Whose fault is climate change?
This week, a tweet appeared on my timeline saying “Capitalism created climate change, only socialism can fix it!” I fired back with the Guardian research showing 12 of the 20 biggest polluters, all oil/gas companies, are state-owned which destroys the argument that public ownership of the energy system will automatically result in clean energy. You only have to look at the horrific environmental destruction which took place in the Soviet Union to see that socialism is just as capable of destroying the planet as rampant capitalism.
Another persistent meme in the green movement is that big business is solely responsible for environmental destruction, and individuals are just unwitting pawns, blamed for the greed of the capitalist machine. A recently presented ‘proof’ for this is the fact that BP popularised the idea of the carbon footprint, which some see as an attempt to shift the blame from Big Oil onto Joe Public. These arguments come from the political left and I worry that they not only give people a justification for business as usual (“capitalism made me buy this SUV”) but they also give credence to the conspiracy theory pushed by some on the political right that the environmental movement is a cover for a totalitarian socialist takeover – seeing environmentalists as ‘Watermelons’, green on the outside, red in the inside.
Speaking of the right, the ‘freedom to destroy the planet’ argument is just as fatally stupid. If we hadn’t created systems to manage collective responsibilities, we’d still be hunting and gathering – and suffering famine every time we hunt or gather too much. Society’s job includes restricting individual choice to avoid excessive impacts on others – one person’s freedom can mean loss of freedom for others as we saw most vividly in the days of the Atlantic slave trade – days when capitalism had no respect for human rights. Environmentally, the right tends to be sceptical of climate change because extreme individualism doesn’t work within planetary boundaries – the zealots have to pretend those boundaries do not exist to make their model work.
As an avowed Mango (green on the outside, liberal orange on the inside), I believe the truth is much more complex than these left/right extremes. Personally, I’m reasonably, but not excessively, affluent, and I can choose whether to holiday in the Caribbean or Cornwall – a choice which will dominate my carbon footprint for the year. The economic system may include perverse incentives that tempt me to take the high carbon option, adverts on TV may show me golden sands shimmering under the sun, but the idea that I’m being frogmarched onto that plane with one arm up my back and the other clutching my sun lotion and shades is ludicrous.
On the other hand, when I plug my phone into its charger, I don’t have much control over where those electrons come from (fortunately they’re increasingly from green sources). I can’t run an electric car because my house doesn’t have off street parking which under current technology is a deal breaker. I can decide to cycle rather than take the car, but a lack of safe cycling infrastructure along my route may dissuade me if I’m bringing a child or two with me. So my decisions are heavily influenced by the infrastructure around me. A very green lifestyle is not impossible, but if it was made much easier, I’d be much more likely to live up to my own green aspirations.
The liberal democracy that most people live in is based on a balance between things we do for ourselves and things the state does for us collectively. From a climate point of view, we need the state to shape the infrastructure required for a low carbon future and to tilt the playing field towards low carbon options. So we need that clean electricity, that EV charging infrastructure, those cycle lanes, that public transport, those recycling systems, those carbon taxes etc, etc. But our collective carbon footprint will also be determined by a gazillion personal choices: where we work, where we live, how we travel, where we holiday, what food we eat, what clothes we buy, what gadgets we buy, how we dispose of our waste, the setting on our thermostats. Every £ we spend is an environmental statement.
Personally, I think the idea of trying to find someone or something to be blamed for climate change is a chimera. We are where we are. We know where we’ve got to get to. All of us have some agency in getting there and all of us have a responsibility to help get us there – a responsibility which increases with the ability to make change happen. So let’s do it!