Straight talk about climate: ‘profound’ social-economic change is needed

“Profound changes in the socio-economic structure of modern society” are needed to limit the increase in global temperature, climate scientist Kevin Anderson argued in Responsible Science journal last month.

Scientists and academics joined other demonstrators on 25 March at Eindhoven airport in the Netherlands, demanding a ban on private jets, a frequent flyer tax and an end to short-distance flights. Photo from the Scientist Rebellion NL web site

I hope that everyone who cares about climate change and social justice will read Anderson’s short, clear article, available on the Scientists for Global Responsibility site. It’s a great starting point for discussion.

Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at Manchester university, briefly summarises the “carbon budgets” that need to be stuck to, if society is to limit global warming to 1.5-2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

He thinks it is “still do-able – just”, despite thirty years of “failures, tweaks to business-as-usual, carbon markets” and talk of the “dodgy prospect” of carbon removal technologies.

What would count as “serious climate action”, in Anderson’s view? A “roll-out of low and zero-carbon technologies”, in the style of the Marshall Plan – an international, state-directed reconstruction programme for Europe after world war two.

These technologies cover retrofitting our houses, public transport and massive electrification. It’s much more this “far from sexy” end of technology that’s important: the everyday technologies that allow us to live sustainable and fulfilling lives, rather than dreams of big and powerful electric vehicles (EVs), electric planes and lots of future carbon dioxide removal.

But, Anderson continues, rapid deployment of these technologies will no longer be enough. “We also need profound changes in the socio-economic structure of modern society. That is to say, a rapid shift in the labour and resources that disproportionately furnish the luxuries of the relative few – not just the billionaires, but also people like me.”

Society’s productive capacity, its labour and resources, need to be mobilised to “deliver a public good for all – a stable climate with minimal detrimental impacts”.

What would this look like politically? An immediate moratorium on airport expansion and a fair 80% cut in air travel by 2030 would be “an early win”; an end to building cars with internal combustion engines by 2025, and a huge shift from private cars to public transport and active travel in urban environments; and retrofit of homes “on a mass scale”, a requirement for passive house standards in all new properties, and the division of very large houses into smaller units. And then a “massive expansion of electrification in the energy system”.

Many climate scientists who comment on policy limit themselves to critiquing current inaction, and offering proposals to governments – despite the abundant evidence that these governments are neither willing nor able to do what is needed. Anderson goes further, and looks at the social dynamics behind political decision-making:

How will society pay for such a progressive future? I can hear some people ask. That’s where the rapid shift in labour and resources is really important. We know what to do and we know that most people will be much better off. But a relatively small, very high-consuming group of us will face major material sacrifice – and, of course, apart from a few exceptions, we will not do this voluntarily. So the question is much less “what do we need to do?” We already know. Nor is it how to fund it. We know how to do that too – through, for example, a Green New Deal scheme – and that we have the necessary money and wealth in society for this.

The question is how do we change the debate so that it’s not driven by the owners of the mainstream media, the senior journalists and academics, the entrepreneurs and the policymakers – all of whom are in the high emission category – and have successfully sidelined the central role of equity in the debate. This has to change if we’re not to face the calamitous prospects of rapidly rising temperatures and the impacts that will ensue.

In his contribution to The Climate Book, edited by Greta Thunberg (Allen Lane, 2022), Anderson says of this high-consuming elite:

The exclusive, high-emitting and high-consuming ‘we’ has constructed and subsequently hidden itself within the myth of a universal ‘we’ who must fight climate change together. Once you unpick this false togetherness, the prevailing mitigation narrative [i.e. claims about how greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced] explodes.

The myth of the universal “we” is certainly needs to be shattered, in my view. I agree, too, that the owners of mainstream media, “policymakers”, journalists, academics and other shapers of “public opinion” have much to answer for.

But I also think that, if they were the main problem, it would be relatively easy to fix.

Demonstrators at the “Big One”, organised by Extinction Rebellion in London, 24 April. Photo by Steve Eason

Actually, behind this facade – the political spaces in which the “prevailing mitigation narrative” is manufactured – are powerful social and economic relationships that have to be confronted and broken. Capital dominates society; it dominates and determines political discourse and deception in myriad ways. Some examples are well known:

□ The European Union, having adopted on paper some of the most ambitious climate targets, has in the last year overseen unprecedented levels of investment into gas infrastructure, justified in the name of wartime “energy security” on one hand, and fantastic tales about hydrogen on the other;

□ The Biden administration in the US, having pushed through the Inflation Reduction Act that provides for renewables expansion, is simultaneously approving new oil developments and an expansion of gas exports; and

□ The UK Labour party, while criticising the Tories on climate endorses new fossil-intensive infrastructure in places where it holds enough power in local government to challenge or stop it (Bristol and Manchester airport expansions, Silvertown Tunnel in London). The few exceptions (e.g. the Welsh government’s moratorium on road building) prove the rule.

This isn’t just politicians’ hypocrisy and cowardice. It’s more. In each case, the purveyors of the prevailing mitigation narrative have distorted, deceived and dissembled under huge pressure from powerful corporations and business lobbies. And it’s not just oil companies, but those who profit from infrastructure, engineering, aviation and motor manufacture.

It’s financial capital too: the now-annual Fossil Fuel Finance report maps in alarming detail the entangled, overlapping paths by which banks, insurance companies and other financial firms reinforce not just fossil fuel production but fossil-heavy infrastructure and industries.

In my view, the high-emission policymakers that Anderson warns about are in some respects  secondary figures. Their narratives are the foam on the surface; it’s the powerful undercurrents we have to deal with.

I don’t see any hope of achieving the “rapid shift of labour and resources” to which Anderson refers, without taking on and defeating these forces that dominate the economic system. And I freely admit that I am not sure how that will happen.

Thirty or forty years ago I would have spoken confidently of the near-term possibility of moving to a post-capitalist society. Now, it’s difficult – although not impossible – for me to see how that will happen in the next few decades, i.e. in the timescales on which we think about decarbonisation.

But none of that alters the fact that confronting the political superstructure won’t be enough. The economic base has to change.

Anderson makes two other points that I hope will kick-start discussion.

First, he doesn’t think it is “necessarily that hard to get the vast majority of the population” to support the drastic changes needed. This majority “will be better off in virtually all aspects of their lives” if a radical climate-plus-social-justice programme of the sort he proposes were implemented. It could eliminate fuel poverty, provide people with better homes, make urban space nice to live in, and so on.

This counters the assumptions that so many left-leaning politicians make, that first-world populations are inherently obstacles to effective climate policy.

Second, Anderson is right to ask:

How do we get the debate opened up? How can the silent majority, who will do really well out of these changes, have their voices heard, without being twisted by those running the show?

He is optimistic that, “if enough voices break through the stifling status quo, perhaps a more honest and inclusive debate can be catalysed”. And he proposes:

The rise of civil society engagement on climate issues, along with real-world technologies demonstrating what is already possible, suggest that we may be in the foothills of a social and technical tipping point. Of course we can’t know this until we are actually living through it.

These observations – that society as a whole not only must move if things are really going to change, but may be starting to do so – are vital. What has to be done just can not be done by a “climate movement” that is limited to activists, no matter how brave and committed, who are isolated from broader social movements.

In discussions about climate change, I often hear people say: “Listen to the science.” But the science is not a monolith. There are a range of opinions among scientists not only about the things they study, but about the methods needed to study them, and, crucially, the place of their work in society. All too many scientists accept the distinction, itself shaped by social relations, between their work and its political and social consequences.

Those scientists who tread over that barrier, and have something substantial to say about those consequences, need to be listened to carefully. SP, 4 May 2023.

Climate Uncensored – commentary by Kevin Anderson and Dan Calverley

What cutting greenhouse gas emissions actually means in practice – People & Nature, October 2022

Climate scientists are people too – People & Nature, November 2019

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