The adults claim to be back in charge. In a time of Covid and COP, what a difference it makes. Relief and excitement are growing in equal measure as world leaders move beyond the chaos of the Trump era and talk up their commitments to acting on the environmental emergency. But a profound question hangs over them: is the economic model upon which mainstream politics is founded – and that determines which policies are and are not possible – fit to follow through on their burgeoning ambition?
First things first: the recent flurry of announcements and summits has been supremely welcome. Around the world, countries are signing up to more ambitious climate targets. Businesses and major international institutions are talking up a green recovery as we build back from the wreckage of the pandemic. Economic policy is tentatively changing to keep pace with this ambition, including ditching worries about deficits to open up unprecedented public spending, as we might be seeing in the US, and pushing the financial system to move away from investments in fossil fuels. The neoliberal era could be coming to an end.
In short, it feels like mainstream politicians are finally gearing up to give their full attention to tackling the climate crisis. Yet targets do not meet themselves. Progress to date has been relatively easy, largely coming from cleaning the power sector. The next stage is far harder. Delivering the UK’s 78% goal will require society-wide changes to occur over the period from a child starting primary school this September to their graduation after A Levels in 2035.
Many leaders and their governments are alive to this challenge, as much of the detail and discussion around the recent announcements makes clear. But absent big changes to the policies they espouse and the kind of economic system they seek, this effort could crash up against three major challenges to which the mainstream doesn’t yet have credible answers.
Firstly, consumption. At this point, it’s crucial to understand that the global environmental emergency isn’t just about the climate. Soils are being depleted, many animal populations have collapsed by an average of over two thirds since 1970, and entire habitats are being lost. The mainstream imaginary is largely focussed on the climate problem and seeks to answer it by swapping dirty technology for clean alternatives and to ensure market incentives and rules are set up to speed this along.
While this is crucial, we have to understand that making all the clean alternatives has an environmental impact and some things we consume and do will probably never be environmentally sustainable. Overall, we’re not sure if there’s enough of an environmental budget – of the emissions released, the soils depleted, the habitats uprooted – for us to both rollout all the clean alternatives and meet the demand for new stuff to feed environmentally expensive lifestyles in Western countries and have them adopted around the world. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest that this isn’t possible, at least in the time we have left to avoid the worst. What’s more, we know that these lifestyles come with all sorts of other problems, including poor health and a range of inequalities, which the Covid crisis has cruelly exposed.
The second challenge is power. The approach of leading politicians and policymakers over the last many decades has been to downplay or ignore the power of the finance system, fossil fuel companies, and the other key groups that hold a vested interest in driving the environmental emergency. Industry standards are almost always voluntary. Boards are geared to demand short term returns and are full of those with interests in environmental destruction. International treaties give companies special rights to sue governments who seek more sustainable policies and to extract reparations for profits they claim to lose.
This has meant that we’ve gone backwards since the Paris Agreement, with nearly $4 trillion of fossil fuel investments made by banks since then. This is about the power of these groups to avoid scrutiny and enforced regulations and to hide behind bogus greenwashing. This was epitomised by Mark Carney’s claim in his new hedge fund management role that the firm was carbon neutral because it “avoided emissions” by investing in renewable instead of fossil energy, which supposedly cancelled out the carbon released by its other, dirty investments.
Thirdly, fairness. The environmental emergency is grossly unfair. In general, countries and communities who contribute the most to environmental destruction have benefited enormously in terms of economic and social development and are therefore more capable of insulating their populations and interests from the growing impacts. In contrast, these impacts fall hardest on countries who are both least responsible for the problem and least prepared for its increasingly severe effects. The same inequalities are seen within countries.
A high inequality, low cooperation world leaves us with little options. Instead, it grows the potential for an explicit eco-nativism, which moves from denial to the assertion that walls and exclusion are the best way to handle the crisis, waiting in the wings for the siren call of division. Even as it gears up to face the climate crisis, the status quo has little credible policies to reduce inequality within and between countries. We see this globally in the failure of rich countries to adequately support low-income nations in vaccinating their populations and to provide adequate funding for climate adaptation, and, at home, where health inequalities have been growing for decades.
While it’s welcome and important that many world leaders are increasing their ambition on the crisis and exploring policies to help markets swap dirty for clean, we need to build on this to create a politics that’s better capable of facing up to the challenges of consumption, power and fairness. This requires structural changes to how our economies are run, including rebalancing power through changes in ownership and increased economic democracy, setting new goals for the economy, and replanning how we live and work to ensure related problems of inequality and ill-health are tackled simultaneously. And the public knows it; a recent Pew poll showed half of those surveyed in the UK and USA want major change.
This politics can be found in economists using the doughnut model to put thriving human lives and environmental stability at the heart of economics. It’s practiced by local campaigners and councils organising their communities to build high quality green housing. It’s being planned into the fabric of cities that are reducing car use, connecting shared transport and more active options like cycling and walking, and creating thriving public spaces. It’s reaching communities left to the vagaries of globalisation who are ready to benefit from green jobs. It’s pressuring financial institutions through divestment campaigns and planning alternatives to financialisation through cooperatives, state investment banks and public asset managers. It’s imagining a world where care and play are better encouraged and rewarded instead of evangelising boundless material consumption. It’s entering government policy, where some countries are considering a wider concept of human and natural wellbeing to determine parts of government spending. It’s pushing at international meetings for countries to adopt targets based on cumulative (and not just current) emissions, which represents a fairer share of global efforts. It’s seeking to break the unfair treaties that favour destructive companies. It’s urging central banks to use their preeminent role as global economic planners to steward a more sustainable and fair international economy – and for treasuries to ditch the deficit myth.
And, fundamentally, it’s about health. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how the causes of the causes of poor health were the factors making so many of us vulnerable. These included poor quality housing, gruelling, precarious work, public health systems hollowed out by austerity, and the enduring legacies of racial inequality – all of which contributed to problems like diabetes, obesity and poor heart health that made people uniquely vulnerable to Covid.
The actions needed to tackle these root causes of ill health and our vulnerability to pandemics can also be precisely those that will enable us to reduce emissions and restore the natural world. Better public transport, high quality insulated homes, more nutritious diets, a more equal balance of power across the economy.
This politics holds great potential because fundamentally it is connecting what can often be seen as an abstract and elite concern with the lived experience of the pain, disenfranchisement and sheer waste of decades of failed economic model. For this and many other reasons, it is imperative that such a politics grows and matures, and that as we move beyond Covid-19, it replaces those without a credible answer to the challenges of consumption, power and fairness. Only then can we rightly claim that the adults are in charge.
This article was originally published in the Ecologist.