How to create political space for climate action?

Greener politics should fit with more social politics. But as environmental policies have emerged in the neoliberal era, they have been shaped by it. Those fighting for a greener world must look beyond these narrow policies, to help create the pre-conditions necessary for radical change.
Eivind Hoff
31 January 2012

“We all know what we must do, but we do not know how to get re-elected after we have done it.”

When he spoke these words many years ago, long-serving prime minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker was referring to fiscal sobriety, whose benefits are felt only in the long term, after the next election. That applies of course even more so to policies to mitigate climate change, with even more distant benefits. In a time when many European governments are struggling from month to month to pay salaries and pensions, how then can we create the necessary political space for sufficiently ambitious climate change policies?

We need to recognize that culture and values matter to our behaviour as voting and consuming citizens. Behavioural economics has shattered the delusions of homo economicus and rational choice. What is less well-known – but just as intuitive – is that our choices are constantly influenced by values conveyed explicitly and implicitly. In psychological experiments where subjects are briefly “primed” with different values – such as an appeal to altruism, or a reminder of money – their behaviour is immediately influenced. Someone primed with altruism will help others more, whilst someone reminded about money will behave more selfishly.

In Western societies, we are today constantly “primed” with advertising. Some of that may appeal to positive values – such as giving money to protect the environment. But the vast majority of advertising appeals to our instincts to enhance social status and sexual attractiveness by consuming and accumulating stuff. In other words, we are constantly primed to spend. Little surprise then that a recent paper by Italian academics Benedetto Molinari and Francesco Turino showed through an econometric model that increased advertisement spending helps explain why the century-old trend towards reduced working time of Americans has stopped since the 1970s as they choose to spend more time working in order to earn more. 

What values should be emphasized instead of those that bombard us constantly? The empirical evidence on values unambiguously point to care for nature and care for others being expressions of the same basic value – labelled universalism in the cross-cultural value typology developed by Shalom Schwartz and confirmed by studies with tens of thousands of participants from all major cultures. The research shows that if someone is made to care more for other human beings, he or she is likely to also care more for animals, future generations and nature conservation generally. Such “priming” of people to care more for others can take many forms. A well-functioning welfare state based on progressive income taxation could be one: it is based on the principle of solidarity between rich and poor, with an understanding that we are all in the same boat and have equal rights. In many countries, people experience the effects of this almost daily, such as in childcare, education, health care, and not least in monthly salary statements. Such systems may therefore be a powerful “primer” for universalism and care for nature.

Could this explain why Americans have become less supportive of environmental policies whilst Europeans have become more so over the last decades? In the US, a weak welfare state has combined with increased income inequalities over the last 30 years. In most of Europe over the same period, welfare states were generally robust to start with and have in many countries been further strengthened, at least until the current debt crisis. Preliminary research has indeed shown that pro-social characteristics of a society are correlated with stronger environmental policies: the correlation of Esty’s environmental regulatory regime index with income equality is just as strong as it is with GDP/capita. In other words, environmental policies reflect just as much a society’s equality as its available economic resources. 

It means greener politics should logically fit with more social politics.

The welfare state is not only a natural companion of environmental policies. The tools used for its introduction also offer important lessons for how to achieve public support: individual rights and benefits for all citizens were set. Contributions were statutory and generally combined with progressive taxation. In other words, equality and solidarity guided welfare policies and made them popular. Cost-efficiency considerations would have given a very different set of policies – but unfortunately that is the direction in which welfare is now headed.

The UK government is introducing means-testing for child benefits. In many European countries, employers have been encouraged through tax exemptions to provide private health insurance to their employees as a way to reduce costs of an overburdened national health service. Such measures are of course cost-efficient for the public purse, but negate the principle of equality and most importantly erode the public support of the middle class for the taxes needed to fund welfare policies. When you don’t need them, why pay?

As climate change policies have emerged in a time dominated by the neoliberal paradigm, they have been impregnated by it. The pivotal climate change policy instrument promoted around the world is emissions trading schemes. They offer the advantage to neoliberal governments of being cost-effective (if only markets were perfect), to industry of preventing them from paying for their pollution (remember those free carbon allowances) and to the financial sector of being superbly volatile (the sort of thing traders live off). Their purpose is very distant for most citizens – except as a justification for utilities to increase electricity rates. 

A climate change policy that drew on the lessons of the welfare state might instead focus more on raising taxes on greenhouse gas emissions in order to provide tangible and equal benefits for people – whether that is through lower income taxes, a massive improvement of public transport or any other visible and meaningful means. National emissions could be divided up as personal carbon allowances, giving everyone equal rights to the public good that the climate represents. Government-owned energy service companies could be established to finance insulation of existing building stock, which could be reimbursed through a duty on electricity and gas rates. Such measures would make climate change policies visible and provide clear benefits to people, making them actors in the great transition. 

Of course, the inter-generational equity of climate change mitigation does not have the Damocles’ sword of fascism and communism that so compellingly made the case for welfare policies’ intra-generational equity. But the scale of economic resources required in order to mitigate climate change – perhaps 2% by rich countries, according to Lord Stern – is tiny compared to that for the building of welfare states: The public expenditure in the UK jumped by 10% of GDP between pre-Second World War and the 1950s.

All of this means that those of us depressed by the current state of climate politics need to broaden our agenda. We need to think more about how different types of policy tools trigger different reactions from citizens and contribute to different kinds of society.    

In short, we need to work more to create the necessary pre-conditions for radical policy change. Some will say there is no time for this. Global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak in this decade. They are right about the urgency. But this is no alternative to fighting the battles on the front – of binding emission reduction targets and so on. It is a sorely needed complement for breaking the enemy lines – indeed, winning them over.

Eivind Hoff is head of The Bellona Foundation's Brussels advocacy office. He has worked for the WWF European Policy Office, and was a member of the national board of the youth movement of Friends of the Earth Norway. Eivind has also worked for the EFTA Secretariat in Brussels and for the Norwegian Ministry of Trade and Industry. 

This piece was written in the author's personal capacity.

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