Can we regulate the climate?

A sample of one day’s Guardian climate coverage reveals two damning pieces of evidence that we are not only failing to address ecological disaster, we’re actually moving backwards. Only 6% of G20 pandemic recovery spending has been directed towards ‘green’ ends – and 3% has actually boosted carbon production, chiefly through coal production and coal-fired energy generation; 93% of the UK’s Environment Agency prosecutions have been downgraded to warnings or ignored. The first statistic is more significant, in that it wastes any momentum the pandemic provided for serious mitigation. But the second felt worse, at least to me. Investigators created and recommended prosecution on 495 serious pollution cases. But

after intervention by managers just 35 cases were taken forward to prosecution, the rest being dealt with via a lower sanction such as a warning letter, or dropped all together and marked for no further action.

The difference between the 495 cases, and a further 386 “highest category” incidents where prosecution was recommended, is not made clear. But the consequences are:

only 4% of cases were pursued, while the rest were downgraded to a caution, enforcement notice or warning letter, or marked for no further action.

What must it have felt like for those researchers to put together cases, and then have management drop it? In Season 3 of The Wire, obsessed, self-destructive cop Jimmy McNulty can’t understand why his new unit is pursuing low-level homicides, rather than the high-level drug and money targets that are the root cause of the violence. His colleague Lester Freamon tells him he should feel lucky he’s got a promotion to a major investigative team, and that his outrage is really just about self-importance. McNulty’s answer – “Fuck loyalty and fuck you. I never thought I’d hear that chain-of-command horseshit from you” – is, for Freamon, just more proof that he needs to get over himself and accept reality: “Motherfucker, I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of weak units. More than you. Now, this here may not be perfect, but it’s a chance to be police.”

As the show’s narrative makes clear over and over again, there’s no single figure who’s responsible for the mess. The bosses demanding lower homicide rates are beholden to politicians, who are themselves beholden to party bosses and the electorate (though not the members of the electorate getting killed.) Everyone follows the chain of command, for fear of being passed over for future promotion or, like McNulty, being banished to a useless post.

I wonder if similar conversations took place in the Environment Agency, in which everyone blamed each other for the lack of results. Inside The Environment Agency, a now-defunct whistleblower blog, lists a litany of poor management oversight on spending and time and a poor work culture that, if even a fraction was true, would make it impossible to get anything done. Still, the climate and pollution crises are not the product of disgruntled staff. So what is it?

The tools to fix the climate are popularly known as policy, and policy is a neutral tool. Policy-makers do deep dives into the literature, consult stakeholders in the field, and make recommendations to legislators. Existing policies are pinpointed and evaluated as to whether they can be made more effective or replaced; public consultations are held. The process is ideally neutral, a way of exposing the rules that keep us safe, healthy and thriving to as much scrutiny as possible.

But then, we have the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, released last Monday, with ever-more dire warnings of species and biodiversity loss, weakening and reversing carbon sinks, and tipping points past which feedback loops enhance chaotic, destructive climatic behaviour. The crafting of global policy recommendations have been going on for 35 years, since 1988. (All-expenses-paid conference jaunts at taxpayers’ expense, detailed by the whistleblowers, have been going on for much longer.) The question is whether the necessary, hard work, to which experts have devoted their lives, matches the urgency of the crisis. It often feels like the scene in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when the travellers are hurtled back through time to a Disaster Area concert:

If anything, the IPCC can be seen as a herculean exercise in patience, as scientists and environmentalists have shouted about the tangible impacts of climate change until they became impossible to ignore. And now that they’re unmissable, we face: drastic change in response to public outrage? No. Annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry reached $500 billion+ a year, $580 billion by some estimates. 227 environmentalists actually were shot in 2020, 212 in 2019. According a senior climate scientist in Ukraine, the Russian invasion of 2022 has been sparked in part by water shortages in Russian-occupied territories. The information is out there, the policy makers are doing their research, the activists are speaking up and sometimes dying about it; someone is not stepping up.

Writing in the London Review of Books (paywalled), Geoff Mann suggests the problem lies not in the expertise or processes, but in the economic assumptions we are forced to work within. Impact assessment models (IAMs), mathematical representations of the future, are what governments use to estimate how much to spend on climate mitigation and adaptation. Behind these models are assumptions about the value of future life versus the lives that exist now. According to the Stern Review,

the welfare of people living fifty years from now should be valued at just under half that of people alive today. [Economist William] Nordhaus is considerably less cautious in his assessment, positing a discount rate averaging 4.25 per cent over the period to 2100, which weights the welfare of people fifty years from now at less than one-eighth of ours. That is terrifying.

The math behind discounting future generations is fiendishly complex, but I was shocked to learn that, in an IAM, the value of human life depreciates like any other asset. For all the government rhetoric about protecting our grandchildren, current IAMs value future lives (not ours, obviously) less than growth. To fix this, the same models prescribe price mechanisms, in which regulators assign a value to carbon emissions and market signals shift investment away from expensive, dirty industrial processes towards clean ones. But any money spent on mitigation/adaptation must generate the same returns as average, predicted growth rates. Why would investors pay to fix the climate, if they couldn’t make any money from it?

Hidden behind these rationalizations are beliefs in market regulation that would be quaint if they didn’t have such a huge impact. Mann concludes:

Long-term studies of emissions pathways show that the problem, in the end, is the absolute volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We simply have to stop emitting them as soon as possible. There is no hope to be placed in the gradually declining carbon intensity of growth that nonetheless continues to add to the atmospheric pool. In fact, if growth accelerates, decreasing carbon intensity is quite compatible with increasing emissions. The problem, in the models and in our current reality, is the arrogant fidelity to growth.

We have to listen to the science, the engineers who implement the recommendations, and the people – particularly those already facing climate stress – whose lives may be discounted. The modellers are keen to stress that their work is evolving to consider these very questions:

IAMs can also be used to study pathways to hit biodiversity and sustainable development goals. At the global policy level, researchers say that IAMs could be combined with other approaches, including regional policy models, expert workshops, scenario analysis, and climate damage models to integrate diverse perspectives on low-carbon pathways.

But what if those “diverse perspectives” bring us into a headlong encounter with structural barriers to how investment is made? How to insulate those making less-than-average returns from adaptation investment – it may be profitable to generate green energy, but adaptation is about defraying future costs (think wetlands and rewilding), not generating income. Does diversity include de-growth, or removing the profit motive from essential services like transport, energy, housing, and the production of green technologies, to ensure production for democratic priorities? Nationalization is a dirty word in many quarters, although Scotland is renationalizing its railways this year.

The point is that careful, science-based decision-making is more important than ever. But given the scale of the crisis, we need more than political will: we need to rethink how to plan the production of what we need according to social priorities. The UK think tank Commonwealth calls this democratic public ownership. The vision is breathtaking:

Underpinning all of this must be the concept of genuine democratic ownership and control. This is because patterns of ownership are at the heart of every political economic system. Ownership is key to determining how power, agency, and wealth is distributed in our communities and underpins all other aspects of our lives. The centrality of ownership was acutely understood by the architects of the neoliberal project, which prioritised and undertook a massive global effort to shift ownership from public to private hands.

Can we implement proper policy, while transforming ownership? I don’t know. But the status quo, arising from inequality and a refusal to confront the underlying assumptions of economic modelling, cannot hold.

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