Climate consciousness requires political pressure

| 5th November 2018
Hands sharing plants
Max Pixel
Rutger Bregman and Steven Pinker have missed the point. Effective resistance to global temperature rise will need a fresh narrative.


The conclusion of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) comes as no surprise: it could be possible to limit human-induced global warming to 1.5oC but it will take tough measures. This is what has been projected for some time. 

National pledges made as part of the trumpeted Paris Agreement still mean we are on course for warming of about 3℃ by 2100, and therefore for a very high risk of ecosystem destruction and other severe effects. 

The UK government and the great majority of people believe that anthropogenic climate change is a fact.  So why is it that we have been so slow to respond to the evidence and take the necessary action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions?  

Apathetic response 

Political and social consciousness is largely unengaged.  In the UK one need look no further than the government decision to build a third runway at Heathrow airport, the continued subsidies given to fossil fuel companies, the reduction in incentives to install solar panels, and the slackening of planning regulations to allow fracking applications free passage.  

Egged on by invasive advertising, the acquisition of goods and consumption of energy continues unabated in most homes and workplaces, with little thought of the threat this poses to tomorrow. 

Two recent books, by authors who fully ‘believe in’ anthropogenic climate change, offer certain clues as to why public attitudes towards the looming danger are generally so apathetic.  One, by Rutger Bregman, is Utopia for Realists and how we can get there - originally published in Dutch in 2014 and in English in 2017.  The other is Steven Pinker’s 2018 Enlightenment Now.  

Both present positive propositions on other topics with confidence and verve, and make thoroughly worthwhile and thought-provoking reading. But each communicates a woefully inadequate stance towards climate change.   

Bregman’s focus is practical: the eradication of poverty and inequality. Drawing on the successful outcomes of a number of trial schemes, he makes a compelling case for the introduction of a universal basic income. 

He also argues for other major changes, such as a fifteen-hour working week, and taxation on capital instead of labour. He contends, with good reason, that “the idea that the GDP still serves as an accurate gauge of social welfare is one of the most widespread myths of our times”, and asserts that if we want a higher quality of life we will need to find alternative metrics. 

Cumulative threats

So far so good.  But the most fundamental aspects of welfare and a decent quality of life are secure shelter, food, water, and access to health care; climate change imperils them all. 

We have already seen an increase in floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, and ferocious storms around the world. If we don’t succeed in halting the rise in global temperatures very soon, we can expect a dramatic escalation in death, injury and deprivation of enjoyable life, as homes are destroyed, harvests fail, diseases spread, people fight for resources or migrate in vast numbers, and insecurity and anxiety about the future become endemic.  

So what does Bregman have to say about climate change? He suggests that working less is the solution - to “stress, climate change, accidents, unemployment, emancipation of women, ageing population and inequality”. In cataloguing climate change together with these other problems Bregman implies that it is qualitatively and quantitatively on a par with them.  But, serious as they are, and deserving of action, climate change is in a league of its own.   

Several reasons combine to make global warming the most wicked of all wicked problems: the generation of carbon dioxide, and the capacity of the natural world to absorb it, is invisibly implicated in almost every aspect of everyday life: transport, food, work, clothing, healthcare, education, leisure, commerce, and so on. 

The causes of climate change are embedded in government policies, business practices and individual behaviours alike in intricately convoluted ways. In addition, the ecological effects of CO2 are cumulative; they will not cease or ease from one day or year to the next in response to one novel policy, as other problems might. 

Enlightenment principles

Many different and radical measures must be taken in many different places to achieve a significant reduction in global warming.  

Bregman’s suggestion that the problem of climate change can be solved by a single social change - such as a shorter working week - misrepresents the gravity of the situation to a downright irresponsible degree. So does the implication that we have time in hand, indicated by his claim that a worldwide shift to a shorter working week could cut the CO2 emitted this century by half. 

The science tells us that to achieve the 1.5℃ target will require anthropogenic CO₂ emissions to reach net zero by 2050. His suggestion that utopia is possible is similarly a delusion in view of the rapid dwindling of the rich biodiversity, abundance and rhythms of nature from which humans have always drawn sustenance, both physical and spiritual.   

Pinker lets us down in different ways that aren't immediately obvious, as much of his argument is persuasive. The concern of his highly informed and informative book is philosophical: the restatement for contemporary times of the Enlightenment principles of reason, science, humanism and progress.  

He emphasises that reinvigorating these principles must be done collectively through systems and institutions: democratic government, international organisations, laws, norms and markets.

Technological innovation

Pinker also confronts the potential of climate change to wreak damage of catastrophic dimensions. But he is hopeful that this point will not be reached. 

His hope is based on the observations that life has improved vastly in numerous respects in recent decades, thanks to Enlightenment thinking; that a number of prophecies of doom have not materialised (he cites, among others, nuclear war and the Y2K millennium bug); that wealth is rapidly increasing around the world, and as countries become richer they become more inclined to protect the environment. 

He supposes that the forces pushing progress along will remain in place.  

Pinker is convinced that rationality and technology can pull us back from the brink. He advocates deployment of fourth generation nuclear energy, together with taxes or tradeable credits on carbon and the restoration of plant-rich forests, wetlands and marine environments. 

But he does acknowledge that there is no guarantee that the necessary transformations to technology and politics will be in place in time. 

So why is Pinker’s stance on climate change inadequate? One reason is that his heavy emphasis on science and technology leads him to address only the supply side of the energy issue, asserting that, “the enlightened response to climate change is to figure out how to get the most energy with the least emission of greenhouse gases”.

 This we must certainly do.  But the task is not one-sided. The demand side must be tackled too. 

Another failing lies in his exclusive focus on the big picture, on overarching principles and structures. The little regard that he pays the individual is sneering: he labels recycling, reducing food miles and unplugging chargers as pointless displays, sacrifices, and a distraction from the gargantuan challenge facing us.

Yet the IPCC have long advised that behaviour change must complement technological innovation if we are to keep global temperatures to liveable limits. 

Personal emissions 

Viewed through the lens of individual behaviour rather than grand systems, the calculation of personal carbon footprints reveals how all of us in the developed world who have disposable income are individually contributing to global warming. 

Such calculations are not straightforward and those found in different sources vary considerably, but comparison within a single dataset is revealing.  

According to World Bank figures, US residents in 2014 were - on average - each responsible for emissions of 16.5 tonnes, compared with the UK average of 6.5 (10 tonnes according to another source), and the Swedish average of 4.5.

The global per capita annual average of 5 tonnes encompasses some very low national scores, such as 1.73 in India and 0.3 in Kenya.  

At present, it has been reckoned that the world can absorb an estimated 2.5 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. As the world population grows  this figure will fall to 1.5 tonnes or less. 

The discrepancies, even between rich countries, show that there is much scope for many people to reduce their personal emissions.  There can be no hiding from the fact that personal choices can and should have a significant impact on the curbing temperature rise. 

Plenty of information on how to reduce the emissions involved in meeting everyday needs is available in books like Chris Goodall’s How to Live a Low Carbon Lifeand Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad are Bananas? 

For the sake of ecological health and social justice, we need to aim for a drastic reduction of carbon emissions among affluent people and an equitable allowance across the world, a process that has been termed ‘contraction and convergence’ . 

Anxious consumerism 

Pinker repeatedly appeals to the need for reason, yet he himself is not immune to the human weakness for cognitive bias which, as he points out, undermines rationality and leads to selection and omission of evidence to suit one’s case. 

His selectiveness is visible again in his attempt to explain why Americans are the exceptions to the general pattern that, the richer a country grows, the happier its people become. 

As he points out, levels of happiness in America have not risen in seventy years despite huge gains in income; in 2015 the US had the third highest average income yet was thirteenth in the ranking of countries’ happiness.

This, he argues, based more on surmise than data, is because more education increases anxiety and a sense of responsibility that detracts from happiness. 

It simply does not ring true that Americans’ happiness is compromised significantly more than that of the population of any other rich nation by awareness of the problems of life.  Consumer culture is rampant in the US.

A far more likely explanation for the less-than-expected US happiness score is the ultimately unsatisfying nature of consumerism. 

Research has shown that people whose values are centred on wealth, possessions and image are likely to suffer from poorer wellbeing and self-esteem, and higher anxiety, depression and insecurity, as explained, for instance, by American social scientist Tim Kasser in his book The High Price of Materialism. 

Limited perspectives 

The New Economics Foundation in the UK has constructed the Happy Planet Index which creates an aggregate score for wellbeing, life expectancy and environmental footprint for about one hundred and forty countries.  

In sharp contrast to the experience of the US, Costa Rica - whose average per capita carbon emissions in 2014 were a mere 1.6 tonnes - came top of the HPI league for happiness in 2009, 2012 and 2016. Wealthy western countries, often assumed to be the best places to live, do not score as highly on the HPI as some Latin American and Asia Pacific countries.  

Bregman and Pinker are so narrowly focused on their own particular preoccupations that their perspectives are skewed and their views of the necessary responses to climate change badly blinkered.  

Bregman’s advocacy of approaches to poverty and inequality is well grounded.  But, as climate change begins to alter the nature of ‘reality’, his assertion that leisure will be the greatest challenge of the twenty-first century shows that his loud claim to realism is justified only in his specific context and not in a general sense.  

Pinker’s perspective is much broader but is limited too, in significant ways.  His fervent confidence in the continuation of the arc of human betterment leaves him closed to the possibility of the crucial insight that it is carrying us beyond the point of viability.

It bears out Bregman’s contention that, “the Enlightenment model of how people change their opinions – through information-gathering and reasoned deliberation – is really a buttress for the status quo”. 

New narratives

These failings are serious.  They contribute to the cultural resistance which prevails in social discourse, to the need for a fundamental, urgent, unprecedented rethink of the way we conduct life.

Such rethinking about how to re-engineer the whole economic system so that it works for everyone now and in the future is going on in various quarters, but is almost unknown to the general population.  Its theme is not sacrifice, but living differently, in ways that would benefit both people and planet.

Public intellectuals and social influencers who write and speak of climate change have a vital role to play in inspiring their readers, listeners and viewers with accurate and constructive messages. Prominent figures whose enthusiastic endorsements of books amplify the ideas contained in them - be they valid or misleading - must take care for they also bear some responsibility for popular awareness.  

We need a new shared narrative, an inventive vision of how things can be better.  Tinkering with the existing order is no longer enough. 

Focused mechanisms that are valuable in themselves, such as provision of a universal basic income, must be made integral to a comprehensive restructuring of economic relationships. 

Economist Tim Jackson offers an innovative blueprint in his book Prosperity without Growth, which sets out new foundations for the economy and takes environmental and social limits into account.  He radically re-construes old concepts, formulating enterprise as service, work as participation, investment as commitment, and money as a social good.

Innovative thinking 

Work to develop this approach is underway at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP). 

Another economist, Kate Raworth, encapsulates the limits within which the economy must be constructed in a helpful concrete image. Her concept of the ‘doughnut economy’ delineates a safe and just operating space, within which basic human needs can be met and critical natural thresholds avoided.  

A very recent piece of work, published in September this year, is the report of the Commission on Economic Justice which was set up in the wake of the EU referendum.  Academics and leaders of the business world and third sector came together to undertake a non-partisan enquiry, and agreed that the economy needs fundamental reform.  

Their report, which was unanimously agreed, calls for environmental sustainability to lie at the heart of the new economy, and proposes a Sustainable Economy Act to bring the whole UK economy within sustainable environmental limits.  

Such innovative thinking, essential to forging a liveable future, needs to permeate public consciousness in order to hasten its implementation. 

Modest consumers

We need a fresh perspective on the individual and to explore how we can - individually and collectively - live in new and better ways, rather than simply thinking in terms of having to give things up or go without, which has little appeal to anyone. 

My study of individuals living in Britain who actively choose to live lives of modest material consumption - elaborated in my book Happier People Healthier Planet - tells a different story from that of the materialistically aspirational norm of social communication.  

The participants  illustrate how people who are keenly aware of the state of the natural world and of human inequality, and who focus their lives on creativity, connection with and protection of nature, making a positive difference in the world, and other intrinsically rewarding, non-materialistic concerns, are actually likely to enjoy higher than average life-satisfaction.   

Increasing numbers of ‘modest consumers’, ‘voluntary simplifiers’ and ‘minimalists’ value time and self-determination over money. These groups are experiencing the enjoyment and fulfilment that flows from lifestyles which organise themselves around the non-material riches that life has to offer.  

We need many more people to cross the ‘threshold of understanding’ that ever increasing possessions, novelty, convenience and luxury do not actually deliver deep or lasting happiness, and that their pursuit is implicated in the destruction of the natural environment on which we depend.   

Critical mass

A critical mass of people who choose to withdraw much of their custom from consumer society, and actively support alternative, benign and benevolent ways of conducting life, would build political pressure to instigate the reconstruction of our larger systems from the top. 

It is vital that writers, speakers and other communicators, whatever their own area of interest may be, contribute to the fostering of popular consciousness that a better life is possible, and inspire desire for it.  

It’s time to leave behind our destructive, profit-driven culture of status symbols, built-in obsolescence, thoughtless profligacy and wastefulness, disposability, and commercial exploitation of human insecurities, and replace it with a way of life which makes human and environmental wellbeing the guiding principle. 

Personal wellbeing thrives in a climate of respectful, supportive relationships; belonging and community; responsibility and a sense of agency; active engagement and meaning; personal creativity and shared cultural experiences; green space and wild places; and material sufficiency.  It is for society to nurture these.  

Let’s raise our expectations for fulfilling and rewarding lives in harmonious and equitable communities and a sustainable natural world, while reducing our material expectations to a level of sufficiency - for everyone.  

Collective growth

To achieve this may sound unlikely but, looking back at history, Bregman points out that progressive ideas are often ridiculed at first as crazy but ultimately accepted as basic common sense. 

His advice is encouraging: “If we want to cultivate a better world, we need to be unrealistic, unreasonable, and impossible”.  To change the trajectory of human development, to protect the world from catastrophic climate change, is in our power if we determine to do it. 

Alongside the extraction of maximum energy with minimum emissions, our challenge is to work out how, individually and collectively, we can get the most out of life using the minimum of material resources.  Unlike economic growth, the potential for personal and social growth has no bounds. 

This Author

Teresa Belton is a visiting fellow at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia and author of Happier People Healthier Planet. Find her on Twitter @tbelton1.


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