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Letters / Tackling climate change: ‘it’s not news – and there’s no money in it’

IN November 2014, The New York Times published an enthusiastic review of a new book by Naomi Klein entitled This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

A year later there was a letter to the same paper, in which Professors Tim Jackson and Peter A. Victor wrote: “Imagining a world without growth is among the most vital and urgent tasks for society to engage in.” (Tim Jackson is the author of Prosperity without Growth, first published as a report to the UK government in 2009, and re-issued as a new edition last year.)

Fast forward to December 2018. Another newspaper, The Guardian, is issuing alarming headlines. First, David Attenborough warns G20 leaders about an impending “collapse of civilisations”.

Next we read: Brutal news: global carbon emissions jump to all-time high in 2018. Today it’s: “Tackle climate or face financial crash, say world’s biggest investors” (who manage a mere $32 trillion of funds apparently). And of course there’s yet another meeting of the so-called United Nations …

The Guardian editorial of 6 December on climate change (Too Much Too Soon) had this to say about a recent UN report: “The most worrying feature…is the suggestion that the relatively good performance of the years 2014-16 in reducing carbon emissions was the result of an economic slowdown. The political consequences of the resulting discontent are with us still. They produced Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro and gravely weakened the EU…”

Actually the UN report (curiously entitled #Emissionsgap) said that:

  • Despite modest growth in the world economy, CO2 emissions remained relatively stable from 2014 to 2016, indicating that global GHG emissions might show signs of peaking. However preliminary estimates of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, industry and cement for 2017 suggest an increase of 1.2 per cent.
  • The main drivers of the increase are higher GDP growth (about 3.7 per cent) and slower declines in energy, and especially carbon, intensity, compared with the 2014-2016 period.
  • The 2017 increase leaves considerable uncertainty as to whether the 2014-2016 slowdown was driven primarily by short-term economic factors.

Unfortunately the report does not reveal what those economic factors were.

However it does go on to recommend reform of “fiscal policy” by governments.

Tellingly, although “promotion of investment in new technologies and market creation” is encouraged, top of the list of five “key principles or ‘success factors’ that policymakers should consider… to accelerate low-carbon innovation” are these:

  1. Public organisations must be willing to take on the high, early-stage risk that private organizations shy away from.
  2. At the mid-stage of the innovation chain, public organisations must be able to nurture feedback effects among different parts of the innovation landscape and help de-risk private investment in commercial-scale projects.

And finally we get this, in an hilarious crescendo of ‘management-speak’:

  1. Policy instruments need to be structured to mobilise actors through bottom-up exploration and participation. All these policies benefit from a long-term design horizon that creates certainty for private finance to be crowded in.

Let alone any concern for the sanity of the UN report’s authors, it’s worrying that The Guardian apparently links the rise of right-wing populists to economic slowdown, and that both it and the UN seem wholly to accept that capitalism is necessary, not only for tackling global warming but for the human race generally, and…well, the world.

One might have thought that if economic slowdown, or lack of economic growth, resulted in lower carbon emissions, that might just act as a faint wake-up call – to some alternative course of action.

But mainstream media and organisations are now so in thrall to the notion that capitalism and market forces are inevitable, that they fail to see that it is companies protecting their shareholders by laying off workers when profits fall that causes social unrest, and gives opportunity for demagogues and fascists to strut the political stage and conjure up powerless scapegoats.

At the same time the UN is urging that we, the public, generously subsidise, at ourrisk, the private sector. Why? –  because it is risk-averse!  Alas, the irony is surely unintentional  – and escapes The Guardian editor’s glance.

At least the editorial concludes that: “We must also learn somehow to disrupt the political and economic feedback loops which are driving our civilisation to the brink of catastrophe.”

It will take a lot more learning than fiscal policy reform to do that. But learned people have been trying for years to enlighten us that economic growth itself is the cause of so many of the world’s ills, whether plastic pollution of oceans, deforestation and species extinction, global warming, or even the collapse of civilisations.

It’s not news – and there’s no money in it. Perhaps that’s why nobody hears them…

James Mackenzie