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“We Need More of It, and We Need It Faster”: Economics, the Individual, and Climate Change

Image: A handwritten sign held up at a protest, reading ‘No nature, no future.’

Thawing Siberian permafrost, record Australian wildfires, and the most serious desert locust outbreak in 70 years. This should have been enough to make 2020 a year to remember, and we’re only in August. Yet I’m sure you’ll agree that as monumental as these disasters and milestones are, they won’t be what we’ll look back on in years to come.

It might have seemed that a pandemic couldn’t have come at a better time, given the 2016 resolution set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation to keep net international aviation CO2 emissions at or below 2020 levels, or the opportunity which the pandemic provides for deciding the future of the energy sector. But alas, this year’s green scene seems to be punctuated rather by a series of fossil fuel and airline bailouts, alongside a $20 billion Mozambique gas project, China’s coal plant building spree, and Saudi Arabian hesitancy to reduce reliance on oil in lieu of a hugely diminished Hajj season.

It seems to me that for many years, there has been a sort of complacency and trust in new as-yet undiscovered technologies to get us out of this global warming mess which threatens to make 140 million climate refugees; a blind supposition that we are around the corner from the next revolutionary scientific discovery which will render present efforts obsolete as it solves all our problems, and puts to bed any concerns about the future of our planet. And it seems to me, too, that in this faith, there are many neglected present sacrificial efforts – neglected because they might threaten to put us a step behind our neighbour, in terms of competition or market share. A 2015 article by Dr. Ernest Moniz, the then energy secretary to President Obama, claims: 

“Solving climate change is about the human spirit and our ability to tackle shared challenges together. It’s about ensuring energy security, expanding access to reliable and affordable energy, and spurring economic growth that creates jobs and protects the planet. For all of that, we need innovation. We need more of it, and we need it faster.”

“We need more of it, and we need it faster” sounds to me more like a Huxleyan capitalist mantra than a thoughtful and measured solution to avert climate disaster. Even as the US presidential election looms ever closer, despite his resolve to re-join the Paris agreement, Biden’s climate plan is centred on one theme: investment. Biden pledges record amounts into “clean energy and climate research, and innovation” without a single mention of reducing carbon emissions or sequestration. As a report by the UK Fires research programme aptly puts it:

“Our cars are getting heavier, we’re flying more each year and we heat our homes to higher temperatures. We all know that this makes no sense, but it’s difficult to start discussing how we really want to address climate change while we keep hoping that new technologies will take the problem away.”

As politicians decide the fate of the world, the dialogue surrounding the tackling of climate change always seems to be one of more, and not less; our hope is resting in discovering some novel technology – in energy production or transport or otherwise – which will do all the hard work, without us having to make a few sacrifices. This is the climate equivalent of bleeding to death on the side of the road, without attempting to stop one’s bleeding in the hope of an ambulance which may or may not come along.

Are we, in 21st century Western culture, so ingrained in a consumerist mindset which says “solve your problems by having more and spending more” that we fail to make meaningful changes to avoid climate disaster? Does a mentality which says “we need more, and we need it faster” stop us from coming up with solutions which include the word less? Or is it all just a big political game for (re)election like so much else is? I recently remarked to a friend about hopeful research suggesting a relatively easy and inexpensive method of carbon sequestration by spreading rock dust on fields. “Yes,” as he was so quick to reply, “but that sort of thing doesn’t win elections, does it?”

Are we, in 21st century Western culture, so ingrained in a consumerist mindset which says “solve your problems by having more and spending more” that we fail to make meaningful changes to avoid climate disaster?

And yet the personal changes that we can make for the good of the planet, as outlined in the UK Fires report, are very definitely and decidedly statements of less. “Stop using aeroplanes.” “Reduce consumption of beef and lamb.” “Aim to reduce the total weight of material you purchase each year.” Even those statements concerned with direct consumption steer clear of the vocabulary of more and recommend “choose an electric car next time.” It is all well and good to petition for a quicker move to renewables, or to turn up to a climate rally with our friends, but to what degree are we willing to stop using and aim to reduce those things which we don’t want to give up?

What kind of a post-Covid world do you want to live in? As democratic and economic participants in some of the most powerful and influential countries in the world, our choices matter. Perhaps never more so than in a post-Covid rebuilding; our choices as consumers of aviation and food make a difference as the consumer flight industry is rebuilt, and decisions on the topic of food security are made.  Are we going to choose to err on the side of indulgence and keep our wants (or at least, those most dear to us), and promote from a distance green solutions and choices, or take up our proverbial crosses, so at least we can say we died trying? (Option three perhaps should be to hypocritically write about the matter, whilst not making all the sacrifices one should; and this, it seems, is the choice which I have made.) As Anna Lappé so succinctly puts it: “Every time you spend money [or in fact, don’t], you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”

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