Climate change, democracy and human nature

Some years ago, the novelist Ian McEwan sailed with a boatload of other British cultural luminaries to the high Arctic, climate change’s fast-track latitudes. As the expedition progressed, McEwan became increasingly perturbed by conduct in what he called the ‘Boot Room’, where the travellers donned the protective gear they needed to venture out onto the ice. Goggles, boots and helmets disappeared as order succumbed to grabbing and pilfering.

This is history in miniature, thought McEwan. One person fails to identify his own boots, reaches for the nearest pair, whose owner is thus forced to take someone else’s, and so on: there goes the social contract. ‘No one is behaving particularly badly, and certainly everybody is being, in the immediate circumstances, entirely rational, but by the third day, the boot room is a wasteland of broken dreams.’ The flower of British creative culture has gone among the ice floes to collectively devise responses to climate change, and its members can’t even get themselves dressed except at each other’s expense. At least they have created a new metaphor for our response to climate change so far.

A couple of years later, I was also lucky enough to be taken on a trip to the Arctic ice. It was organised by Edge, an educational charity, for school students who had won an environmental competition. The accompanying journalists were given the same briefing notes as the kids, so we had instructions to make sure our stuff was clearly labelled with our names. Perhaps the wasteland of the Boot Room could have been avoided if travelling artists and writers were assigned teachers to look after them.

They wouldn’t, though, because they are treated as important persons and so, safety briefings about frostbite and polar bears notwithstanding, it is difficult to tell them what to do. This is one of the most important respects in which the Boot Room serves as a model of climate change politics. The world’s powers are not subject to any supreme authority: in the study of international relations, this state of affairs is known as ‘anarchy’. If nations can’t reach agreements among themselves, there is no higher power to impose solutions on them. And if even if nations do reach agreement, a power that rejects the deal can do so with little fear of punishment. If a major power like the United States refuses to take part in a collective scheme, like the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it will escape sanctions – while gaining the benefits from the rest of the world’s efforts to curb global warming.

In the long run, we may expect that the climate will impose its own punishments. But as any dog trainer will tell you, punishments have to be immediate to be effective. Few politicians’ sleep will be disturbed by the prospect of a penalty later in the century, to be paid by taxpayers currently too young to vote. And the rest of us know that we have to pay taxes but we won’t have to pay the climatic price of our carbon footprints.

A similarly subversive imbalance between costs and benefits was at work in the Boot Room. The effort required to grab the nearest item of kit in a cramped, dark space was less than the effort required to find one’s own gear. The effort required to do the right thing steadily increased as the disorder grew, and as the travellers were worn down by being repeatedly sent on what McEwan recalls as ‘face-peeling’ sorties 30 degrees below zero. Nor were there any punishment costs for cheating: nobody was going to give a celebrated artist or writer a detention. And this was an unfamiliar situation in which neither effective practical routines nor ethical standards of conduct had been established.

In these respects also the Boot Room is a model of the problem that climate change poses. While it revolves around equipment, the fundamental difficulty does not lie in the engineering or the technology. There are plenty of practical measures on offer to counter climate change, although they are mostly either emerging technologies or have yet to be generally applied. It lies in agreeing how to use resources and share burdens fairly: in collectively deciding what needs to be done and doing it – efficiently, thoroughly, wholeheartedly, and fast.

The efficiency of the measures introduced so far, such as recycling collections, has been limited by how strongly people feel about it in principle and how much they can be bothered in practice. Only a tiny committed few take upon themselves serious moral burdens that oblige them to accept significant handicaps, such as refusing to travel by air – and they are widely mocked for their trouble. Most people’s commitment extends only to the point where it entails inconvenience to themselves.

Yet the Boot Room looks like a bower of social virtue when we look around and try to take in the sheer, planet-sized, civilisation-dwarfing scale of the climate change problem. There are a couple of hundred countries, nearly 7 billion people, and many thousands of companies, some of them far larger and more powerful than the majority of states. The implications of climate change vary according to place, wealth, status and how the parties concerned make their living – whether by mining, or farming, or finance, for example. But by and large the prospects are worst for the least powerful and most economically marginal, which reduces the incentives for those better placed to respond to the challenge. Climate change is a global phenomenon that will envelope all, but in doing so it will bring together all the world’s inequalities, as well as creating new inequalities of its own.
Richard Gephardt, a former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, has the measure of it. He has described the transformation of the world’s energy economy as ‘the single most difficult political transaction in the history of mankind.’

It wouldn’t be nearly so complicated if it only involved everybody on the planet. Most of the impacts of climate change are likely to fall on people who have not yet been born; and it is also likely that most of the people who will be affected by climate change have yet to be born. Several ominous studies have found that once the temperature goes up, it’s likely to stay up for centuries – during which sea levels will continue to rise as the oceans warm slowly but inexorably through.

This suggests that human society may be at a unique and pivotal moment. There is good scientific reason to believe that in order to avoid serious harm from climate change, the world needs to transform the basis of its energy supply within a few decades. Since such a transformation will take several decades of intensive, determined and colossally expensive engineering, the key decisions and commitments may need to be made very soon. The length of this unique moment may be around ten years: the actions taken, or not taken, during this decade could determine the conditions of life for the next thousand years.

We don’t have maps for this. The trails we would have to follow to find where our responsibilities lead us, to the billions of others already on the planet and the countless billions more who could be born into a climate that went through the red signals during our watch, are innumerable, unmarked and in large measure impassable. Nor are we cognitively equipped to find our way by intuition. Many cultures feel a deep bond with their ancestors; some feel their presence and continuing influence. People are good at seeing ghosts, but only when they look backwards. With the notable exception of Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, people can’t generally make out figures when they try to look into the future.

A scientific paper about possible tipping points in the Earth’s climate system acknowledges this problem by identifying two horizons, one at around a hundred years from now, and one a thousand years away. The near horizon is determined by the length of a human lifespan, on the basis that this is the effective limit for caring about the future: we are capable of caring about our children and grandchildren, but the generations beyond are strangers to us. This sets the boundary for what the earth systems scientist Tim Lenton and his colleagues call the political horizon: the outer limits of current political concern. The far horizon is chosen to indicate the likely lifespan of a civilisation. It is called the ethical horizon, implying that we ought to care about it, although we probably won’t.

As the economist Thomas Schelling has pointed out, the way that sympathies diminish down the generations is similar to the way that sympathies diminish with other forms of perceived distance – geographic, ethnic or cultural. It’s possible to challenge this tendency on moral grounds, by asserting that all people are equal in the eyes of God, or by arguing that physical distance does not excuse choices that, if applied to ethnic groups in one’s own country, would be considered discriminatory. But indifference based on distance is generally tolerated and accepted as inevitable. If hundreds die when a ferry capsizes on an Indian river, it won’t make the newspapers here unless one of them happens to be a British tourist. And it probably never will.

Schelling himself reflects that he may prefer measures that could benefit his children or grandchildren to measures that could benefit generations yet unborn. We aren’t going to act for the benefit of unborn generations from our hearts, or for that matter from instincts that promote the replication of our genes, which as Schelling points out, will be spread thinner as the generations succeed each other. It will have to be done through institutional obligations and political calculations, as a kind of foreign aid programme ‘with some of the foreigners being our own descendants who live not on another continent but in another century’.

Calculating the budget for such a programme is an essay in uncertainty. We know the condition of foreigners on other continents, but we have no real idea about how foreigners in other centuries will live or what they will need. We have some idea of how the climate is likely to change under various conditions over the course of this century, but we cannot be certain whether it will be catastrophic or moderate. We don’t know what techniques our descendants will have at their disposal to counter the effects of climate change; but we are aware that we ourselves live our lives through technologies that were unimaginable less than a century ago.

Schelling notes that making sacrifices for future generations is an unusual take on the idea of redistributing resources. Proposals for redistribution usually involve transferring resources from the better off to the worse off, but history strongly suggests that people in the future will be better off than us. So do the scenarios used by the IPCC for its climate change projections, which run up to 2100 – the near horizon – despite the serious impacts that some of the scenarios imply. Other scholars have argued that people of the future can’t have rights, since they don’t actually exist. And the economist Robert Heilbroner asked the most pointed question: ‘What has posterity ever done for me?’

The answer, of course, is nothing; and this is the fundamental reason that we are unwilling to incur costs for the benefit of the future. We live by giving and receiving: you give in the expectation that you will receive in turn. As it’s impossible for posterity to do anything for us, we are instinctively reluctant to do much for it.

Reciprocity is what makes the world go round. But the globe would not revolve if reciprocity always had to be direct: if you could only receive from those to whom you had given; if you always had to pay back the party who had provided something for you. Reciprocity can be indirect: I do something for you; you do something for somebody else; somebody else will do something for me. We are all confident that we will receive in our turn, somewhere along the way, and we see ourselves linked together in an indefinitely extensive network of reciprocity. Another word for it is ‘society’.

Kimberly Wade-Benzoni, a professor of management, thinks that indirect reciprocity can encourage people to take care of the future, by linking it to the past. If people feel that they owe something to previous generations, they can pay the past back by paying forward to the future. Wade-Benzoni asked two groups of MBA students about their views on fuel tax rates, which are a potential means to do something for the future by discouraging driving and thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The study thus explored fairness between generations, though we should acknowledge straight away that it didn’t address the big problem of fuel tax fairness within generations, which is that fuel taxes cause serious difficulties for drivers with modest incomes but none for wealthy ones.

One group was told that fuel tax had only risen 3 times in the past few decades, and that between 1932 and 1983 it only went up from 1 to 4 cents a gallon. The emphasis was on what previous generations hadn’t done for the present generation. For the other group, the emphasis was on what their predecessors had done for them. They were told that the tax had been levied since the early part of the century and that it had increased more than 400% in recent decades. The ones who got the message that previous generations hadn’t paid their share suggested that the tax should be about 19 cents per gallon. The ones who were given the message that previous generations had borne the burden suggested that the tax rate should be about 34 cents.

Wade-Benzoni’s experiments suggest that with a bit of ingenuity and psychological insight, not to mention a flair for spin, it might be possible to draw future generations in from the periphery of conscience. Maybe only a little way, but every little helps … if it gets a chance. In the real political world, people hear more than one version of the facts, and they choose the one that impresses them most. If one political party proposes a tax of 34 per cents a gallon and the other proposes 19 cents, the voters are going to let the future take care of itself.

And there is so much more to the problem of climate change than people - living, dead or unborn - or their groups and organisations. Global warming involves the whole planet: its oceans, air, forests, grasslands, tundra, ice sheets; its rivers, lakes, mountains and coasts. There are countless other species besides our own. For many of them the consequences would not last just for a thousand years, but for ever: a substantial fraction of them could be pushed into extinction by climate change. What are our responsibilities to sentient animals, to insects, to trees, to coastlines, to the complexes of species, land, air and water that constitute ecosystems? Can our political structures represent ecological communities as well as human communities? Who would have the right to speak for communities that, not being human, can’t speak for themselves?

One thing is for sure: our institutions were not designed to provide answers to questions like these. Historically, they took the planet and its non-human species as a given – given by God for man’s benefit, and a given context of human life that was broadly unchanging and inexhaustible. They are also based upon the idea that the political world is the way it looks on political maps, a mosaic of discrete nation states, each a single colour, adjoining each other without overlapping. This is not how you would design a system to solve a global problem that is indifferent to borders but does not have uniform effects. Indeed, if you were to design a problem to be as difficult as possible to solve, it would probably look a lot like climate change.

Faced with a problem so difficult even to conceptualise, let alone tackle, it is tempting to see it as a diagram of human shortcomings: inability to imagine the future, reluctance to place the longer term and the greater good above immediate personal interests, resistance to senses of identity that reach out beyond ethnic groups or national borders, a sense of fairness that deters us from incurring costs if we see others riding for free. James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis that Earth is a self-regulating system, summed up humankind’s inadequacies in an interview earlier this year: ‘I don't think we're yet evolved to the point where we're clever enough to handle as complex a situation as climate change.’

Having considered human nature and found it wanting, some may be tempted to forget about disentangling the problem and treat it as Alexander the Great dealt with the Gordian knot: exercise decisive authority and slice it through. ‘It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while,’ Lovelock suggested.

These remarks play into the hands of those who will denounce anybody in favour of taxing petrol as a people-hating eco-fascist. Actually, calls for green dictatorship are rare. But it seems fair to say that the prospect of climate change does little to promote democratic values. Leading the Australian Labor Party’s election campaign last summer, Prime Minister Julia Gillard proposed a Citizens’ Assembly that would spend a year studying climate change and possible measures to reduce carbon emissions.

This would have been a major exercise in deliberative democracy, a process intended to bring out hidden civic depths in citizens by hothousing them, providing them with the resources to go beyond the superficial choices encouraged by mass media politics. Conscientiously applying themselves on behalf of society, the citizens chosen for the assembly would deliberate for twelve months upon the greater good, rather than simply voting for the party that promised the lowest fuel taxes.

But the proposal went down about as well as ten cents on a gallon of petrol – and Greens were among the most scathing. ‘Does it matter what opinions people have if the facts point to the absolute necessity of urgent action?’ demanded one Green candidate, rather missing the point of the electoral process she was running in.

The answer to her question is yes, it really does matter what opinions people have. It matters in principle and it matters in practice. The more complex and extensive the problem, the more it matters that as many people and organisations as possible are engaged upon solutions. Dictatorships can certainly exercise power swiftly and decisively, but when they aren’t at war they tend to be conspicuously poor at addressing extensive, complex challenges. Why should they be any better at tackling climate change than they have been at running economies or living peacefully with their neighbours? Possibly China might yet prove the great exception. Its ruling party has demonstrated its ability to ride the tiger of raw capitalism, to maintain normal relations with other powers, and even to tolerate a few muffled breaths of dissent. But although China may no longer be red, it certainly hasn’t gone green. Its elites are certainly aware of the climate threat, but they have yet to prove that they can defeat it by command.

Climate change is a global process that will have particular local effects. Responding to it will require the knowledge and commitment of local people, linked in civic networks with the resources that states and other bodies can provide. The necessary efficiency, enthusiasm, innovativeness and urgency are qualities that develop when people believe in what they are doing, and feel they can shape their efforts to incorporate their own interests. The challenge of climate change will not be met by mere acquiescence or resentful compliance.
At the global level, facts and opinions and values will have to cohere into commitments. As we’ve already seen in Britain, people will revolt against fuel taxes that they feel have been imposed on them. They will accept real costs only if they are convinced these are fair. That will require, above all, confidence that the costs are fairly distributed within societies and among nations. Richard Gephardt’s description encapsulated the character of the problem. Responding to climate change is political and it is a transaction.

If it’s political, it’s practical. While recognising and trying to reason our way through the philosophical implications, the political nature of the problem implies that we should proceed by identifying where our strengths potentially lie, how to build on them, and how to build alliances among them. This will involve a consideration of human nature: not how to rise above it, but how to turn it, where possible, to the planet’s advantage.

A movement is an obvious asset. Activism concentrates people into huddles of commitment in which high moral pressures are maintained. It grabs the limelight and enacts the kinds of drama that the media recognise as stories. When campaigners climb power station chimneys, they demonstrate that there are people who care enough about the cause to defy normal boundaries like fences, the law, and vertigo. They dramatise the urgency and extremity of the issue, while adding a heroic gloss to the image of the activist. Movements require actions.
Movements are also by nature transient, though. They arise in response to a perceived danger or injustice, such as a threat of war or an abuse of human rights, and they subside when what provoked them dwindles or comes to an end. Climate change is not going to do either of those things during the lifespan of even the most enduring movement. It’s a matter not of banners, but the fabric of everyday life.

That fabric needs to be woven into communities, to be collective and public, if it isn’t to unravel. People are likely to behave better if their actions are visible to others, and if they make explicit commitments in front of others. If they see themselves as part of a group, they will strive harder, for the sake of community pride and, most importantly, for the sake of their standing in the eyes of their community. Few things in life are as precious to us as the regard of others.

This makes villages and neighbourhoods potential nuclei of green cohesion. With a critical mass of environmentally-minded residents and a few local personalities sufficiently dynamic to stir their neighbours into action, the ingredients are there for a powerful combination of local pride, not wanting to let the side down, and wanting to be seen as a pillar of the community. That goes not just for English villages festooned with hanging baskets, but also for villages in poor countries facing climatic threats to their wells or fields. How well such forces will work at the scale of larger settlements, as urged by ‘Transition Town’ projects, or in socially complicated urban districts, is a more difficult question.

Community-sized responses to climate change can protect local environments, do their bit, and set good examples. But political power on the scale necessary to mount an effective response remains concentrated in states. Robyn Eckersley, an Australian political scientist, argues that since the map of the political world is a map of nation states, and states are likely to remain the fundamental structures of power for the foreseeable future, green politics should focus on the national level as well as the global and the local. She looks forward to the emergence of green democratic states. These would evolve from liberal democratic ones, embracing responsibilities towards the non-human world, transcending the old notion of borders as defensive perimeters and containers of power. Faced with environmental crisis, a green democratic state’s ‘people’ would include not just its national citizens but the whole community at risk.

No state could extend its solidarity beyond its borders with such grand inclusiveness unless solidarity within its borders was robust and general. The basis of such outreaching social solidarity cannot be ethnic or cultural identity, since the community at risk from climate change will almost inevitably include different societies, cultures and ethnic groups. It has to be based upon a sense of social unity from which moral obligations arise, the principal effect of these obligations being to limit inequalities and to affirm the responsibilities of those who can provide support to those who need it.

These are not utopian ideals. They were the basis of post-war western European democracy in both its left-of-centre social democratic and its right-of-centre Christian democratic alternatives. ‘One Nation’ conservatism espoused similar values in this country. But even if revived, they wouldn’t be sufficient in themselves, because they were not designed to cope with diversity. If we were looking for models, we’d have to look to more than one country - to Germany, perhaps, for its social solidarity and Britain for its cultural and ethnic openness. But even together these would be only a starting point.

There are other names for what we need to reinvent or to rediscover. The traditional ones are equality and fraternity, though the latter, with its masculine gender, now sounds woefully exclusive, and the former is barely allowed to speak its name in the dominant political discourse these days. We may accept that what is needed is not so much equality as the restriction of inequality to narrow bands, and the recognition that it is deeply problematic. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett observe in their landmark book The Spirit Level, equality promotes the social cohesion that in turn promotes concern about distant impacts of climate change.

There may be political measures that states could take to narrow the bands of inequality. Taxing consumption, as advocated by the economist Robert Frank, could promote saving and productive investment at the expense of bling. But in a globalised economy, the exponential rise of top salaries, and their general public acceptance, is as hard to curb as it is socially corrosive. Obscenely inflated rewards are offered not so much as measures on a scale of value but as a risky investment in the possibility that a particular footballer or executive will tip the balance towards winning. Even if you appreciate this, though – and even if you appreciate that increasing wealth produces diminishing returns in happiness – it is still difficult to avoid the subconscious feeling that those at the top are hundreds of times better than those at the bottom. The banker J.P. Morgan thought that a salary twenty times that of the lowest paid employees should be sufficient incentive for a boss. These days he sounds like a socialist.

Incomes beyond an old-fashioned millionaire’s dreams of avarice are a constant display of superiority that, as Wilkinson and Pickett also observe, spur ordinary people into compensatory consumption. In the process, they compete with each other, constantly forcing up the price – to individuals and the environment – of maintaining social status. Even if you are not trying to compete, you have to keep up. Everybody gets drawn in by a system which uses copious waste to signal status, replacing gadgets that work as well as they ever did with newer models sporting trivial enhancements, or replacing clothes because they have gone out of fashion and to continue wearing them would suggest social semi-detachment. As in the Boot Room, nobody is behaving particularly badly, or irrationally, but this way lies a wasteland of broken dreams.

Consumer capitalism can and doubtless will mitigate the damage inherent in its system by redirecting people’s preferences, towards ‘weightless’ electronic products, or objects made of materials that are elegant as well as energy-efficient. At the same time, it will also continue to invest heavily in promotional displays that seek to increase consumption by assuaging people’s environmental consciences. By its nature, consumerism is not capable of regulating itself. It depends for its energy upon inequality, the infernal force behind the endless marathon of competitive consumption that everybody has to run, wearing ever more ostentatious and exhausting costumes.

Consumption can, however, be limited dramatically by a combination of the law and popular will, as demonstrated by the rollback of public smoking in recent years. People have shown themselves remarkably willing to limit their personal freedom for the sake of the common good, and to give up deeply ingrained habits that had until recently been regarded, with considerable fondness, as an intimate part of everyday life. They did so because they accepted what the scientific establishment told them about the dangers of smoking. Many will have been motivated by self-interest, figuring that a ban would help them cut down or quit. Smoking differs from other forms of carbon-burning in that smokers often have to pay the bill in full themselves. But in other respects, particularly the importance of accepting mainstream science, there may be lessons here about rolling back carbon dioxide.

One of them is that when governments accept the science and observe what other states are doing, their policies tend to converge. There are now public smoking bans in countries on all the inhabited continents. But the so-called anarchy of nations is probably the greatest obstacle to concerted action on climate change. To overcome it, countries would have to combine with each other and submit to the authority of the collective, sharing some of their sovereignty. They would need to bind themselves to a common set of rules, and agree upon the allocation of resources among the members of the collective. According to the traditional view of the nation-state, this should be about as likely as a bunch of cats forming an orderly queue. And yet we are part of just such an arrangement, the European Union, which emerged after Europe’s last and most terrible devastation in the pursuit of national self-interest. Europe has proved that it is possible for nations to rise above themselves.

As I noted earlier, Europe also offers examples of two other qualities that are vital in the face of climate change: equality and fraternity. Where does climate change leave liberty, though? Climate change denial is a reaction against the prospect of restrictions on personal liberty, typically conceived in terms of freedom to use energy how, when and as much as one wishes. That kind of freedom must certainly be limited in order to curb climate change - and it will be limited a lot more if global warming isn’t curbed. But the threat of climate change demands that a different kind of liberty should flourish. To play the fullest possible part in the concert of climate action, people must be able to exercise a deeper and fuller kind of political liberty than they do at the moment. Civic structures need innovation and development as much as fuel cells and solar panels do, if not more.

This kind of liberty does not consist in doing what one pleases – even the Top Gear presenters’ antics implicitly acknowledge what a puerile notion that is. In a world where energy constraints demand that every action is subject to scrutiny, liberty can flourish to the extent that it is understood as agency. As the threats loom larger, decisions will become tougher and more urgent. If people do not have the means to influence the measures that are taken, the decisions will be imposed upon them. If they enjoy civic liberty, they will be able to shape decisions that affect them. This should increase their confidence that their interests have been taken into account, and therefore increase their trust in the political system. It should also improve the quality of decisions, incorporating local knowledge about ponds or wells or street life, and the willingness of all concerned to implement them.

This is where we can leave the Boot Room behind - and leave it tidy. Ian McEwan’s account is perversely comforting because it reminds us all of our more inglorious moments. But it provides a more creditable comfort by suggesting how easily we could start to do better. A programme that put democratic enrichment at the heart of our response to climate change would provide much more. It would offer a vision of enriched and invigorated relationships, among individuals, communities, regions and nations. It would encourage us to say yes, we can rise above a warming planet, by putting our nature to better use.