The need for political leadership on climate issues

In the second part of my personal political manifesto I want to focus on climate issues, and in particular on the need for far greater political leadership than we are seeing at the moment. As the eminent climate scientist Michael E. Mann points out, seventy-one per cent of global carbon emissions come from the same hundred companies. These companies are not run by evil CEOs who are on a mission to render the Earth uninhabitable to humans, far from it. But because the raison d’être of the bosses and shareholders of these companies is so firmly embedded in free-market economics, because their ontological security (their whole reason or justification for existence) is so entangled in the dominant economic model, they can easily become blind to what scientists are saying. Because they believe that their operations are a force for good they are naturally inclined to dismiss any evidence that says the contrary. At worst they will find ways of discrediting the science (much like the tobacco industry did several decades ago), at best they will put their faith in market solutions to climate problems.

My greatest concern, however, is the extent to which our current response to the climate crisis is so well and truly focused on personal behaviour and individual action. This focus has the effect of deflecting attention away from the need to regulate bad industry behaviour. For example, we are being encouraged to eat less meat and dairy, in fact some media channels are currently being saturated with adverts for vegan food, but there has been no discussion about the regulation of farming and the food production industry. There is pressure on us to fly less, but not the slightest hint of greater regulation of aviation and the package holiday industry. And we are told that using active travel (walking and cycling) and public transport is much preferable to using the car, but because of the woeful shortcomings of our transport infrastructure this is next to impossible on many occasions, particularly in rural locations. What all this means is that it is far too easy for those of us concerned about the climate crisis to feel guilt at not doing enough, whilst those responsible for the vast majority of the problem are either guilt free or not being encouraged to ‘pull their weight’. This needs to change.

I am not saying that individual action is unimportant – far from it. But I am saying that there needs to be a far greater ‘top down’ response. There needs to be much greater control and regulation of big business and industry. One way to achieve this could be through ‘the market’. At the moment there is little or no cost to industry for the harmful effects of their operations. For example, there is no direct cost to the aviation, or marine, industries for the carbon their operations deposit into the atmosphere. In economic terms, these ‘costs’ are referred to as ‘externalities’. Rather than this cost being picked up by us all it would make far more sense to use market mechanisms and impose a carbon tax on their operations. This way the cost of package holidays and cheap clothing imported from the other side of the world greater reflect the true cost of these items. Governments do not even need to abandon ‘market economics’, they just need to regulate these markets such that they take into account the harm they cause. Governments need to stop cowering to big business and take more control of the economy. In a democracy, governments should be the vehicle for collective control. They should exert leadership. Though for this to be truly effective we will need to make some changes to our democratic decision making process. I will discuss this further in a couple of weeks.

Because so many of us simply do not fully understand science, governments also need to demonstrate leadership by having faith in science. Their decisions need to reflect the latest scientific evidence. Whilst, most importantly, this applies to climate science, it also applies to many other areas, particularly health and medicine. Next week’s post will focus on the economy, and the way our current economic model is no longer fit for purpose. For now, though, I want to simply point to a particular concern – the way that many governments prostrate themselves in front of the alter of free market economics. I argued above that some loss of market freedom is needed to allow the true cost of many items to be reflected in the cost consumers pay. I would also argue that belief in scientific evidence should carry far greater weight than belief in the invisible hand of markets to achieve the greater public good. For this to happen governments will need to display strong political leadership. They will need to follow the science and explain the science.

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