Climate change and the public sphere

Andrew Dobson
1 April 2008

It might seem a long way from public toilets to the politics of climate change, but there's an important relationship between what is happening to such public spaces and what is happening to the climate. As so often, it is one of the "rich" countries where the notion of the public realm has been most corroded by individualist, marketised ideology - Britain - that provides a vivid illustration of a more general international trend.

Andrew Dobson is professor of politics at Keele University. Among his books are

Citizenship and the Environment
(Oxford University Press, 2003), (as co-editor)

Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge
(Cambridge University Press, 2006) and

Green Political Thought
(Routledge, new edition, 2007).
His website is here.

Also by Andrew Dobson in openDemocracy:
"A politics of global warming: the social-science resource"
(29 March 2007)

A climate of crisis: towards the eco-state
" (19 September 2007)

"Was Bali a success?" (18 December 2007) In March 2008, the secretary of state for communities and local government noticed that as Britain's urban areas were hosting ever-busier crowds of daytime shoppers and nighttime revellers, the number of "public conveniences" available to meet their needs was insufficient. Something had to be done.

The solution Hazel Blears proposed is instructive. Pubs, cafés, restaurants and shops are to be paid by local councils to allow the public in to use their toilets (or what other parts of the English-speaking world knows as "rest rooms"). This is a kind of private-finance initiative (PFI) in reverse: one in which public money is diverted to private enterprises so that they can provide what is indisputably a public service.

The alternative seems obvious: to spend the money on refurbishing and maintaining public toilets, without the private go-between. Why isn't it the first option of a minister whose remit covers the health of "communities"? Because it is - according to a crude cost calculation - less expensive to pay the private sector than invest in the public sector. The problem here - and the insight it can generate - is that the notion of "cost" and "expense" being employed is an impoverished one that fails to recognise the value of the public sphere itself.

The wrong path

The environment is a classic example of a "common-pool resource": no one can be effectively excluded from using it, but it is finite and diminishing. Common-pool resources are subject to the "free-rider problem": namely, that people can't be excluded from benefiting from the resource, and therefore have no self-interested reason for keeping it well-maintained. In fact their self-interest lies in relying on other people to maintain it, while they spend their time doing other things. The popular English phrase that captures this phenomenon is "having your cake and eating it".

There are a number of possible solutions to the free-rider problem. Many focus on those who do free-ride, but it is less common - and may be more interesting - to attend more to those who don't. Why would anyone work to maintain a public resource from which they could benefit equally well without doing so? The answer lies in the commitment of those people to the idea of the public realm where the common-pool resource is located.

This suggests a different type of solution to problems like climate change. The most familiar such solutions tend to be written in the language of commerce and contract, according to which self-interested people will only act for the common good when it's in their interest to do so. So tradable permits combined with a cap on emissions, for example, are proposed as a way to guarantee lower overall emissions.

But from the point of view of the free-rider problem, tradable permits are part of the problem rather than part of the solution - because they reinforce the frame of mind that leads to the problem in the first place. It will always be in the free-rider interests of carbon-traders to set the cap too high and the price of carbon too low - which is exactly what happens all the time.

Also in openDemocracy, David Steven's blog from the Bali climate-change summit opens our new Global Deal partnership with E3G.

openDemocracy writers debate the politics of climate change:

John Elkington & Geoff Lye, "Climate change's right and wrong fixes"
(2 February 2007)

Dougald Hine, "Climate change: a question of democracy"
(2 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A politics of global warming: the social-science resource"
(29 March 2007)

Oliver Tickell, "Live Earth's limits"
(6 July 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate change: from issue to magnifier"
(19 October 2007)

David Shearman, "Democracy and climate change: a story of failure"
(7 November 2007)

Camilla Toulmin, "Bali: no time to lose"
(30 November 2007)

Tom Burke, "The world and climate change: all together now" (7 December 2007)An alternative frame of mind is needed - one which seeks to maintain the integrity of the common-pool resource because of its public benefit, not because of some private, excludable benefit that might accrue to the individual. This is an explicitly non-contractual approach to collective social action, and one which runs counter to the popular and apparently unassailable "I will if you will" campaign for pro-environmental action.

When this formula is examined more closely, two flaws emerge. The first is that it assumes that the free-rider problem has been overcome - but it hasn't, since it can't ever really be known whether other people are fulfilling their side of the bargain. So the contract contains the permanent possibility of its own demise through internal corrosion.

The second problem with the formula is its logical corollary: "I won't if you won't". This is obviously a recipe for inaction, yet in the free-rider world it is the most likely outcome of the contractual approach. Moreover, it becomes even more damaging where the relationship between the individual and government is concerned, since in conditions of widespread low levels of trust in government even in many democratic states, citizens often won't fulfil their part of the contract because they don't believe government will fulfil its.

So what is required is a different social logic: "I will even if you won't". This seems utterly illogical from the point of view of commerce and contract; but it is entirely rational when it comes to building the kind of social movement that climate-change mitigation requires.

The right shift

This is exactly where the idea of the public realm plays such an important role. The public sphere is where members of a society learn what a common-pool resource is and how to look after it. It is where people develop non-contractual habits, and learn how to cope with free-riders without falling into the trap of believing that the only solution is privatised "incentivisation" - which just makes the problem worse. Taxes, fines, exemptions, rewards and permits all point away from the public towards the private, which is precisely the wrong direction.

To solve the problem of climate change, a broader and wider frame of reference than seems currently on offer is essential. Technological solutions alone are not enough - but nor are political solutions, so long as they run along the same lines that caused the problem in the first place.

This is why Hazel Blears's favouring of the privatised solution to the problem of public conveniences is bad news not just for late-night revellers but for the fight against climate change. It reinforces the brutal assault on the idea of the public realm which has been such a marked feature of life in Britain over the last thirty years. Yet without this idea, and a commitment to its protection and what it represents, a society's ability to address key environmental challenges such as climate change is severely damaged.

The fight against climate change is at once technological, political, economic and cultural - and the biggest cultural change the government could effect would be to expand and defend the public sphere. In too many places, however, governments seem to be pushing their citizens in the opposite direction: private-finance initiatives, individual learning contracts, council-house sales, declining library budgets, and - yes - the demise of the public convenience. All these are potent indicators of the corrosion of the public realm and public interest.

The biggest casualty of the rush to privatisation, enclosure and the withering of the public sphere may well be the climate itself. It's time for a change of outlook - one which will make so many other things, hitherto unimagined, suddenly possible.

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