensure that standards of living are maintained in the developed world, and that poverty is eliminated in the developing world. What it is actually about, however, is one simple phrase … wanting to have it all.

There is an unspoken assumption in the ‘developed world’ that we have to continue to have all that we have at present, indeed that it is our ‘entitlement’ – we need to be able to drive our cars when we want, fly abroad when we want, buy things we don’t need when we want, throw things out the minute they don’t work … this is the concept of ‘freedom’ and ‘happiness that we have brought into. It is out of the question in our era to make sacrifices, even for the future of the planet. Maybe because ‘sacrifice’ has a religious connotation that makes us uncomfortable. Or maybe because the majority have still bought into the notion, sold us by the ‘economic growth’ advocates in politics, that having all this ‘stuff’, benefiting from all these ‘freedoms’ make us happy. Would being only able to take one flight per year affect my personal happiness? Having reflected on the question, and despite my love of international travel, the answer is no, it would not. Would I be prepared to make that, and other sacrifices, in order to ensure we are successful in limiting global warming? Unhesitatingly yes I would. From a small survey of my friends, so would others. Yet, due to the erroneous assumptions above, none of us are being asked to. Instead, we’re being told we can have it all and encouraged to consume even more that we do at present.

Once again, no politician, commentator, researcher has, to my knowledge, explained how we can enable a global population of 8 billion (and rising) to benefit from an unlimited ability to fly, drive cars, use energy, consume goods and services whilst making deep and lasting cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions in the short timescales required to avoid catastrophic climate change. The simple reason is because we can’t.

If the international community is sincere in its commitment to tackling climate change in time, it is time to question the assumptions above and reflect upon the following alternative truths:

1. The current consumption-based economic growth model is fundamentally incompatible with adequate climate change mitigation and is the major block to an effective agreement in Paris.

2. The current economic growth model is primarily about wealth accumulation, greed, and wanting to have it all … not about poverty elimination.

3. Developing country calls to be allowed to follow our example economically is, in many cases, not just about eliminating poverty but is also about the politics of envy, wealth accumulation and greed.

4. In order to successfully mitigate climate change, developing countries must immediately adopt a truly sustainable, decarbonised, low-emission pathway, fully supported and enabled by the developed world. There should be no new building of fossil-fuel energy generation facilities – everything financed by the developed world should involve renewable energy. Reversing what has already been done 10, 20 years down the line is so much harder than doing it in the right way first time around.

5. An alternative economic model is needed that does not rely upon endless consumption, is compatible with our climate mitigation commitments and which promotes a good quality of life for everyone without extremes of wealth.

6. We need to change our discourse from believing we can, and should, have it all to one where we recognise that avoiding catastrophic climate change requires adjustments to our daily lives, and some modest sacrifices that, most probably, will not impinge our quality of life or happiness.

You can keep up-to-date with all updates by following @6pumpcourt on Twitter.