Now is the time to take on the hard politics of the environment

Sunrise at Stanlow Oil Refinery heralding an Industrial DawnThis post is by Ian Christie, Green Alliance associate and senior lecturer at the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, University of Surrey.

My fellow Green Alliance associate and former director Rebecca Willis spoke on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week about the state of environmental politics and climate action as the UK general election approaches. She said, “these are the best of times – and the worst of times.” Best, because finally there seems to have been a breakthrough in political consciousness and sense of urgency concerning the climate crisis.

For the first time, the main parties in the UK are competing to show how seriously they take the challenge of rapid decarbonisation, protection of ecosystems, and transition to a sustainable economy. But also worst, because this advance in political awareness and (we hope) commitment to serious action comes very late in the day. Two decades at least have been wasted, in which the evidence base has been alarming and robust enough to justify action.

Green Alliance has played an immensely valuable role over its four decades in getting the UK’s political system to this point, at which there is finally a consensus on radical climate action, movement towards a circular economy and serious rethinking of food, farming and land use policies to benefit people, creatures and the planet. Green Alliance has always been, as Becky Willis notes in her blog piece to mark the 40th anniversary, a thoughtful, careful and smart actor in the political system, building relationships and partnerships across parties and sectors, and capitalising on moments of opportunity created by other campaigners. It’s been a pleasure and privilege to be a Green Alliance associate, seeing a series of distinguished directors and their excellent teams make a big, cumulative contribution to the change in the political weather we now see in the UK and beyond.

Political progress so far hasn’t been enough
However, as Rebecca Willis also observes, the kind of political advances made so far just aren’t enough. The changes seen and contributed to by Green Alliance over 40 years are enormously valuable, but the scale of the transformations needed by the time of the organisation’s 50th in 2029 will dwarf them. I never forget the observation long ago from Tom Burke, a founder and former director of Green Alliance, that there are ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ politics of the environment. The twist in that remark is that the easy politics are hard, and the hard politics are almost intractable.

The easy politics of the environment concern protection of particular species and places, or campaigning against ‘point sources’ of pollution and particular products and materials. That is hard enough, but it is easy by comparison with the politics of dealing with globally diffused pollution, as with greenhouse gas emissions, disruption of the nitrogen cycle, and massive land use change. In the hard politics of the environment, Tom noted, “the buck stops everywhere”. We’re now deep into the world of the hard politics of the environment. And it’ll get harder in the next decade and beyond.

The reasons why have become brutally clear in the past ten years of inadequate policy making and implementation for the environment. They can be summed up as follows:

– The challenges of the hard politics of the environment concern collective action problems, entwined in complex ways: these are problems that encourage delay, free-riding, unwillingness to make the first move, fear of loss of competitiveness, and so on. Climate mitigation is the toughest case, but there are many others, and they reach from global to local level.

– Because of this, progress is incremental, slow and inadequate to the scale and speed of the evolution of our problems. The longer we wait, the worse the challenges become. As the activist Alex Steffen has said of climate action, “winning slowly is the same thing as losing”. But accelerating change gets tougher as the problems pile up.

– We have, individually and collectively, cognitive biases that make the hard politics of the environment even harder to deal with. Radical action for sustainable development and decarbonisation requires a psychological, ethical and institutional reorientation that is extremely difficult to achieve given our bias towards the short term, risk aversion and the status quo, if it serves us well. And the hard problems of the environment have only now started to become visible and felt at scale by people in the rich world. As the philosopher Jonathan Rowson has said, the diagnosis of unsustainability is hard to internalise in a world that appears in so many ways to be secure and desirable: ‘Things have never been so good, but everything has to change’ is a tough message to sell to those who feel they have much to lose and who fear the sacrifices to come in a transition to sustainability.

– Powerful, wealthy people who benefit from the fossil-based status quo of extractive capitalism will do everything they can to increase and protect their power and wealth. It is now clear that many elite interests around the world see democracy and the rule of law as expendable in the pursuit of these goals. Institutions that are vital to democratic and peaceful transitions to sustainable development paths are being eroded in the West, and are at risk or non-existent elsewhere.

There is still reason to hope
The hard politics of the environment will get harder, in the face of these forces. However, there is still reason to hope as Green Alliance embarks on its fifth decade. The break-out from collective action problems comes when a critical mass of citizens and organisations decides that urgent action is needed and starts to co-ordinate as pioneers of new demands, solutions and partnerships. That is beginning to happen in relation to the climate crisis, as the past remarkable year as shown (a ‘Climate Spring’ of advocacy and commitment, as Nick Robins has called it).

What else do we need before Green Alliance turns 50? These seem to me to be the priorities for campaigns and the painstaking insider advocacy by Green Alliance and its allies:

– an urgent need to continue to build up local action (by cities and local governments, grassroots institutions, churches and communities of faith, universities and schools, etc) to pressurise national governments and big business, such that there is ever more political cost to inaction;

– the construction of potent political narratives that energise moral concern, offer a detailed vision of a greener good life, and appeal to care for the common good and for the future prospects of children and grandchildren;

– the encouragement of pro-sustainability business by the incentives that count – making inaction expensive eg insurance, banking, tax; redirecting subsidies and investment; penalising and shaming; promoting sustainable technologies and absolute decoupling of greenhouse gas emissions from production and consumption;

– refocusing economic policy on shared goals for the common goods of sustainability, and discarding the obsession with GDP growth, regardless of its impacts and purpose;

– reaching out to the centre right with narratives that appeal to conservative and pro-enterprise values, and isolating hard-right nativists.

As it’s always been, ecological crisis is a ‘kitchen sink’ challenge: there is no option but to throw everything at it. Green Alliance has been an indispensable force for good in this challenge for 40 years, but those decades have been the ‘easy’ ones. The even harder work starts now, and it’s great to know that Green Alliance will be in the thick of the challenges of the 2020s.

This post is part of Green Alliance’s 40th anniversary blog series.

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