The hidden promise of climate action

Jan 17, 2012 Comments Off on The hidden promise of climate action by

In a November 2011 article in The Nation, Naomi Klein points out that we can’t escape the political implications of climate change, even though many environmentalists have tried to downplay them. It may seem easiest to stress the role of personal consumption in climate protection – the ‘switch to long-life bulbs’ approach – and ignore the wider implications. This simplistic approach enables us to avoid asking difficult questions about the way our economies and political systems operate.

However, cutting greenhouse gas emissions will require large-scale, structural changes in the way we live; simply changing our shopping habits won’t work. Klein describes how this fact is being recognised by an increasing number of people on the political right. They’re worried enough about the implications that they’re now challenging the basic science behind climate change, saying that it’s fraudulent, part of a socialist plot, and that those who campaign for climate protection are ‘watermelons’ – green on the outside and red on the inside.

Of course they are mistaken to think that there is a plot, but they are correct to emphasize the strongly political aspect to any effective action on climate change.

Rather than shrinking away from the messy world of politics, Klein believes we should embrace it and she’s working on a new book which will explore ways in which the struggle to protect the climate could bring about much-needed economic and political change. As she puts it, “real climate solutions are ones that […] systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, whether through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.”

I find it heartening to see someone of Klein’s prominence taking this approach as it resonates very strongly with the Feasta Climate Group’s thinking. In fact the theme of the next Feasta book, called Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society and due to be published in the spring of 2012, is the result of two and a half years of exploration of the politics of climate change by the group. The book’s seven authors take it as given that the climate is a natural commons, belonging to all of us, and that any action to protect the climate must devolve power as much as possible.

With this two basic principles in mind we’ve explored ways in which a commons-based economy could be introduced within which emissions could be capped, drawing from real-world examples. We take a look at the kinds of global institutions needed to carry this out, again using historical precedents. There’s a chapter on the structure of Cap and Share, a specific programme for cutting emissions that we’re proposing, and we go on to look at the types of scheme that would need to be introduced in tandem with emissions capping in order to ensure that the poor were protected and that emissions actually decreased (rather than being hived off elsewhere as is the case with existing emissions reduction programmes).

Then we discuss the shift in political and economic power from the rich to the poor that would be required in order to carry such wide-ranging programmes out and to ensure their stability in the long term. We explore how such a shift could possibly come about, different ways in which power could be distributed, and look at ways in which such a distribution of power could help the economy become more sustainable.

The implications of such a shift in power truly are staggering, not only for the obvious reason that they might save us from environmental catastrophe but because of the real promise they hold for improving the lives of billions of people. This is truly exciting stuff and obviously could be developed much further. The book can only scratch the surface but I believe it’s an important start – it should provide scope for discussion and drawing-out of ideas that are badly due to be explored. Naturally the authors don’t always agree on all the details of what should be done, but they all share the equity-based philosophy described above. Moreover, as Brian Davey points out in his preface, it’s actually quite useful to have a multitude of equity-based approaches to experiment with rather than sticking rigidly to one line.

However, we might well wonder whether we really have time to implement any of the grand, large-scale programmes that the book sets out, given the urgency of the situation and the current political inertia about it. The book’s final chapter, by our late colleague Richard Douthwaite with help from David Knight, is perhaps the most important one as it provides reasons for optimism about climate change, showing that if we play our cards right we may just be able to buy ourselves time in the short run in order to carry out larger, long-term structural programmes. It’s a fitting statement of hope by someone who believed in the power of reason and discussion and who always took the long view.

More information about the book is available at www.sharingforsurvival.org. You can read a summary of the ideas behind Cap and Share by Laurence Matthews on the Fleeing Vesuvius site here.

Featured image: Children of the township 3. Author: Melissa Hart. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1162590

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About the author

Caroline Whyte collaborated with Richard Douthwaite on an online update of his book Short Circuit: Strengthening Local Economies in an Unstable World in 2002-3 and went on to study ecological economics at Mälardalen University in Sweden in 2005-6, writing a masters thesis on the relationship between central banking and sustainability. She compiled the conclusion for Feasta's 2011 book Fleeing Vesuvius and was a contributor to the Feasta Climate Group's book Sharing for Survival in 2012. She lives in central France, from where she edits the Feasta website.

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