The Long Term Implications of the Government’s Current Responses to Climate Change

(Photo: The New York Times)

By Sam Lewis – Regular Contributor

Climate change is the single largest issue affecting society, never before has something had the potential to have such a large and universal impact with the threats on quality of life, land mass and essential supplies all thrown into question. This is something acknowledged by the vast majority of people in power, a point reflected by one of Joe Biden’s first acts as president being the reinstating of the Paris accord, but it is still an area in which many are frustrated at a believed lack of substantial response. Last year students all over Europe went on strike to protest this lack of substantial action and climate change was a major talking point in the subsequent UK general election yet still little appears to be done. What this reflects is not the incompetence of individuals but some unsettling conclusions about the nature of the state itself. In the age of Thatcherite-consensus the state has prioritised private action over state intervention both in terms of response and solution and hence a decision of stability over reform. Whilst this may lead to relative contentment at the moment the consequences of these actions are dire and have a serious impact on society as a whole.

The easiest way to understand this is to look at the responses the government (at least in the UK) has made to climate change. State action has been heavily focused on the alteration of the behaviours of individuals in society. Such behaviour changes include the implementation of routines such as recycling both in terms of purchasing reusable bags and council recycling bins, providing clear information on what can and cannot be recycled. The majority of this has been implemented through financial incentives to reward positive and condone negative behaviour. There is a grant for buying electric cars whilst there are fines such a congestion charge in most major cities and charging 10p for plastic bags. All of these responses focus on the individualistic idea of humans being rational actors, being able to make decisions but also stress a key governmental message: through individual action you can help prevent climate change. 

But is this really the truth of the situation? What these actions fail to stress is the role of multinational corporations in the increase of climate change. 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, mainly gas and oil companies. This is a pretty damning statistic and whilst it may be claimed that governments should be tackling it, the answer is almost the inverse effect. Oil company Aramco has recently been made public in the largest deal in the world with nations including the UK and US fighting for it to be trading in their stock exchange, not exactly an attempt to combat one of the 100 aforementioned companies. Of course there is multinational legislation which is geared to have the responses required to combat this but even that is deeply flawed. In a study on the Paris accord all the countries surveyed had failed to sufficiently implement what has been proposed. Many people have raised these concerns but the way the government has dealt with it has been interesting. While nations celebrate Greta Thunberg the UK has labelled Extinction Rebellion a terrorist group, not exactly the same reception as the face of the operation.

What these show is the government’s desire to appease rather than act. It is a lot easier to claim to be in favour of reform than suffer the consequences of what those reforms mean. The reality is that the changes required to limit the effects of climate change are going to have long term consequences. Many businesses are going to be hurt. We have already seen the ethical dilemmas of this in the debate of whether to bail out airline companies, something which would save jobs but not the environment but if it is between economic growth and the future of the planet I know what I’m choosing. However, businesses have had a role in these decisions and haven’t felt unwilling to express it. Car companies, for instance, have lobbied the UK to push back the ban on diesel and petrol powered vehicles whilst the current Prime Minister has previously delivered talks for JCB. In this way it could be argued that politicians have not only been misguided but actually have an incentive to not tackle climate change, being influenced by money and not morality. 

The use of nudge plays a role in this as it can almost be seen to be a form of blame avoidance. Small, behaviour changes have some impact on climate change without affecting the business that back them. Between 2016 and 2017 the seven main retailers sold 83% fewer plastic bags than in 2014. This is a change that has a positive environmental impact without hindering business but still does nothing to tackle the 100 aforementioned companies. Instead the main use of these tactics is as a form of blame avoidance. The message behind nudge theory is a positive one, individuals are causing climate change but by the same logic all that is required to combat it is small modifications to our behaviours. This provides people with a false sense of hope but also means that the parties in power are more appealing, able to maintain voter optimism and also not severing the business ties required to win an election. Yet, whilst these behaviours are certainly good this is not the long term solution that is required for the environment. 

The reality is that a far more direct, multi-national response is required to tackle climate change and we are at a point where we have to wonder if the state is ever going to deliver this. I had the opportunity to go to a talk by David Cameron and when asked about climate change he stated that the problem was not Britain but instead countries like China and hence implying there is little more the government needs to do. Whilst I agree that more focus is required on countries like China and especially Brazil it also states a complacency for the government to pressure these nations to cooperate, allowing each nation to its own. This is the problem, governments are too concerned about maintaining power and seem appealing to economic superpowers such as China that they are letting us head straight towards the greatest crisis in human history. The future of humanity is at stake and they are still focused on winning elections and economic growth even though if we fail there will not be elections to win and economies to grow. I apologise for the pessimistic nature of this but these are pessimistic times and without immediate action they will get even darker, I just hope that governments understand this and act more decisively than they have in the past.

For Further Reading Please Look at:

Single-use plastic carrier bags charge: data in England for 2016 to 2017 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Taking stock of national climate policies to evaluate implementation of the Paris Agreement | Nature Communications

Single-use plastic carrier bags charge: data in England for 2016 to 2017 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Biden: This will be ‘decisive decade’ for tackling climate change – BBC News

Car industry lobbied UK government to delay ban on petrol and diesel cars | Business | The Guardian

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