I am not a huge fan of Extinction Rebellion. I have spent much of my career researching what it will take for governments and companies to tackle climate change, and I am well aware of the urgency of doing so. I want to see engaged citizens pushing their governments to get on with it. I’m even fine with non-violent direct action.
But what I see is a movement of people who don’t seem all that informed about national climate policy, yet still explicitly aim to “force” the government into accepting an extreme timescale for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions – one which is not supported by the science – while expecting others to carry the can for any disruptive and unpopular consequences. No democrat should accept that.
While both UK and international climate efforts certainly need an ambition upgrade, you won’t find Extinction Rebellion talking about the successes of British democracy in tackling climate change. The UK has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 44% since 1990, compared to the EU-wide Paris Agreement target it signed up to of a 40% reduction by 2030. It has a world-leading policy framework to set long-term targets and provide a regular check on government progress (though we’re not on track to meet them all). Last week the Treasury helped form an international coalition of finance ministries aligning their policies with the Paris Agreement’s goals. Government can do much more, but the belief it is doing nothing – therefore people are justified in abandoning the democratic process – is all too widespread in the movement and deserves rebuttal.
But if Extinction Rebellion has its faults, the apathetic and wilfully obtuse camp on the right are so much worse. Those MPs who are vociferous about climate protests, but not about the fact we’re on track to all but wipe out coral reefs, or the fact there are people on this planet who don’t know whether they’ll have a country in a few decades – for that is the stark reality – should know large numbers of their fellow citizens are wondering where on Earth their priorities are. The only response of many on the right to these protests is to indulge in cheap potshots. It is totally inadequate.
The moderate, caring majority might well wonder what they can do to address climate change between these two camps. The protests we have seen manifest the psychological impact of one abnormally hot, dry summer. What will it be like after two? Several? After food price volatility? Water shortages? Increased migration pressures? We face not just the challenges of decarbonising and climate-proofing our nation and its economy, but of maintaining social cohesion and a broadly accepted political system while doing so.
Those of us who believe that democracy and (in my case) regulated capitalism can rise to this challenge must not just assert they can – we must demonstrate it. We need an honest response commensurate with the threat we face, involving as many across society as we can, using our hearts as well as brains. We can start by following the call of the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, to build a broad, national coalition to successfully tackle climate change between government, business, the voluntary sector and “critically” the public. That is, we need civil society to mobilise.
Reeling off statistics about emissions reductions and resting on laurels is not enough – people will better appreciate progress if they see it where they live. If impressive decarbonisation efforts are happening in the North Sea, that is good, but not visible to us in our day-to-day lives. We should accelerate electric vehicle uptake, facilitate community energy projects (heat as well as electricity) and spread local nature restoration. Let’s not over-professionalise absolutely everything. I encourage political parties to compete to offer visions for Community Climate Action which people can take part in and vote for.
Left-wing greens have a tendency to think that progress depends on persuading others to think like they do. But a climate-ready nation must embrace the skills, talents, experience and commitment of a politically diverse set of people.
Whisper it, but a very significant chunk of this national effort is unavoidably going to be delivered by the private sector – not just energy companies and heavy industry but construction, logistics, supermarkets and farmers. Let’s value the deep expertise of people in industry. To paraphrase Adam Smith, it will be not just from the benevolence of the battery maker, the green steel pioneer and the water-conscious farmer that we will achieve a climate-ready economy, but from regard to their own interest and, crucially, from their know-how. Of course, a low carbon economy has no chance of emerging spontaneously from an ideological free market, but from enterprise responding to a clear sense of direction from government. Heavyweight work is also taking place in the financial sector on how to direct capital towards the green economy. Let’s make London a global centre of excellence for green finance, and mainstream it.
Those of us in a technocratic bubble need to connect more with the general public about any progress we expect and what they can do to make it a reality. I often wish more people knew about the outstanding academic and industrial work on low carbon innovation which I see all the time, because it would give them more hope. There is a large pool of technical and business talent eager to work on finding solutions to climate change. How much more satisfying it is for skilled professionals to know they are contributing to meeting a major global challenge, not just the bottom line. Companies with a climate-oriented mission will find it increasingly easier than indifferent peers to attract talent.
Technology can take us a long way, but of course it is not the whole solution. We need a 21st century concept of the economy which recognises that solving our immense environmental problems is essential to human welfare, not a nice-to-have. We can do much to help restored ecosystems and agricultural soils absorb carbon dioxide (‘natural climate solutions’) and encourage pre-existing social trends towards diets which require less land.
We are a civilisation, not just an economy. Social norms and moral values matter tremendously and need to be amplified above the din of modernity. We need to convey that it is normal to love and want to protect nature and prevent human suffering. When I was a child, a kind older generation taught me not to waste, not to covet, to be compassionate, to love creation. We need not to waste energy, food or water. Far from being alien values, these are traditional values which have somehow been drowned out, mislaid, or politically tribalised. Let’s reclaim them.
I want everyone who asks “what can I do?” to receive a meaningful answer. Climate change is too big and important an issue to be the exclusive property of any political faction or self-contained philosophy. Let’s aim for a National Alliance for Getting the Job Done and start right away.