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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 …
The good news:
- An inventor has developed adjustable glasses which could bring better vision to a billion of the world’s poorest people: Josh Silver, a professor of physics at Oxford University has created glasses with lenses that can be “tuned” by the wearer using small knobs, eliminating the need for prescriptions or specialist equipment. Silver’s idea is stirring example of how simple technological interventions can sometimes be the most elegant. Small is beautiful after all.
- A campaign has been launched to encourage people in the rich world to donate 10% of their money to help the poorest people in the world. Once again proving that there are academics who venture beyond the ivory tower, moral philosopher Toby Ord (again, from Oxford University) has pledged to give away a third of his £30,000 a year salary this year, with 10% year on year after that. His new website – Giving What We Can – allows visitors to enter their post-tax earnings, to see where they rank in the global rich list, which is adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity. It then calculates the number of lives that could be saved or school hours bought with your donation, and suggests a handful of very effective and targeted aid agencies to support. Of course, at nef we believe that there won’t be a way out of global poverty unless we very quickly put a stop to climate change, and introduce fundamental changes to the global financial system. But working to change the economy shouldn’t stop us from donating to save lives here and now.
- There is still a chance of a climate deal at Copenhagen. Less than a day after Barack Obama announced that he didn’t think there was enough time to secure a global deal on climate change mitigation at the UN COP15 in Copenhagen, Chinese president Hu Jintao and Obama issued a joint statement promising to press for a deal next month.
The bad news:
- Peak oil is closer than we thought, due to deliberately distorted figures, according to a senior official at the International Energy Association. The Guardian reports that the whistleblower has accused the USA of forcing the IEA to “underplay the rate of decline from existing oil fields while overplaying the chances of finding new reserves”.
- The average global temperature is likely rise by 6°C by 2100 if no action is taken according to an international study from the Global Carbon Project. Mark Lynas, who compiled scientific research on this subject for his Royal Society prize-winning book Six Degrees, writes that amount of warming would “cause a mass extinction of almost all life and probably reduce humanity to a few struggling groups of embattled survivors clinging to life near the poles.”
- Lord Griffiths perpetuates the myth that inequality is somehow ‘good’ for us.The Conservative peer – who is also the vice-chair of investment bank Goldman Sachs – tried to justify the bonus culture of the City by telling an audience that “inequality is a way of achieving greater opportunity and prosperity for all”. Richard Wilkinson, of the Equality Trust, provided a rebuttal, while nef‘s own research in The Great Transition shows that inequality could cost the UK alone up to £4.5 trillion over the next forty years, because of the social problems it causes.
I mentioned a while back that Lord Chris Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency, has emerged as a enthusiastic advocate for the Green New Deal. Now, in an interview with the Observer, Lord Smith has criticised Gordon Brown’s environmental agenda for being incoherent, empty and inadequate. Brown talks about a Green New Deal, but hasn’t matched his words with effective action. Smith says:
Why on earth don’t we take a leaf out of Barack Obama’s book and put green technology right at the heart of the economic stimulus package that we believe the government is wanting to put together for the budget?
Why indeed. The case for a Green New Deal is stronger than ever. New research from the Environmental Industries Commission says that a Green New Deal in the UK could create 300,000 jobs. Meanwhile, over at Comment is Free, Brendan Barber describes how a global Green New Deal could be financed using a form of reserve currency known as ‘special drawing rights’ (SDR):
In terms of job creation, economic stimulus and support for long-term growth – not to mention warding off climate disaster – nothing is likely to provide bigger benefits than investment in climate protection.
Fortunately, some local governments are not paralysed by the inertia which has suffocated Downing Street. In Sheffield, preparation is underway for a Green New Deal conference on 28th February, supported by the city council. Speakers include GND authors Larry Elliott and Colin Hines. For more information and details about how to register, visit: http://www.sheffieldgreennewdeal.org.uk/
At nef, we’re continuing to develop ideas about ways in which the economic crisis and climate change can be tackled together, with social justice as crucial stepping stone between the two. Last month, our report Tackling Climate Change, Reducing Poverty – co-produced with our colleagues from the Roundtable on Climate Change and Poverty in the UK – addressed this issue. This week, we have a new pamphlet from our social policy team, exploring how we might restructure the welfare state to help us tackle the joint challenges of climate change and economic meltdown. Green Well Fair calls for a new social settlement which moves beyond dependence on the market economy, towards valuing the other, forgotten economies of people and planet. Download it for free or order a printed copy here.
As promised, here’s the second half of this week’s Green New Deal round-up, featuring none other than the 44th President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama.
Yesterday afternoon, the relentless pace of thinking and doing that usually characterises life at nef headquarters was momentarily put on hold as we gathered to watch the inauguration speech. Murmours rippled around the office whenever Obama mentioned a topic which strayed into new economics territory. Early on, Obama spoke of the “greed and irresponsibility” which has brought the economy to its knees. Cue nods from those researching ethics in the new economy. Obama later described how “all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness”. Some whispers from our well-being team. But the new President received the most oohs and aahs from us whenever he touched on climate change and the environment. The issue wasn’t centre stage, but after eight years of denial and ignorance, we finally have an American government which is ready to make progress on these issues.
Which is just as well really: James Hansen – NASA climate scientist extraordinaire – has already warned Obama that he has only four years in which to act if we are have any chance at all of stopping extreme climate change. Hansen’s admonition is even starker than nef‘s One Hundred Months campaign, which gives us less than 95 months – or just under eight years – to make the necessary changes. But whether it happens in his first term, or his second, it’s clear that Obama is going to be the most pivotal figure in the fight to stop global warming.
Although the phrase has been repeatedly associated with his economic and energy policies, Obama has been blowing hot and cold on the subject of a Green New Deal. Shortly after being elected, he seemed to rule out a New Deal-style programme by saying that “to simply recreate what existed back in the 30s in the 21st century… would be missing the boat”. But many of his promises to create jobs by rebuilding American infrastructure have certainly echoed Roosevelt’s earlier programme. And his address yesterday leaned further towards the Green New Deal, describing how the new America would “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories”. Let’s just hope that ‘soil’ translates as geothermal energy rather than biofuels. Check out BBC environment correspondent Richard Black’s very thorough dissection of the green content of the address at his blog.
Perhaps the most moving moments in the speech came towards the end, as Obama compared our situation today with that of America’s founders: “a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river” in 1776. He then quoted the words of Thomas Paine:
“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
Our ‘common danger’ today is not so singular: it is a triple crunch of climate change, energy depletion and economic meltdown, with all the associated conflict, famine and social upheaval which those crises fuel. But the broad point remains: the existence of a ‘future world’ very much depends on the decisions we make right now. Let’s make them good ones.
Another busy week for the Green New Deal as Japan announces plans to create “millions” of jobs in the green technology sector. Environment Minister Tetsuo Saito told reporters that he had received orders from Japan’s Prime Minister to “draft a Green New Deal plan”. More on this at Bloomberg.
In the US, Barack Obama has given his first public address after being elected in November. Last Thursday he revealed some of his plans to help the ailing American economy, including several hints of a Green New Deal:
“To finally spark the creation of a clean energy economy, we will double the production of alternative energy in the next three years. We will modernize more than 75% of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of two million American homes, saving consumers and taxpayers billions on our energy bills. In the process, we will put Americans to work in new jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced – jobs building solar panels and wind turbines; constructing fuel-efficient cars and buildings; and developing the new energy technologies that will lead to even more jobs, more savings, and a cleaner, safer planet in the bargain.”
Closer to home, some founder members of the Green New Deal Group had a letter in the Guardian last week about the inadequacy of Gordon Brown’s action on green jobs thus far. And today, leading environmentalists – including nef‘s Andrew Simms – have accused the government of destroying thousands of job opportunities by failing to support low carbon technology with subsidies.
The reality is that action on climate change is crucial if we are to weather the recession. A report published by nef today on behalf of a new coalition of environment and social justice NGOs argues that substantial green investment would combat the downturn and lift thousands of people in the UK out of poverty. The poorest people in this country will suffer hardest from the effects of climate change, such as heatwaves and flooding. But if we take intelligent action now to cut our carbon emissions, there could be benefits to people on low-incomes. Re-skilling for green jobs would tackle unemployment, home insulation programmes would fight fuel poverty, and improvements to low-carbon public transport would help those without cars.
The report, Tackling Climate Change, Reducing Poverty is available to download for free from the nef website.
Last week’s papers had a couple of great comment pieces on the Green New Deal and related matters.
In the Times, Camilla Cavendish wonders about the future of British jobs now that retailers are folding and banks cutting staff. “The new world,” she writes, “wll clearly not invole graduate lemmings hurtling towards banking.” Her proposed alternative to these job markets is the renewable energy sector, supported by a Green New Deal. Cavendish then explains how Britain is well “behind the green curve” compared to Germany, Denmark and Spain, and makes some proposals for how the stimulate green investment. It’s well worth reading the whole thing.
Andrew Rawnsley’s piece in the Observer has less of green feel (he starts by talking about a recent holiday in the US and I presume he didn’t swim there) but he does make a strong argument for a Keynesian restructuring of the economy, with investment in clean energy and high speed rail. His essential point is that spending on green technology “will cost a fraction of the billions which have been committed to the feckless banks.” In other words, if you’re going to spend, at least spend it wisely. Read the rest here.
The Independent on Sunday’s leader compares the mediocre compromises of the UN climate talks in Poznan with the promise of Barack Obama. While liberals might be revolting over Obama’s Lincolnesque “team of rivals”, at least two of his core advisors – energy secretary Stephen Chu and transition team manager John Podesta – have some laudable green credentials. The leader explains that not only is Obama geared up to start a Green New Deal at home, he is also set to lead international progress on climate change mitigation. Well, let’s hope so – 2009 is pretty much our last chance to get a global agreement in place.
Once again, it’s time to track our Green New Deal meme through the headlines.
First off, Matthew DeBord at the Huff Post says that a bail-out of the American auto industry could be a decent launch pad for a GND. Professor William Ayers (a.k.a. Barack Obama’s ‘terrorist pal‘) has also come out as an advocate of Green New Deal solutions. Reuters’ Paul Taylor also thinks that a Green New Deal would be emminently sensible – but laments that “it takes political courage in a recession to think big”.
At the Independent, Geoffrey Lean reports that Boris Johnson – yes, Bush-backing, Kyoto-bashing Boris Johnson – has undergone something of an eco-conversion and will now call for a Green New Deal in his speech to the Environment Agency this week. Boris says he wants London to become the greenest city in the world. Lean also maintains faith that Barack Obama will deliver the GND goods: the President-Elect promises that 2.5 million jobs will be created over the next two years via spending on green infrastructure.
But the Economist says that we should stop comparing Barack Obama to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They once again dismiss the notion of a Green New Deal, arguing:
the election result was more a verdict on the incompetence of the Bush administration than a plea for an era of activist government. Forty-three per cent of voters (and 27% of Obama voters) have told pollsters that they think government is doing too much.
But there are a couple of problems with this argument. Read the rest of this entry »
Amid the economic gloom, it is taken as a given that the state of the economy will surpass all other priorities at the ballot box. But as the American election demonstrates, the relationship between a person’s economic position and their voting preferences is not nearly that straightforward.
The principle of representation is at the heart of the type of democracy which we in the UK share with the United States. In theory, it’s meant to prevent elites from acquiring and maintaining power: it ensures that the legislature mirrors the nation’s constituents.
In practice, however, it doesn’t always work that way. It’s not unusual for people to vote for candidates who are quite unlike themselves, but who they think will represent their interests. I doubt that many people who elect the current Conservative Party front bench would aspire to join their clubs or their social circle. At other times, we vote – in good faith – for candidates who subsequently let us down. When small shopkeepers voted for Margaret Thatcher in their droves, they probably didn’t expect her to unleash a wave of deregulation that would culminate in one of the most concentrated business sectors in the world.
But nowhere has the link between class and voting preferences been as successfully eroded as in the US. The unholy alliance between economic neoliberals and social conservatives means that people will regularly vote against their own material interests for cultural, religious and patriotic reasons. So while 63% of voters said that the economy was their top concern this did not necessarily translate into a vote for the person, or party most likely to represent their economic interests.
Democracy is problematic for elites when 60% of the electorate earn less than $70,000. It’s not that the relationship between income and voter preference is inverse, the very rich also veer towards the Republican Party. It was only amongst minorities – where race played a greater role – that this asymmetry was turned on its head
As well as capturing the language of human dignity and freedom, the right claim a monopoly on morality and national pride however narrowly defined. Hence, guns, God and abortion trumped jobs, insurance and a mortgage even during a month in which another quarter of a million swelled the ranks of the unemployed. This is fiendishly clever because it undermines the saleability of a more equitable system to the very people it should benefit thereby shifting the goalposts further rightward. Whether Obama’s consensus approach can reach those that reject their own economic representation remains to be seen.
As people start getting stuck into the polling data in the wake of Obama’s victory, some interesting patterns are emerging. This, for instance, is pretty striking:
Relative to 2004, the number of under 30s who voted stayed pretty much the same, but their preference swung strongly toward the Democrats.
Now, there are probably any number of ways of explaining this result, but it’s interesting when read in conjunction with recent research on the relative happiness of younger and older people. In short, younger people tend to be more optimistic about how happy they will be the future, whilst underestimating how happy there were in the past.
Needless to say, optimism was a central feature of Obama’s campaign. Rather than running on a negative, Bush-bashing platform (the temptation!), his core message – “Yes we can” – was about the possibility of change and a better future. It seems at least plausible, then, that the optimistic tone of Obama’s campaign was especially appealing to young voters who were already strongly disposed to see the future in a positive light.
Whether or not this explanation stacks up, it’s at least a worthy reminder of the power of optimism as a motivating force. In many respects the world is in a mess, and there’s no sense in pretending otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that emphasising our problems is the best way to make people want to do something about them. When we think about the scale of the challenge, especially on environmental issues, it’s all too easy to come across as downbeat and negative. But for the unconverted, it’s a short step from here to apathy, and from there the merest hop over the border into nihilism.
So yes, let’s make be realistic about the difficulties we face now, but make sure we tell an optimistic story about what’s to come.