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Societies are too divided to combat climate change

Image: Frog and Onion

In the early weeks of the Second World War the British government produced a poster that was supposed to raise the morale of the public.  The poster proclaimed that “Your sacrifice will bring us victory” (my emphasis).  Unconsciously, the authorities had given away the class-based nature of what they believed the unfolding conflict was going to be.  As happened just 25 years previously, it was going to be the mass of ordinary people who would bear the brunt of the fighting abroad and the hunger at home.  Meanwhile, the elites – the generals safe in their French Chateaux and the politicians and administrators in the comfort of their English country estates – would prosecute the war as they saw fit.  The poster was quickly withdrawn.  But the desire to remove “Old Gang” who had blundered into another war persisted until, six months later, the Chamberlain Tory government was replaced with a national government that included Ministers from each of the national parties.

In the years that followed a war that left anywhere from 50 to 85 million corpses in its wake, political parties of all stripes signed up to a consensus designed to prevent a future war by closing the class divisions that had led to the war in the 1930s.  That post-war consensus, with its focus on full-employment, a health and social security safety net and a degree of state regulation of capital, persisted until the oil shocks of the early 1970s; and the inflation that followed.  Then, from the early 1980s a new generation that had not lived through war and depression developed a new neoliberal consensus that set out to undo the economic and social gains made by ordinary working people in the 30 years following the war.

Neoliberalism has been spectacularly successful.   While the world’s poor have barely improved their lot, the working class in the developed countries have been plunged into poverty.  Meanwhile, the concentration of wealth at the top is such that the owners of half of the world’s wealth could comfortably fit inside a minibus.

It is upon this economically-divided society that  a growing number of climate scientists, economists and green politicians have called for a mobilisation on the scale of World War Two to combat climate change.  Among the many problems with this call, however, is their own failure to understand that a divided society is simply not going to allow the kind of changes they have in mind.

Amy Harder, writing for Axios, typically mistakes cause and effect when she writes that:

“Climate change is getting too big and divisive to solve…

“Among all the topics Americans disagree about, I consider climate change the most divisive. With other policies, like health care and immigration, people generally agree the topic at least exists.  That’s not the case with climate change. Conservative Americans are increasingly skeptical that human activity is driving Earth’s temperature up, according to one recent poll. To be clear, it is.  That skepticism is reflected in President Trump and most congressional Republicans, who don’t acknowledge climate change is a problem.”

To those fortunate enough to remain within the fast-shrinking, university-educated affluent class, this sentiment rings true.  But it overlooks the thorny question of why so many people who previously voted for a black president who at least paid lip-service to climate change, should suddenly turn in favour of a misanthropic climate change denier instead.  The answer to that question is the unpalatable one – that the divisions were not caused by politicians like Trump, but rather by Neoliberal elitists like the Clintons and the Blairites.

It is notable that while at least some of the 2016 working class Trump voters cast their votes for Democrats in the midterms, they simultaneously voted down Democrat-inspired climate proposals included on the ballot.  Robinson Meyer at the Atlantic explains that:

“The results were pretty good for the climate-concerned. Democrats swept into the House of Representatives, winning nearly 40 seats in the chamber. For the first time since 2010, the chair of the House Science Committee will affirm the reality of human-caused climate change.

“It was a fine Tuesday, in other words, for the day-to-day climate advocacy of the Democratic Party…

“Yet last week, one of the most progressive and outdoorsy states in the country defeated a ballot question that would have established America’s first carbon tax…  Statewide, Democrats trounced in last week’s elections: Almost 59 percent of voters reelected the Democrat Maria Cantwell to the U.S. Senate. Yet nearly the same number, 56 percent, rejected the carbon-tax measure.”

What this suggests is that something far more nuanced than the “climate change denying Republicans v climate change- supporting Democrats” media portrayal of the issues suggests.  Rather than rejecting climate change as a phenomenon and opting for politicians who refuse to act, US voters appear to have voted for politicians who promise to act while simultaneously rejecting the actions that they have thus far proposed taking.

It is not particularly difficult to understand why.  In the “bright green” vision of climate action that dominates political, economic and scientific communities, climate action is about free market reforms designed to simultaneously maintain business as usual and reverse climate change.  That this is impossible is not lost on those who are inevitably required to pay for it all – the working classes in the developed countries of the world.  Because somehow, the chosen “solutions” (wind turbines and solar panels, electric cars, closing selective industries, etc.) all involve taking money off the working poor and handing it over to members of the affluent class in the forms of subsidies, grants and tax-breaks.

In France, the backlash has taken the form of fuel blockades in protest at the recently imposed environmental taxes on fuel.  As James McAuley at the Washington Post reports:

“On Saturday, more than 282,700 people, many clad in yellow vests, took to — and, in many places, also literally took — the streets, according to the French Interior Ministry. The ministry said a network of drivers blocked roads at some 2,000 locations across the country, generating backups for miles and causing one death…

“The protesters’ chief complaint: the rising cost of diesel fuel. The recent price hike is a direct result of President Emmanuel Macron’s commitment to curbing climate change, which included higher carbon taxes for 2018, the first full year of his term. But beyond the diesel issue, many turned out Saturday to voice any number of other frustrations with the ‘president for the rich,’ who is seen as increasingly removed from ordinary people’s concerns.”

It is worth considering that the carbon footprint of a large dog belonging to an affluent family is higher than the carbon footprint of someone on a zero-hours contract living on food supplied by a foodbank.  Such a person – and their numbers have mushroomed since 2008 – is unlikely to take kindly to being told that they will have to pay more to have some energy for cooking and heating by some billionaire failed politician, movie star or documentary maker who insists on flying around the planet producing more greenhouse gas in a year than many of them will generate in a lifetime.

It doesn’t help, of course, that none of the techno-fixes promoted by the bright green crowd actually work.  For all of the subsidies and tax breaks, so-called renewables – solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy – account for less than three percent of global energy.  Worse still, the electricity generated by those technologies has not replaced fossil carbon fuels; it has merely been added to our insatiable demand for infinite growth in energy consumption.  Nor are electric cars ever going to be anything more than expensive toys for the already affluent.  Global resource shortages in key rare earths, cobalt and lithium make it impossible for a like-for-like swap from petrol and diesel to electric cars.  Nevertheless, in addition to the grants and subsidies designed to encourage affluent motorists to buy electric cars, the working poor are also obliged to pay for the electricity grid to be uprated to cope with electric vehicles via the standing charges on their energy bills.  Meanwhile the public transport systems that the working classes will have to depend on in future are wilfully starved of funding.

Sooner or later, this practice of loading the costs of supposedly green technologies onto the shoulders of those at the bottom of the income ladder was always going to backfire.  Whatever politicians like Trump are actually going to do, it is no accident that their political pitch was made to voters who have seen their living standards crushed over the last three decades – as the political left abandoned the working class, the political right has stepped in to fill the void.  And reversing the prevailing climate change policy is just one of the promises that bolster their popularity.

John Michael Greer gets close to what needs to be done in a recent post to his Ecosophia blog:

“It’s really quite simple. Imagine, dear reader, that instead of talking about stopping climate change, we were talking about stopping rape. Imagine that there were big organizations dedicated to stopping rape, and curiously enough, most of their membership consisted of serial rapists. Imagine, then, that people pointed out to the serial rapists that if they really wanted to stop rape, they ought to start by not committing any more rapes themselves – and every time, the serial rapists responded by insisting that you can’t stop rape by just having the members of anti-rape organizations give up raping people, that the problem’s much bigger than that, and how can they find a way to communicate to everyone in the world that rape is wrong? The answer, of course, is that they can’t, because nobody will take them seriously until they themselves stop committing rape.

“Climate change activism these days is almost entirely a concern of middle- and upper middle-class people in the industrial world: people, that is, whose lifestyles are disproportionately responsible for the dumping of greenhouse gases; people who use much more fossil fuel energy, and many more of the products of fossil fuel energy, than the average human being. This fact isn’t lost on anybody outside the climate change movement – and the fact that climate change activists by and large insist on leading carbon-intensive lifestyles, while insisting that everyone else has to do something about climate change, has done more to scuttle the movement to stop climate change than any other factor I can think of.”

It is undoubtedly true that if we are going to have even a chance of mitigating the worst effects of climate change we will have to mobilise in a similar manner to a mobilisation for war.  It is also true that we embark upon our climate war mobilisation with societies as divided as the depression-ravaged economies of the 1930s.  Like them, if we want to have any chance of success, we must first eject the “Old Gang” of neoliberal elitists who got us to where we are.  Like them, we will need a new political consensus that addresses the plight of the majority (in their case laying the ground for social security, public housing and the National Health Service even as the war was raging) even if this means the affluent classes seeing big declines in their carbon-excessive lifestyles.

In short, the answer to the climate change-denying false-populism of politicians like Trump is not a return to the mealy-mouthed elitism of parties of the neoliberal left, but to a genuine populism that insists that the elites and the affluent classes take a redistributive hit to their lifestyles consummate with the excessive greenhouse gasses that they emit.  Until and unless that happens, our societies will, indeed, be too divided to address climate change.

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