What is any likely future UK government going to try to do?
One thing you could say for Stern is that his target of 550ppm CO2 equivalent is better than nothing at all and his approach has more chance of working, because it doesn’t conflict with capitalism, than any approach that could stabilise at 450ppm, which is what the scientists mostly reckon we need to be aiming at, but which Stern effectively dismisses as unrealistic due to the economics. There might be some doubt in the models about what happens around 550ppm but there is very little doubt (outside of the Scientific Aliiance and other PR front groups) that things will get pretty bad with unconstrained emissions, taking us to 750ppm plus before the end of this century.
If mitigation is going to fail or fall seriously short, probably because the three major emitters of the next century won’t come on board even with capital-friendly proposals like Stern’s, that leaves us only with adaptation. Adaptation to climate change, unlike mitigation to prevent it, is largely a local matter and very frequently has local benefits, such as improved food and energy security (ie lower bills) and less local environmental damage. If we’re going to follow that chain of thought though, the first step is to figure out what we’re adapting to exactly. Here are the basic headlines.
We’re in a globalised world right now, significant amounts of our food and basic commodities come from areas that are already having severe problems due to climate change and are likely to get a lot worse. So one immediate question that arises is the impact on our own food security, especially if mitigation fails or falls short and we’re into the worse scenarios, both from ecosystem collapses elsewhere and from severe weather effects in the UK. In the North and West we can expect much heavier rains and weather damage to crops, in the South and East drought.
Another implication is a 1930’s style economic depression. So we’d be likely to experience a severe fall in our standard of living by say 2050. Many people here will certainly still be alive to experience long-term unemployment, unreasonable costs for basic necessities and probably some fairly repressive government action to protect ruling class interests from angry poor people. Of course a small ruling class will still be fat and happy, just as they were during the Great Depression, but most of us will be in deep shit.
We’re also talking about some hundreds of million people from closer to the equator becoming refugees, probably quite pissed off because they’ll understand why they’re refugees. They’ll be refugees because their crops have failed due to drought, pest invasions, severe weather damage or desertification, or because their lands are being flooded or because nutters with guns are fighting over the leftover crumbs.
I am personally quite concerned that the adaptations we’ll see will be highly repressive and reactionary and I think stealth taxes are far from the worst of what we might see as the situation worsens over the next few decades, as capitalism frantically tries to keep getting a good return on investments.
I would want to see adapatation that makes us less dependent on the global economy, in order to both minimise the impact on the UK and to reduce the pressure that the UK’s need for economic growth and a healthy return on investments, puts onto the developing countries.
In the meantime, I think the nuLabour spin machine intends to present us with “Green Gordon: Eco-Saviour” and exploit this issue in order to push through a bunch of regressive policies of benefit mainly to fat-cats rather than ordinary people either here or in the developing world. Paul Wolfowitz, neo-con president of the World Bank has already said that he and his pal Gordon will be getting together next year to decide on a sustainable development investment framework for the developing world. Which may mean the IMF selling poor countries “climate change insurance.”
The other side of the media debate that I think we’ll have framed for us is a lot of scare stories and moaning from the Daily Mail et al about ‘Green Taxes’. This will be all the more plausible because undoubtedly these issues will be used as a rationale to impose taxes on individuals (in preference to businesses)
I strongly suspect that the tax issue is being used a bit like the ‘business as usual OR going back to the stone age’ media frame we so often see.
It’s being used by those who want to avoid any progress whatsoever on this issue to frame our choices as being EITHER higher tax OR complete inaction.
What should we be trying to do? (Whether the Government and the City want us to or not)
I would suggest that a very good thing to do would be to invest substantially in improving the energy efficiency of our housing stock and food systems and in the provision of effective public transport to get people out of their cars.
We’d probably get a lot more real security out of that, per pound spent, than out of paying the yanks tens of billions for the Trident replacement for example.
There are also obvious intrinsic benefits to the average punter in improving energy efficiency in those three key areas, Food, Transport and Housing.
If those things are more energy efficient, all other things being equal (which I agree they are not due to the needs of investors to turn a profit) then the cost of heating, eating and travelling should be reduced.
The main problem that I can see is the potential for conflict between energy efficiency and the needs of investors. For example, power companies make less money that way. The nuclear industry is salivating at the prospect of being paid out of our taxes to build more reactors. Train companies are now privatised so any public investment made in them goes to pay for ever more spectacular Branson ballooning expeditions and so on. Large landowners are doing very nicely thank you out of being subsidised to do energy-inefficient farming methods. Property developers interests conflict strongly with most of the things you’d have to do to spread the population out to improve food system efficiency and with tighter regulations on energy efficiency for new builds.
The fundamental problem with nuLabour or any government that is likely to be electable is that they are there to put those interests ahead of ours.
Stern says something I found quite revealing, to the effect that: “We recommend taxing undesirable outcomes rather than sponsoring desirable outcomes”
Most of what I would like to see comes down to redirecting existing subsidies for undesirable outcomes towards desirable ones. That is against the religion (neo-liberal economics) of our current rulers however. Whether more taxes need to be raised is a moot point while we are subsidising and regulating in favour of more climate change. Maybe additional taxes are required, but while current policy provides perverse incentives, it would seem to be sensible to fix that as a matter of urgency.
Making the UK more sustainable has impacts beyond global mitigation. It also, particularly if it’s done with this in mind, tends to reduce our vulnerability to the likely global impact. So we get local adaptation benefits whether or not it has any effect on global mitigation.
Concrete example, if a serious effort were made, either with or without government sponsorship (it’d be a lot easier with) to improve the sustainability of our food systems, then when food prices go up as the result of climate change damage elsewhere, the impact on the less well off in the UK is reduced.
In addition although the focus above is on UK sustainability, by removing the perverse incentives which make it more profitable to fly lettuces in from Africa, we also reduce the pressure in Africa to grow food for export instead of for feeding the locals. Which acts to improve local food security there. It acts to remove perverse incentives for destroying woodland which provides a much needed carbon sink and helps to mitigate soil erosion, drought etc. We also reduce the amount of carbon emitted flying lettuces halfway around the world when we can perfectly well grow our own lettuces right here.