Monday, June 18, 2007

Being green and socialism: a response to John Dixon

John Dixon has a piece here on Lib Dem Voice asking: "Will we have to be socialist to be green?"

John writes:

If we are to deal with global warming it is not going to be easy: we can’t simply magic away 80% of our greenhouse gas emissions, and we can’t simply speak about global warming as if it’s the most important issue facing the world and yet treat it as if it’s a secondary issue that wont actually affect our everyday lives.

The price for tackling global warming estimated by the Stern report is 1% of GDP. This an awful lot of money. Lots of hip replacements, lots of Tarceva, many many classroom assistants, many miles of light rail, ID cards, trident, you name it. But, to be blunt, it is not so expensive, so impoverishing, that it will greatly affect our lifestyles. That is, while we may change our spending patterns, our lifestyles and choices in response to the measures needed, those changes needn't be for the worse to any great extent - to any extent greater than the changes that 6 months of recession would cause.

So the common response that radical sacrifices are what is required, is a big mistake. It is both untrue, and it is practically damaging because it is a counsel of despair.

There is no middle ground on environmentalism. We can either go all the way, and attempt to prevent the ensuing disasters that climate change will surely bring by checking climate change itself - or push the national effort into preparing for such calamities. Any middle road will be both ineffective and wasteful.
But we are miles away from there being a "the national effort". So arguing over what it should be like this is a little hysterical. John is saying that we shouldn't adapt to climate change because we've only just got enough in the tank to prevent it. The opposite position to this is held by the likes of Bjorn Lomborg - that we shouldn't prevent climate change because it would be much cheaper to adapt to it. But saying the opposite of whatever the bad guys are saying doesn't make good policy.

My position is this:
  • A certain amount of warming is inevitable, and a certain amount of adaptation will be necessary, whatever success we have in prevention
  • The capacity to adapt to climate change is an important capacity to have anyway - because it implies a capacity to react to natural disasters, which will still happen, whatever success we have in preventing climate change. While the bulk of climate change is anthropogenic, I don't doubt that nature has the potential to throw things at us that have an even bigger impact on climate than our carbon emissions.
  • There is a temptation to drag our feet on adaptation in order to build political support for prevention. I am dead against this, it is playing politics with people's lives. There is absolutely nothing wrong with building sea defences or moving out of flood plains, these are entirely sensible rational policies, and to oppose them is to be a species at war with itself when it should be uniting.
Prevention is good and adaptation is good. It is bizarre to damn either as part of an "ineffective and wasteful" middle road. It is irrational to damn one because you think the other is better. We see the same thing happening throughout politics. Trade and aid are both good for the third world, yet many big supporters of one feel they should oppose the other. Negative and positive liberty are both good, but try telling that to the socialists or libertarians. Nuclear and renewables will both generate low carbon energy, so pick one and oppose the other!

A national effort is required and, just like in the Second World War, it is going to require government intervention to a huge extent. This has led to some of our more libertarian and conservative colleagues (who declare freedom for businessmen and complacency for everyone else) decrying environmentalists as ‘undercover fascists’ and scolding the entire principle of climate change as a ‘far left wing conspiracy’. Absurd, of course, partly because the Green party doesn’t exactly exert nationalistic or fascist principles, but mainly because it lets the unattractive resultant solutions for a problem obscure the fact that there is a problem at all.

The Dunkirk spirit analogy is compelling. The war on global warming demanding a kind of war communism in government is John's thesis. But lets agree to fight the war before we adopt war communism. And if it only costs 1% of GDP we need never adopt war communism. There are conceivable causes which might prompt us all to work single-mindedly for them, but better light bulbs is not one of them. We have the means to generate as much low carbon energy as we want - at a price - whether it is nuclear, or offshore wind, or filling the Sahara with concentrated solar (CSP) plant. All we have to be willing to do, is pay the taxes, or the energy bills, and vote to make it happen.

Which brings me to my third point. In order to tackle climate change we will have to, whether we like it or not, have huge amounts of government intervention. We may well become a socialist state. Carbon rationing, government monitoring of our firms’ environmental impact or even quite possibly government control. There are certainly quite a few people within our own centre-left party (let alone the general public) who would be against such a move.

Carbon trading schemes would allow a certain amount of marketisation within the greening society, but, as we have seen recently, unless strictly enforced they do not reduce carbon emissions, and can simply lead to more market and government failure if too highly or too lightly implemented.

Emissions taxes, rather than emissions trading, are also a "marketisation" of the solution. And one that works rather better - there is more certainty for business, and there is less scope for hostile lobbying and special pleading when there are no permits to be issued. While a low price is roughly equivalent to setting the cap too high, a low price is much more visible, and therefore more politically difficult, than too high a cap. See here for example. The Lib Dems are right to propose green taxes in preference to more cap and trade.

I don't suggest that taxes alone will be sufficient, because too many people are willing to pay a great deal more for energy than they do, and very high carbon taxes would increase the cost of living and hammer the poor. So governments can and should promote low carbon energy generation, better transport, and energy efficiency.

Do we have to be socialist to deal with global warming? No. Of course that wasn't the question asked, the question was: will we have to be socialist to be green? That is rather more difficult. There is a trend within the green movement that holds that prosperity is the problem - affluenza and all that - that we could avoid global warming and other problems by being poorer. This is a huge mistake as I have argued before on this blog. But is it socialist? Intriguingly, the Green Party manifesto is closest to a conservative caricature of socialism. High taxes and high spending crushing enterprise making everyone poorer. To be this kind of green, you have to agree with the right's view of socialism, but support it anyway. Socialists, on the other hand have always sought to benefit working people - with mixed results. Do you have to be a conservative socialist to be green? Maybe.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Dear Gordon

Tagged by Millennium Dome.

2 things of which Gordon Brown should be proud

1. Being a bit of a wonk. Why does a little understanding attract so much ridicule from people who understand less? A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but in a PM, less is even more dangerous.
2. Keeping the Tories out since 1997.

2 things for which he should apologise

1. Funding the war on Iraq
2. Failing to topple Tony Blair when it was clear he had taken the country to war on a lie. If that is not grounds for a party rebellion then nothing is.

2 things he should do immediately on becoming Prime Minister

1. Offer a cabinet position to Dave, nice but Knave. Can we see any big disagreements on policy between the two?
2. Cancel all Blair's big ticket vanity spending items: ID cards, premature Trident renewal, unwanted IT systems, war, ...

2 things he should do while Prime Minister

1. Unpick the whole box-ticking back-of-an-envelope-target culture
2. Generate shedloads of renewable and low carbon energy.