At the turn of the 1900s in the US there was a progressive campaign to establish a shorter, eight-hour working day. It was opposed by the National Association of Manufacturers (Nam) as potentially ruinous to the economy – on much the same grounds that the abolition of slavery, the introduction of the maximum load line in shipping and most other progressive reforms throughout history have been opposed. In the 1920s Nam also lobbied against a shorter, five-day working week. In the 1930s, however, Nam paid for a billboard advertising campaign boasting that the US had the “world’s shortest working hours”, underlining the point with “there’s no way like the American way”. Nothing succeeds like success.
When Barack Obama’s administration finally won its viciously contested plan to provide healthcare insurance to 32 million of its lowest-paid citizens, it subtly changed the chemistry of what might be possible in a range of other policy areas.
Having been on the back foot for much of his first year in power, Obama is emboldened both by success and the awareness that Americans like a winner. In the odd political ecosystem, the survival of health reform has direct implications for the viability of action on climate change. Some connections are obvious, others less so.
Greater weather extremes due to warming, such as heat waves and extreme events, have huge health implications.
So do other impacts related to the intensive use of fossil fuels. Deaths and injury resulting from traffic incidents and respiratory problems linked to transport-related air pollution both figure high on the World Health Organisation’s list of major global health threats.
But there are links, too, in the psychology of the solutions. Insurance is an intelligent, collective way to manage risk. As long as the providers of insurance are not allowed to distort its purpose by milking stakeholders for profit, it means that very many, regular and relatively small individual contributions can provide a very large safety net. Making it mandatory deters free riders and delivers universal cover. As with health, why not also with the climate?
The ban on smoking in public buildings draws another interesting line in the debate on the proper balance between “freedoms from” and “freedoms to”. This is on the basis that one person’s freedom to smoke in a public building denies another person’s freedom to breathe smoke-free air. The greenhouse gas emissions currently contributing to climatic instability could be seen as an issue of “uber passive smoking”, especially for those who like their climates to be friendly and convivial for human society.
Seeing banks like RBS, bailed-out and owned by the public, wriggle and squirm in regard to their fossil fuel investments, is to be reminded of tobacco companies floundering in the court of expert health and public opinion.
On the day that the head of “corporate sustainability” at RBS refuted has bank’s deep involvement in particularly dirty fossil fuel projects, the bank opened an office in Calgary, Canada, the very heart of oil tar sands developments. It was also hard to explain the $7.5bn of financial support given by RBS over two years to a range of the major oil companies.
Can things be turned around in the few years left in which we can make a real difference? Leading figures at the more establishment-friendly end of the environmental spectrum think so. The Last Parliament initiative, co-ordinated by Green Alliance, makes the point that the next government will either lay the foundations for rapid transition to a low carbon economy and keep our options open – or it won’t.
If the latter happens, it will feed the mildly misanthropic pessimism of gurus like James Lovelock, who advocated the Gaia hypothesis that Earth is a self-regulating system.
Unfortunately, according to Lovelock, if the Earth self-regulates under global warming he reckons that will leave life support systems for only around a billion people.
Oddly, though, for a scientist, his lack of faith in human ingenuity is highly unscientific. His implicit message of “abandon hope all ye who enter” the warming world ignores the many occasions throughout history when societies have achieved rapid transition.
The danger is that indulging a complacent negativity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We know that change is possible. But if, instead of applying humanity’s immense capacity for creative, community based problem-solving, all some of our best minds do is spoonfeed the “league of no”, our fabulous experiment in civilisation will be written off as a bad April fool’s joke. Eighty months and counting …