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The New Politics of Climate change

This blog was originally posted on the website Valuing Nature.

Stephen Hale, Director of the Green Alliance, published a report yesterday which calls for a new approach to the politics of climate change. It highlights the problem of the three-way stand-off between business, politicians and the public, and quite rightly identifies the primary role for government to address the problems we confront.

But, as Stephen argues, many mainstream environmental organizations have tended to focus on refining their policy interventions whilst ignoring the lack of social pressure to drive through the radical regulatory changes that are needed. (This is something that Shellenberger and Nordhaus attacked as ‘literal sclerosis’ in The Death of Environmentalism, and that Stephen refers to more diplomatically as ‘the advocacy model’.) It is great that Stephen should again be holding the feet of mainstream environment organizations to the fire on this one.

What’s needed is public appetite – and indeed irresistible demand – for government intervention. Individual action to increase political mobilisation is the most important form of private-sphere behavioural change, Stephen suggests. So the critical issue is “not simply our behaviour, but the impact of our activism, behaviour and attitudes on political action.”

He is right.

Stephen also repeats the argument that Schellenberger and Nordhaus make about the need to get environment ‘out of the environment box’; to appeal to a far broader constituency of interest groups on the climate-change imperative.

But, crucially, Shellenberger and Nordhaus do not ask about the values to which appeals should be made in the course of outreach to other interest groups: and this is where The Death of Environmentalism goes wrong. Stephen doesn’t ask about values either, although he does highlight the importance of community.

It is not enough to work to demonstrate the pertinence of climate change concerns to other interest groups without asking about the values to which we are appealing in so doing. To highlight the opportunities that investment in renewables may present for economic development in a deprived area may do nothing to promote the values that will ultimately need to come to underpin a proportionate response to the environmental challenges we confront – however useful such outreach may be in the short-term in order to marry environmental imperative with (today’s) regional economic needs.

It’s fashionable to respond to the current dominance of a set of social values fixated on consumption and economic growth by urging that these are essentially immutable and that we should therefore simply sell something different (Smart cars to outer-directed individuals on the basis of them being cool, renewables schemes to trade ministers on the basis of economic growth). That is the easiest response – and it would also therefore be the most sensible one if only we could hope to meet the challenges we confront by substituting growth in one type of consumption with growth in another type of consumption.

But consumption, of whatever form, is the problem. Moreover, as studies in social psychology demonstrate, materialism (for example) is antagonistic to pro-environmental values.

It is therefore fortunate that values can be engaged: or at least, that the way in which some are accentuated and others suppressed can be influenced. Assess undergraduates’ scores on a ‘materialism’ scale before and after they have studied economics and you find, unsurprisingly, that the course has left them significantly more materialistic.

Of course, all values – whether those of consumerism or deep-ecology – need to be legitimized and supported through a social context. This is where Stephen is right to stress the importance of initiatives like Transition – even if most Transition groups are as yet very inchoate and can’t therefore point to big changes that they have created on the ground.

It is ‘intrinsic’ values – those expressed when we pursue personal growth, relationships and community involvement – that we know to be more effective in motivating pro-environmental behavioural change: and it is these values which community-based initiatives like Transition work to accentuate.

Those involved in such initiatives might be justified in feeling just a little smug now that people in mainstream environment organisations (like me) are beginning to catch on to the importance of what they do.

Tom CromptonThe New Politics of Climate change

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