A politics of global warming: the social-science resource

Andrew Dobson
28 March 2007

There is now an overwhelming public as well as scientific consensus that a key driver of contemporary climate change is human beings burning fossil fuels. As a result, the debate about human-induced climate change has moved on. The key question now is no longer "does it exist?" but "what are we going to do about it?"

Most of the available current responses to this new and pressing question come under one of three headings: "technology", "lifestyle" and "green taxes".

The technology box contains many tools: hybrid cars, solar panels, nuclear power, low-energy light bulbs, mirrors in space, nuclear fusion, tidal barrages, wind turbines and hydrogen fuel-cells. This faith in technology taps into a deep cultural reservoir where science not only provides the analysis but is also expected to provide the solutions.

Andrew Dobson is professor of politics at Keele University. Among his books is Citizenship and the Environment (Oxford University Press, 2003), (co-editor) Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge (Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Green Political Thought (Routledge, new edition, 2007). His website is here

Much of it is impressively argued for, and few will deny that technology has a role to play in dealing with climate change. But to ignore the social and economic context within which technologies are developed would be a big mistake. So often, technological gains are cancelled out by increasing rates of production and consumption, driven by much deeper forces that swirl around us and shape our social and political environment. The British prime minister's invocation of "sound science" echoes the idea of a technology-led solution. This approach may be a necessary condition for dealing with climate change, but it is far from being a sufficient condition. What about "sound social science"? I'll come back to this question shortly.

The lifestyle box is equally varied: exhortations to cut down on waste, recycle more frequently, drive less, turn off the lights, and flush the toilet less often. Sometimes it seems as if all the responsibility for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs) is being downloaded to individuals. But have you ever filled in one of those online personal carbon calculators? I have yet to come across anyone who has managed to get down to anywhere near the 1.5 tonnes of carbon per person per year that is generally regarded as a sustainable figure. This suggests, again, that there are deeper forces at work that drive even the most ardent carbon-cutters to emit more than their fair and sustainable share of GHGs - in so-called "advanced industrial countries" at least.

The green-taxes box has a fresh and attractive feel: it contains a solution that a few years ago was found only on the wilder shores of green-movement thinking (rather like climate change itself) but which now commands centre-stage in much party-political argument. Such taxes aim to change behaviour by penalising unsustainable practices and encouraging sustainable ones. The apparent hard-headedness of the strategy makes it politically attractive. There is no need to appeal to people's sense of justice or fairness; just set the taxes at the right level and let self-interest do the rest.

A shift of scale

From close up, all three solutions look plausible. But from further back, they begin to look like individual pieces of a jigsaw that - as a whole - may well be the problem rather than the solution. For each of these measures either inhabits or is informed by the idea of markets that cater for profit rather than need, operated by self-interested individuals. Environmental theorists and campaigners have long pointed out that this mix is potentially a recipe for disaster rather than salvation. This is because while market capitalism is good at increasing rates of production, consumption and invention, it has no eyes for the scale of economic activity. In other words, it cannot "see" our finite planet hanging in space, the only one we have, in all its finitude. Market capitalism was designed for an economy without resource frontiers, and it is an open question whether it can be reformed to deal with our new, finite circumstances.

This too is a key question for our time - and one that may even be logically prior to the "what are we going to do about climate change?" conundrum. For only by addressing economic, social and environmental realities on this global scale can a politics to address climate change really be discovered that begins to make sense and become effective - because it will then be based on the fundamental realities of our current existence.

The problem is that the "can market capitalism be reformed?" question shows little sign of being debated in wider media discussions of climate change: technology, lifestyles and green taxes crowd it out. Even when it does make a cautious entrance on to the political stage, the liberal-capitalist culture gives it short shrift. Leave it to the market! Leave it to consumers! Mobilise self-interest!

So far, so ideological. But is this good social science? Recent work suggests that it isn't, and that there is a much deeper reservoir of social, political and economic possibilities available to us than the technology, lifestyles and green-tax mantras would have us believe. This research work suggests that now is the time to rescue the habits and practices of pro-social behaviour: behaviour that aims at the common good rather than the maximisation of individual self-interest. This is a tender plant that has been battered mercilessly over the past thirty years of market liberalism, but it is still there, and it is extremely important to the climate-change debate. The tragedy is that the very solutions that the governments of some of the countries most responsible for greenhouse-gas emissions could almost be designed to extinguish the remaining remnants of pro-sociality.

Self-interest or sociality?

In his review of the idea and practice of sustainable consumption, Tim Jackson points out that "the rhetoric of 'consumer sovereignty' and 'hands-off' governance is inaccurate and unhelpful" (see "Motivating Sustainable Consumption"', SDRN Briefing I, 2005). This is because consumption decisions take place within a cultural and institutional context which constitute the rules of the game, and which part determine the consumer decisions that people make. So when the iPod mini comes along hard on the heels of the only marginally larger original iPod, the social and economic context is geared to getting consumers to buy it.

In this context, as Jackson goes on to say, "policies based on information and price signals have had only limited success in changing unsustainable behaviours". Yet these are exactly the policies the government seems determined to pursue - policies that, moreover, contribute to reproducing the pro-individual context that is part cause of our environmental problems. "The dominant cultural model in 21st-century society is individualist", writes Tim Jackson. "But this is only one form of social organisation and there is evidence to suggest that it may not be sufficient to address the social complexity of pro-environmental behavioural change."

But, policy-makers will say, policies based on price signals work with the grain of self-interest and are therefore realistic rather than aspirational as far as models of human motivation are concerned. Wrong. There is a growing body of social-science evidence to suggest that the self-interest model is actually a poor predictor of environmental attitudes and behaviour.

For instance, in their survey of 4,000 individuals in four separate counties in Sweden, Simon Matti and Christer Berglund conclude that as far as pro-environment behaviour is concerned, "people are guided by other motives and values than the traditional economic rationality of the consumer ... they feel a moral obligation to sort waste in order to contribute to a better environment" (see "Citizen and consumer: the dual role of individuals in environmental policy", Environmental Politics, 15/4, 2006).

Also in openDemocracy's debate on the politics of climate change

Saleemul Huq & Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change: from science and economics to human rights"
(7 November 2006)

Simon Retallack, "Climate change: the global test"
(10 November 2006)

Tom Burke, "Climate change: choosing the tools"
(21 December 2006)

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

Oliver Tickell, "Climate change: the last chance" (6 February 2007)

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

More striking still, their research strongly suggests that policies designed to appeal to the individual as consumer rather than as citizen "crowd out", or reduce, "the sense of moral obligation" in favour of pro-environmental activity. Once again, the preferred form of government policy both reinforces the frames of mind and conduct that contribute to environmental unsustainability and simultaneously undermines the habits and practices that inform much pro-environmental behaviour. This double-whammy is a serious obstacle to dealing with climate change - and indeed with any other problem which requires pro-social responses.

The fact that these results were garnered in Sweden may itself be significant. This is because a further piece of social-science research suggests that collectivist, social-welfare societies are a better incubator of pro-environmental behaviour than individualist ones where welfare is looked on with suspicion. "Those who place a high value on the welfare of others and on a collective approach to solving social problems are more likely to be willing to support environmental policies than those who do not", writes finds Sharon Witherspoon (see "Democracy, the environment and public opinion in Europe", in W Lafferty & J Meadowcroft, eds., Democracy and the Environment: problems and prospects (Edward Elgar, 1996).

In turn, Sharon Witherspoon suggests that "(a) sense of community with others may be as important as concern over the biosphere in generating environmentalism". If this is true, then any community that is subjected to a near-thirty-year experiment designed to prove that "there is no such thing as society" - as Britain under successive prime ministers has effectively been since 1979 - will be in poor shape to deal with the pro-social policy demands of a problem like climate change.

People, first

All of this suggests that addressing climate change is both more difficult and easier than the executive summaries swirling across the desks of government ministers and newspaper front-pages portray. It is more difficult, because the drivers of unsustainable attitudes and behaviour are deeper and more structural than supporters of liberal capitalism can afford to believe. Yet it is also easier, because resistance to those drivers is expressed on a daily basis by the actions of tens of millions of citizens around the world as they strive to do the right thing, not for any gain for themselves or fear of fiscal punishment, but because it's the right thing to do.

Governments assume that people don't behave like that, and design policy accordingly. Social-science research suggests two things: first, that people do behave like this, and second, that government policy which fails to understand as much will not only be ineffective but - in a move that converts tragedy into farce - will undermine the very motivations for the behaviour which it should be encouraging.

Technology, lifestyle changes and green taxes can't provide the politics that global climate change needs. So let's have sound social science present in the debate as well. After that, the "what are we going to do about it" question may start to look very different.

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