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The UK’s democratic deficit is escalating the climate crisis

In this long read, the direct cause of the current economic and environmental threats is shown to have been laid into the foundations of the state

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
4 April 2021, 8.00am
England invests far less in wind turbines than Scotland
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Karsten Würth, UnSplash

In late 2019, an organism on the edge of life appears to have made the journey from the body of a bat into the bloodstream of a human, and shut down the global economy. Whatever else we may have learned from the pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it has taught us that, before anything else, we are biological beings. Our lives and deaths are bound to the beings around us.

This lesson isn’t new. As capitalism has drilled into the boundaries of the life systems of our planet, we have had numerous reminders in recent years that we are not just individuals. All creatures on earth depend on each other.

As the novel coronavirus was starting to spread through Wuhan, Australia was under siege from bush fires. Thirsty marsupials found a new source of water: wombats used their burrowing skills to dig wells, which saved whole ecosystems of creatures.

In previous years, flood-struck communities in the UK had reintroduced beavers, so that their dams would hold back increasingly heavy rains, preventing drenching downstream and creating rich wetland habitats for hundreds of species. And scientists started discovering how, under each forest floor, there is a complex of fungi, transmitting nutrients between trees: mycorrhizal networks, sometimes known as the “wood wide web”.

One extinction affects all

Life on earth isn’t just an assortment of organisms. It is a rich system built on billions of connections, most of which we are only just beginning to understand. In this context, every extinction isn’t just the loss of a beautiful species. It is the annihilation of every connection between that form of life and thousands of others with which it shared an ecosystem, connections that have evolved together over millions of years. And every species loss makes all of us more vulnerable.

To understand how life on Earth is dying, and how to revive it, we need to go beyond cataloguing individual creatures, cute and furry or scary and scaly as they might be. We need to understand systems and relationships, co-dependencies and collaborations.

The same is true of our own species. Too often, the environmental crisis is broken down into questions about personal moral culpability (“Is it better to eat local beef or Amazonian soya?”; “What’s the greenest washing detergent?”) or technological possibility (“Is there enough lithium in the world for us all to have electric cars?”; “Is renewable energy too intermittent to supply the whole grid?”).

Of course, these things all matter, and thousands of brilliant engineers and scientists have dedicated their careers to finding answers to them. But the question of the future of life goes deeper. Ultimately, it is this: can we organise ourselves into a society that can flourish without plunder?

And that isn’t just a conundrum for a small band of technological whiz kids and engineering geniuses. It’s a matter for all of us. It’s a question about how we organise our civilisation. It’s an issue, ultimately, about power.

Are we the kind of society that chooses to invest the wealth produced by our work into building the green infrastructure of the future? Or are we the kind that works hard to create billionaires with private jets? After the pandemic, will we allow a tiny minority to accrue vast wealth with their machines of death? Or will we build a society that loves life? The answer depends largely on whose voices are heard. It depends on how democratic we are.

Unequal countries are dirty

Measuring the distribution of power across a society can be hard. But there is one simple proxy: money.

In 2011, a team of German academics pulled together the data on income inequality versus carbon emissions across 138 countries from 1960 to 2008. They found some clear correlations. In the developed world, it turns out, the more unequal a country is, the more it contributes to climate change. In fact, the correlation between inequality and climate impact is so strong that, as the paper put it;: “for high-income countries with high income inequality, pro-poor growth and reduced per capita emissions levels go hand in hand”.

When explaining their remarkable finding, they cited another paper: “In more unequal societies, those who benefit from pollution are more powerful than those who bear the cost.” With more traditional kinds of pollution, this is obviously true.

Landfill sites and dirty factories tend to be located in poorer communities, air pollution is usually worse in poorer neighbourhoods and poisoned water tends to blight only the poorest areas. This is an old story. It’s also the reason why, in many British cities, expensive postcodes are in the west while poorer areas lie in the east – the prevailing south westerly wind carried the filth from Victorian factories over the numerous East Ends and into the lungs of those who had migrated to the cities to operate their machinery.

But the causes and consequences of climate change are more global, and longer term. While those who are less well off in the global north are certainly at greater risk from the effects of dramatic weather events than their wealthier neighbours, those in the global south will suffer the most.

This difference is reflected in polling on the issue: a 2015 YouGov survey of a sample of countries in Europe, Asia/Pacific and North America found the nations least worried about climate breakdown were the USA and the UK, while the countries with the highest levels of concern were Malaysia, Indonesia and China.

Similarly, a poll published in January 2020 asked people in ten European countries whether the environment should take priority over the economy. The poorest country in the sample, Romania, featured the highest number of people who considered the environment to be more important.

The richest 10% of countries cause 50% of global emissions, while the poorest 50% cause just 10%

The richest country in the group, the Netherlands, had the lowest support for the environment. Of the five most strongly environmentalist countries, four were the poorest by GDP per capita, plus France. Similarly, the five least environmentalist countries included the richest four, plus the UK. The UK was the only country to be in both the bottom half of the group by GDP, and the bottom half by environmentalism.

There is, in other words, a fair amount of evidence to suggest that the citizens of poorer nations tend to be more concerned about climate breakdown than the citizens of richer countries. This is despite richer countries’ responsibility for greenhouse gases, with a 2015 Oxfam study finding that the richest 10% were responsible for 50% of global emissions, while the poorest 50% were responsible for just 10%.

Perhaps I didn’t need three different surveys to make this point. It is, after all, a relatively simple one: people more likely to be affected by climate change and less likely to benefit from fossil fuel use are more worried about it. However, I’m aware that this pesky evidence flies in the face of one of the dominant media narratives about climate change in recent years: that it is a concern primarily of the ‘middle class’, or of those in countries rich enough not to have other concerns.

From a global perspective, climate change is a problem of democratic deficit. The majority of people in the world – particularly people of colour in the global south – are deeply concerned about it. However, the lack of transnational democratic structures means that there is no real mechanism by which richer countries can be held to account by the citizens of poorer countries, and any attempt to construct international institutions capable of doing so has resulted in a major backlash from the wealthiest transnational elites and Anglo-American governments: witness the UK leaving the EU, and Trump’s America storming out of the UN climate process.

In 2003, the environmental journalist George Monbiot published a “manifesto for a new world order” titled ‘The Age of Consent’, in which he observed that “everything has been globalised except our consent”. Whatever we think about the plausibility within our lifetimes of the greater democratisation of global institutions, we surely owe it to our grandchildren to leave them a world in which such ideas may one day be possible. That means defending, extending and improving the experiments that we do have in transnational democracy – particularly when they are under threat. The most notable of these, for all its faults, is the European Union.

However, across Europe the far right is doing well by railing against the EU. The union has been allowed to become distant, technocratic and alienating. Particularly in the context of Brexit, it’s vital that progressives across the EU re-engage in a serious debate about how to make transnational democracy an empowering and engaging process. Otherwise, our vital experiment in politics across borders will fail.

Military protects oil

Although Britain tends to poll lower than other countries in climate concern studies, the vast majority (70%) of those who replied to the 2020 poll mentioned above said they were concerned about climate change. Meanwhile, a 2019 IpsosMori survey showed that 85% of people in Britain were concerned about climate breakdown, 52% were ‘very concerned’, and a majority thought the UK should bring its emissions down to net zero ahead of the government’s 2050 target.

However, Britain is set to miss its 2050 target, BP is still the country’s biggest company, and the City of London is one of the world’s biggest financiers of fossil fuel extraction.

At the same time, indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel industry shape an enormous amount of our military strategy. In 2018 and 2019, the UK established permanent naval bases in Bahrain and Oman. Shell owns 34% of Oman’s oil. The Navy spent time last year escorting oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. Indeed, a large portion of Britain’s defence budget exists to protect fossil fuel companies, which actually need to be shut down if we are to have a chance of avoiding climate breakdown. And a report released in October last year showed the UK was squandering an opportunity to move towards a zero carbon future by pumping billions of stimulus cash into fossil fuels and all but neglecting renewable energy. And then there’s the Iraq war...

I could go on. But the point is this: despite the fact that most of the British public want serious action on climate change, the government continues to invest huge resources in propping up our outsized fossil fuel industry. This points to a significant domestic democratic deficit – a gap between the desires of the population and the actions of its government.

Despite what much of the press would have you believe, the gap in attitudes does not fall between an imagined, muesli-eating and cosmopolitan middle class and the ‘down to earth’ working class. Rather, the strong consensus among both middle and working class citizens in favour of action on climate change is set against the desires of the mega-rich.

Carbon at the core of Parliament

I see the oily mechanics of this power imbalance frequently in my work for openDemocracy. My colleagues and I investigate dark money and the ‘influence industry’, investigating the mechanics of the engines used by the rich and powerful to shape politics and public policy. From delving into funding for the Conservative party, the secretive financing of think tanks and lobby groups, the revolving doors between corporations and the civil service, it’s clear that the carbon industries and their allied oligarchs, governments and lobbyists, are closely entwined with the British state.

One of the most influential lobbying groups shaping UK government policy – including steering Brexit and its accompanying trade deals – is the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), a think tank funded by dark money.

An undercover sting organised by Greenpeace’s investigations unit, Unearthed, revealed in 2018 that the oil giant BP is among its funders. The IEA has a long history of involvement with climate change denial, and several of its staff – along with those of its close allies and office neighbours at the TaxPayers’ Alliance – were appointed as special advisors to ministers as soon as the prime minister, Boris Johnson, formed his first cabinet as prime minister in 2019.

Ativistas da Extinction Rebellion cobertos de tinta preta durante um protesto em frente aos escritórios corporativos da empresa petrolífera Shell exigindo o fim da extração de combustíveis fósseis
A protest against Shell. The civil service has a history of seconding staff to the company | WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

The examples of this influence are endless, but here are just a few. Johnson’s campaign to be Conservative party leader was run by the public relations and lobbying firm, CTF. The firm’s most prominent partner, Lynton Crosby, set up an office in Washington less than two weeks after the Brexit vote, advertising his ability to influence the Brexit process on behalf of American clients. Before taking on Johnson’s campaign, CTF’s worked on a global campaign on behalf of the coal giant Glencore, besmirching environmental activists and attacking the efficacy of renewable energy.

In a broader sense, the influence of the Saudi government on UK politics is so strong that an academic friend recently joked to me that Britain is essentially a client state of Saudi Arabia. And the House of Saud is, of course, built on oil. Similarly, if you dig into the sources of the wealth of Russian and Ukranian oligarchs who pump cash into UK politics, you don’t have to drill deep before finding fossil fuel fortunes.

At least America is aware of its problem with dodgy lobbyists, whereas in Britain there is no debate about the influence of oil on politics. That has to change

The civil service has a long history of seconding staff to major oil companies, including Shell and BP, meaning that the people who run the government have often learnt about energy policy from the very industries that they should be shutting down. Meanwhile, a whole collection of national and public institutions, from universities to museums and theatres, are sponsored by, chaired by and quietly influenced by the oil industry. This allows the fossil fuel industry to shape the boundaries of democratic possibility, everywhere from the cultural sphere to the corridors of power.

A whole network of influential companies, groups, states and lobbyists ensures that the UK continues to be addicted to fossil fuels, and to prop up its significant share of the global oil industry. Over the decades, this network has become deeply embedded in the British state, and rooting it out will require serious democratic reform of lobbying and campaign finance rules, as well as the civil service.

While American politics is notorious for its lobbyists, dark money and dodgy campaign groups, at least there is widespread awareness of the problem. In Britain, we have little debate about how oil money influences our politics. That has to change.

A key part of this lobbying vortex is Britain’s notoriously conservative press, which has consistently sewn doubt about the urgency of climate change, spread the untruths put out by lobbying ‘think tanks’, and promoted messages composed by the fossil fuel industry.

Control via fear-mongering

In 2015, my colleagues and I analysed corporate influence over media coverage of the Paris climate conference. Our research showed how the wealthy coal baron Matt Ridley was allowed to cast doubt on the scientific consensus over climate change in a regular column for The Times. In the week before the conference alone, we showed how the left-leaning New Statesman’s only coverage of climate change was a sponsored feature by EDF, owner of Europe’s dirtiest coal power stations at the time. We showed how more than one publication ran puff pieces for climate-damaging companies, which also happened to have adverts run in the same publications on the same day.

In the same week, the Daily Mail published a story based on a report from a pro-corporate pressure group. The story claimed that renewable energy would lead to power cuts. What it didn’t mention was that the same pressure group, the Centre for Policy Studies, had repeatedly published nearly identical reports for over a decade. In that time, the British press had published stories spreading this fear-mongering more than 500 times, according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. In that period, there was only one power cut caused by a loss of supply and it was the consequence of the simultaneous failures of a coal and a nuclear plant. When I asked the Centre for Policy Studies who had funded their endlessly recycled report smearing renewable energy, they wouldn’t say.

Of course, taking serious action on climate change would be difficult. But the UK’s failure to act is mainly a product of lobbying, revolving doors, dark money, press barons and broad imbalances in our political system, which can be summarised in two words: elite rule.

Three years before Margaret Thatcher came into office, the Brent and Piper oil fields in the North Sea came on tap. The quality of Brent oil was such a significant phenomenon that ‘a barrel of Brent crude’ remains the standard pricing system on the global market to this day. By the mid-1980s, 10% of government revenue came from North Sea Oil.

Natural resources frittered away

The Conservative government at the time spun the rapid growth in the British economy that followed striking oil in the late 1970s as ‘the Lawson Boom’, claiming it was caused by deregulation of the City of London. Outside Scotland, the hard-hatted workers braving rough seas east of Shetland were obscured by pin-striped bankers in the collective imagination of the country, with its new-found riches.

Around the world, there is a strong correlation between countries with significant mineral wealth and those with undemocratic political systems – a phenomenon known as ‘the resource curse’. This is usually understood to be the main reason why, for example, the Middle East is both the region with the world’s most oil, and the world’s most dictators.

The standard explanation for this is what political theorists describe as ‘rentier states’. In most countries, democracies develop as governments need to raise taxes, usually to pay for wars. As citizens are taxed, they increasingly demand the right to vote in exchange. States with high levels of mineral wealth don’t need to tax their citizens as much because they can raise revenue by extracting value from their land, wealth which economists describe as rent. As a result, these ‘rentier’ states are able to buy consent from their citizens, without submitting to their will.

We can see a soft version of this phenomenon in contemporary American politics. The shale gas boom unleashed during the Obama administration has – as well as filling the world’s oceans with plastics – transformed the US into the world’s leading oil and gas producer. The economic impact of this oil boom was one of the factors that put Trump in a strong position for re-election in 2020, before COVID-19 did him in.

Margaret Thatcher speaking in the House of Commons, 27 November 1990.
Margaret Thatcher used North Sea oil to buy voters | PA/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved

If you apply the same standards to the developed world as petro-states in the developing world, it could be claimed that this phenomenon existed in 1980s Britain too. Where Norway saved the revenue from its oil for future generations via the Government Pension Fund Global (also known as the Norwegian oil fund), Thatcher used the money to buy voters, giving away council houses to their residents at major discounts. Would she have got away with her attacks on trade unions, dissolving the Greater London Council, and mass privatisations, if it wasn’t for the stream of revenue coming in from the North Sea?

More specifically, Thatcher’s attacks on the National Union of Minerworkers were, arguably, a lot more plausible when seen in the context of the arrival of – and then recent privatisation of – the UK’s oil assets in the North Sea.

The role of oil in the recent history of British politics is often significantly underplayed, but the combination of North Sea oil, and the fact that two of our largest companies are Shell and BP, means that we shouldn’t minimise the extent to which the modern British state is a carbon state.

To deliver the urgently needed green revolution, we need to disentangle oil from politics.

Alienation leads to radicalisation

Perhaps, though, there is something more sociological about England’s climate failures. Much of the research on the psychology of climate change looks at how people respond based on their belief that things can change. Those who believe that democratic change is possible are more likely to accept the situation that the world is in, and push for measures to change it. Those who are sceptical about the possibility of political change are more likely to become cynics and conspiracists.

England has the most centralised political system in the Western world. Local government can’t really be described as local and barely has the power to govern. First past the post ensures that the majority of people live in ‘safe seat’ areas where their vote makes little difference. The House of Lords enshrines elite rule, and the very doctrine of sovereignty at the heart of British politics – the idea that sovereignty lies with the Crown in Parliament, rather than the people of the country – creates a deep sense of alienation.

It is this alienation that spurred people in England to vote to ‘take back control’, and it is the cause of a sense of despondency with democracy that I see every time I visit England to interview people about politics. It is not surprising that this despondency would make people look at climate science and respond, not by demanding action from government and political parties, but either by channelling their energy into largely insignificant attempts to reduce individual consumption, or by succumbing to a dark sense of resignation.

The time I spent in Hungary before the pandemic, studying the decline in democracy under the far right Orbán regime, revealed that its citizens hold a deep distrust in politics, to the extent that it’s considered impossible to know what or who to believe. And in my interviews across England during the 2019 UK election campaign, it became clear that people were getting to that point too. The most common comments were: “I don’t trust any of them”; “I don’t know what to believe anymore”; and “They’re all liars”.

Demands for action on climate change require a willingness to believe scientific experts, and others who might be perceived as elites. Without real democratic reform, distrust in elites is likely to grow in Britain, and with it, a lack of faith in the scientific consensus.

Pandemic politics

And then came the virus. As well as acting as a reminder that life matters more than profit, and that humans live as part of an ecosystem, it brought with it another transformation in the perceptions of what politics is. Where neoliberalism had boxed politics into a few Big Brother debating chambers in the centres of capital cities, the arrival of lockdowns, mask mandates, tier systems and travel restrictions came as a sudden reminder that democracy isn’t just a terrible TV show. It’s a negotiation about how we live together – an apportioning of resources and freedoms where imbalance means sickness and death.

The British state, traditionally skilled in obscuring the simple violence of sharp inequalities of power behind ceremonial leather and ermine, found itself exposed. The adventures of Dominic Cummings and the cronyism in procurement contracts were no longer merely details in a boring soap opera. They became magnifying glasses, focusing the rage of millions onto the paper-dry system of elite rule.

It’s no wonder that support for leaving the UK has surged in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over the year of the pandemic. The question for people in England is, can you mobilise to abolish Westminster, and replace it with something akin to a democracy?

Solar panel.jpg
Renewable energies such as solar are democratic | Creative Commons CC0 1.0

Rightly, there have been calls for a green recovery after the pandemic. An economic system that waged war on nature was always going to lose. And as in every war, it was never going to be those who started it who paid with their lives. But to harmonise with those calls, we need something else: a democratic system fit for the future.

In the Italian writer Lorenzo Marsili’s recently published book, ‘Planetary Politics: A Manifesto,’ he describes America’s 1930s New Deal like so: “Well before a transformation of economic policy, the New Deal brought with it a transformation of the role and power of public administration of the United States, today’s Green plans can acquire a similar constituent value.”

To put it another way, the vast spending required to take on the climate crisis and rebuild the economy post-pandemic will inevitably be transformational: creating new institutions and bolstering or sidelining old ones. A truly just Green New Deal must usher in a new democratic spring.

Societies that are more democractic also have more renewable energy, and we can see this in the Scottish isles

Until the last decade, oil giants were the richest companies on earth, creating numerous multi-millionaires and powerful lobbying groups in the process. In recent years, they have been knocked from their spot by data monsters such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. With the collapse in the price of solar panels, improvement in battery technology and a growing public awareness that the planet is burning, the fossil fuels industry and those who have made their millions fighting for it are desperate.

Where fossil fuels tend to be concentrated in small areas, and so are relatively easy for large bodies to monopolise, renewable energy is diffuse. It can be extracted wherever the sun shines, the wind blows or water flows. Where oil lends itself to the centralisation of power, renewables are created from a more democratic technology.

The skyline on the southernmost of Scotland’s Hebrides is decorated by “the dancing ladies”, known individually in Gaelic as Creideas, Dòchas and Carthannas: faith, hope and charity. The wind turbines were bought by the local community after the people of Gigha bought out their island, and took it into democratic community ownership.

Gigha isn’t unusual in this region. Over the last 20 years, the people who live on about half a million acres of Scotland’s Highlands and islands have come together to buy out their estates, and run them democratically. Every single one has gone on to develop renewable energy projects, and the first of these communities, the Isle of Eigg, boasts the first 100% renewable energy grid in the world.

It’s not just on a local scale that democratisation bends towards renewables. Across Europe, in democratic systems where the public have more say, there is more renewable energy. When you travel from England (where planning law is decided by Westminster), to Scotland (where it’s decided by the proportionally elected Holyrood) the easiest way to know you’ve crossed the border is the emergence over the horizon of a troop of dancing windmills.

Despite possessing a vast proportion of Europe’s wind, wave and tidal power potential, the UK languishes towards the bottom of the European renewables league table. Without Scotland, it would do much worse.

A system designed for the elite

England is the only European country without a proportionally elected parliament. While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and even London – at least have parliaments and assemblies to mitigate against the undemocratic nature of the British state, England without London suffers as the least democratic democracy in the Western world. The House of Lords is one of a small number of parliamentary chambers globally to include no directly or indirectly elected members whatsoever and it is the only place outside Iran where clerics sit in a legislature by right.

While almost every other Western state recognises in its constitution that the people of the country are sovereign and the right of the government to govern stems from their consent, in England sovereignty lies with ‘The Crown in Parliament’ (the British legislature, consisting of the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons). It is an absurd concoction inherited from the compromises of 1660 and stemming from the notion that the monarchy, anointed by God, has a divine right to govern us. This theory isn’t just some abstract, decorative principle. Its absurdity led to much of the chaos of the Brexit process – handing power to Downing Street, including to prorogue parliament in 2019, which would be unacceptable in most Western democracies.

It is not a coincidence that a system designed from the principle of elite rule produces a country that is so poor at addressing an environmental crisis that benefits the few at the cost of the many. It’s written into the rules.

To navigate the current crisis, we need to unleash the genius of everyone. We need the least powerful to be heard the loudest. We need a democratic system fit for this century. Fundamentally, that means we need to recognise that the country is owned by the people who live in it, and to draw together a jury of our fellow citizens to discuss and write a rule book for a new democracy capable of steering itself through the coming crises.

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