There are certain aspects of extinction rebellions campaign aims and methods that do give me cause for concern. Be it gluing themselves to the doors of a oil industry conference (you are aware that glues are an oil based product, something I suspect the oil men had a good laugh about afterwards), to Emma Thompson calling for people to stop flying and go vegan….then being spotted on a first class flight eating beef. They say that they want to cut carbon emissions by 80% in just 6 years, which is clearly an unachievable target. And they claim they will somehow achieve all of this, via a “citizens forum”.
All in all I get the impression this is more of an anti-capitalist backlash against Trump, brexit and right wing populism. Now while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that (as the plutocrats have long been warned, the pitchforks are coming), but there is a danger of confusing many separate issues. And such confusion of issues risks being counter productive (as the right wing media will simply say oh they’re only using climate change as an excuse to cause trouble). Notably this notion that we must ditch capitalism to save the planet. This ignores the fact that there are many free market solutions to climate change, some of which have been fairly successful.
Certainly capitalism has a lot to answer for when it comes to climate change. Consider the allegations that Exxon knew about climate change decades before the IPCC came along. But rather than do anything about it, they instead buried the story and started throwing money the way of climate change deniers. Parallels have been drawn with the behaviour of tobacco firms.
However, all economies, both capitalist and communist have contributed to climate change. In fact, the problems with pollution have often been worse in communist countries, due to a lack of a free press. Many communist countries, most notably the soviet union, took the view that they were implementing the will of the soviet people, which was justification for any destruction of the environment. Hence we ended up with the most horrendous of environmental catastrophes, the most notable example being the draining away of the Aral sea.
By contrast, up until very recently in the west, environmental protection was a non-partisan issue. There were as many conservatives in favour of environmental protection as there were against it. And there were equally plenty on the left (generally worried about the impact on jobs in working class areas) against environmental protection, while others on the left were in favour. It was after all Richard Nixon who introduced the clean air act, Reagan who funded the IPCC and Bush senior who signed the Montreal protocol. So its a bit unfair to blame the right or capitalism entirely.
The vlogger and journalist Petter Hatfield, aka Potholer54, has a vlog series out about free market solutions to climate change (part 1 and part 2). And as he points, out capitalism can be part of the solution rather than just part of the problem. There’s a need for some suitable nudges from government yes. And there’s inevitably going to be a lot of kicking and screaming from some vested interests (but then again, what would you expect!). But once implemented some of the more successful climate change mitigation measures have often come from the free market.
For example, I’ve pointed out many times before how renewable energy prices have been falling and installation rates rising. This is largely thanks to private companies competing against one another to try and drop their prices (by developing new technologies or increasing productivity and thus benefiting from economies of scale). The UK now gets 30% of its electricity from renewables (despite the Tories ending subsidies some time ago). Cap and trade policies have led to carbon emissions being reduced around the world, at the same time companies have saved money by investing in energy efficiency measures, making them more competitive.
Of course electricity production is only a small share of carbon emissions (about a quarter actually), with the bulk of the rest being made up by transport, agriculture/land use changes, industrial production and raw material extraction. But even here companies are doing their bit. Increasingly strict caps on vehicle emissions by the EU have gotten us to the stage where the end of the ICE engined car is now in sight. Within a few years its likely the only cars on sale will be hybrids or fully electric vehicles.
And if you’ve visited a supermarket recently, you’ve probably noticed there’s a lot more vegetarian food available. Responding to customer demands, companies are introducing more meat free alternatives. Hell the other week I noticed my local supermarket was selling vegan friendly Lorne sausages (the infamous Scottish square sausage, often eaten for breakfast in a roll with some sauce). The day the types who eat a lorne sausage for breakfast turn vegetarian you know something’s changed! Even Blackrock, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, has now announced they will be investing in renewables, having gotten their fingers, burned losing tens of billions investing in fossil fuels (in unrelated news pigs have developed flight and hell has been hit by a cold snap).
Now I put it too you none of these would happen if companies hadn’t woken up to climate change and realised there was money to be made by doing their bit. Yes they are only doing it because they want to make money, but if it brings down carbon emissions, do we really care? Certainly this won’t be happening without the necessary nudges and legislation from governments. And a lot of the science and technology now being used by these companies is only available because certain government bodies (notably the EU or America’s NREL) were willing to pour billions into scientific research. But it is pretty clear that corporations, while part of the problem can also be part of the solution.
In fact this is where I’d argue conservatives are making a huge mistake. These free market solutions have one major flaw. They take time to implement. By running down the clock on climate change, we risk the scenario where these free market solutions won’t have time to be effective. Leaving us with only the quick and nasty authoritarian options. So rather than carbon taxes, we get carbon rations. Its ironic that conservatives put forward the conspiracy theory that climate change is hoax intended to bring down capitalism, when in fact this could easily become a self fulfilling prophecy if they aren’t careful.
But equally its is incorrect for those on the left to argue that the only way to stop climate change is to get rid of capitalism. In truth if we don’t stop climate change there won’t be any capitalism, but that will be the least of our problems! But it seems that there are some in Extinction Rebellion who’d see that as a silver lining.
In fact lets look at that idea of using a citizens forum to sort out climate change. All I can say is there are easier ways to start a public brawl. You are talking about putting a bunch of eco-warriors in the same room with climate deniers, brexiters, Trump supporters, rich toff’s, scorer mom’s, white van men & blue collar types, expecting them to all get along and resolve one of the most complex issues of our age.
And the oil industry is unlikely to go down without a fight. We’re assuming they won’t try to manipulate the outcome of such a forum (by bribing people, or manipulating delegates social media feed). And its all to easy for people to be bamboozled by those placing style over substance (just look at the solar roadways fiasco). Hence why I’d guess the outcome of such a forum would be that they elect to do nothing (based on recent elections, this is the most likely outcome), or they’ll back some crazy pseudoscience solution that fundamentally won’t work, or can’t be developed in time (the aforementioned solar roadways, LFTR’s, hydrogen woo, fusion woo, hydro-vac, etc.) or it descents into the trading of insults and a massive fist fight.
And let us not underestimate what a complex issue sustainability is. It involves a lot of trade off’s between least worse options. For example, Greta Thunberg is sailing across the Atlantic to reduce her carbon footprint. Not really practical for the rest of us (don’t know about you, but I don’t own an ocean going racing yacht), but are ships better than planes? Well actually a passenger ferry burns through twice the energy per passenger than a 747 and a cruise ship has a much higher carbon footprint per passenger mile.
Of course in theory that’s not a problem, if you power your ships using renewable energy, using for example biofuels rather than diesel. Although the same applies to planes if they are run off renewables. But of course biofuels come with their own problems. They can lead too carbon emissions through land use changes. And they can take away land from food production. Although only a fraction of the world’s grains are used for biofuels (about 5% last time I checked), much more is fed to farm animals. So we could have our biofuels (for long distance travel) if we go vegan, would that be a good idea?
Aside from quitting driving and flying ,going vegan is probably the best thing you could do to reduce your carbon footprint. But as I’ve discussed before, there’s a lot of devil in the detail. Certain vegetables have a relatively high carbon footprint, a high water use rate (notably Asparagus, Avocados and Coconuts) or their cultivation causes all sorts of environmental issues.
So as you can see, what seems to be a pretty straight forward issue (flying bad, sailing good or vegan good), actually balloons into a massively complex series of trade off’s very quickly. If there was an easy silver bullet solution to climate change, it would have already been implemented. Its not that simple. This is why the solution to climate change is better long term planning, not some sort of magical quick fix.
Climate change is a crisis no doubt. And the pace of change is currently way too slow, that much is true. You need only look to the recent drama in the UK where a dam partially collapsed, with experts warning that the government best get working a hundreds of other dams which were never designed to withstand dangerous climate change. Or the fires now raging in the Amazon, largely because the president is in the pocket of wealthy landowners (which is why boycotting Brazilian products would seem to be to be a good idea). Ignoring climate change and doing nothing will cost far more than the cost of taking action.
But equally we need to be realistic as to our goals and methods. Setting a timetable that simply can’t be achieved is as crazy as Trump proposing that the Mexicans should pay for his wall. Expecting people to make sacrifices those advocating for such change seem unwilling to make themselves, is just going to have you labelled a hypocrite and provide plenty of ammunition for the right wing tabloids. And trying to use the climate crisis to push a particular political agenda is no morally different from the brexiters trying to engineer a hard brexit to create a crisis that they can exploit.