Opinion: Will we have to be socialist to be green?

By John Dixon

I’m worried about global warming. The idea that what thousands of scientists have been saying it is all a ‘grand conspiracy’ sounds itself like a grand conspiracy. And although I understand that there has been some verbal trash coming from the green corner (see David Cameron for numerous perfect examples) that doesn’t really compare to the huge mountain of it from the other side (I recently saw an advert by Exxon Mobile claiming that ‘Carbon Dioxide is life!’).

But there are problems I see in confronting global warming, in taking on the challenge. People agree global warming exists now (in general), but are we going to be able to do anything about it? I’m afraid I’m still rather sceptical.

Firstly, I don’t see the public will to deal with global warming. By that, I don’t just mean people supporting green issues, but rather people being unwilling to sacrifice convenience for the planet. 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 (much like the Bush administration’s stance on the war on terror).

It’s going to require radical structural changes in the way our economy and society function. People won’t do this on their own. Government must force the change, whether structurally or by actively moderating our behaviour.

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. Looking at our politics therefore (and politics around the developed world for that matter) there is cause for concern.

Our political landscape in the Tory, Labour and (dare I say it) to an extent the Liberal Democrat benches is dominated by compromisers, by people who would rather give in than give out. The Labour party and more recently the Tory party are both political groupings that have given up on their old ideologies and replaced them with a more populist (albeit vague) message. This is simply not the sort of politics that we can have if we are going to deal with a problem that is, in Al Gore’s words, ‘the greatest threat to civilisation since the 2nd World War’.

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.

(In fact a similar thing happened with the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49, when protectionist Tories said that the famine simply didn’t exist in an attempt to stop the protectionist Corn Laws. Strange how history repeats itself, no?)

Therefore, in the current malaise of centrist, compromising and populist politics, I do not believe our politicians will be able to make the tough decisions required to deal with global warming. We may make strong moves towards it, certainly, but I don’t see the economy being greened until we have politics that advocates not just strong leadership but strong action as well.

Secondly, the way we deal with global warming is a challenge in itself. The current preferred method is to set ambitious targets on cutting emissions and then to allow individual states to find they’re preferred method of achieving their set goals. As I have said we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by about 80% to achieve a 60% reduction world wide mainly – because we can’t honestly expect India or China to reduce their emissions as their countries grow, and their populaces become affluent enough to afford electricity.

This all sounds well and good but doesn’t this hark back to the techniques of socialist planning which our party so strongly rejects? If we are against targets so much when they are used in the NHS and education, why should we expect them to work and not cause government failure when applied to emissions? A certain economist has recently written an article on such a matter.

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.

This is the question I therefore put to all of you: will we have to become a socialist party (at least in method) to retain our green credentials in the future? And if so will the political parties be honest with the electorate about the resultant changes to their lives of a greening society and economy. As I said earlier, I’m still sceptical.

* John Dixon blogs at a radical writes.

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18 Comments

  • James Graham 17th Jun '07 - 12:43pm

    Actually, I think the protectionists were all for the Corn Laws, whereas the Anti Corn Law League were, erm, against them.

    But this example also points to a rather significant truth: that markets can often do far more efficiently what state planning is hopeless at. The corn laws lead to mass starvation; socialist planned economies do pretty much the same thing. Has China’s one child per family policy actually worked? That’s a significant question because it was concerned about a scarcity of resources.

    Apart from the fact that I doubt such soviet-style planning would actually work, I certainly can’t see it being very popular.

    It may well be that we can’t solve this problem and that the human race is headed for a fall. It won’t be a pleasent experience, but I suspect we’ll survive as a species. I also suspect that the absolute worst case scenarios simply won’t happen: most doomsday scenarios discount the human race’s ability to knuckle down in a crisis and its ability to develop new technologies.

    Ultimately we have to win hearts and minds on this issue. I doubt we’ll achieve that by stamping on people.

  • Richard Huzzey 17th Jun '07 - 2:12pm

    I agree with the first half of James’s post (I’m less complacent than him on the effects if we get it wrong).

    John assumes this is a question of whether we can stomach the necessary socialistic measures, when I’d argue that fixing the carbon-blindness of the market is much more likely to succeed that state planning (as well as being less likely to the erosion of our liberties, but in the apocalypse scenario, that’s a side issue).

    We need to create a tax system that penalises environmentally damaging behaviour, and then let the power of innovation respond to it. Soon, you’ll see cars being advertised for their fuel efficiency more often etc. etc. and companies competing on the point. Much better than blunter interventions.

    The point where you may have a point is on energy and public transport policy, where it could be that an expansion in state subsidy (e.g. for renewables and rail infrastructure) is needed. But on the more general idea of curbing carbon outputs from personal behaviour, I am sure tax will be more effective than ID card carbon allowances.

    There will be a need for state intervention to curb the biggest market failure in the history of the world. But that must be an intervention that patches the failure, rather than one which attempts a Soviet-style change in our economy overall. I think the Green party’s dislike of liberal capitalist democracy leads them to supporting a lot of things which aren’t very Green, just socialist. The confusion of eco-tinged-communism with environmentalism has done the latter enormous harm.

    Not only is it more likely to succeed, but it’s more likely to take the public with us (vital in a democracy) and guarantee individual liberties (vital in a liberal society).

    The best book I’ve seen on this principle (and more broadly as a vision of a social liberal economy) is Adair Turner’s “Just Capital”. Can’t be praised enough, IMHO.

    The debate you’ve raised is one that may bubble about when we have our party policy debate on the environment. There is still is a vital debate to be had, and I for one hope we continue to develop a liberal environmentalism, not ape a watered-down version of the Green party’s eco-communism. Certainly, the Green Tax Switch was an excellent move towards Georgist principles, which I think will be the core of a liberal environmentalism.

    And yes, the Peelite Tories were in favour of repealing the Corn Laws, while the (majority) Bentinck Tories were convinced protectionists. The 1846 repeal act split their party, and left a strange interlude in the party system where the various free-trading factions slowly coalesced into… us. Anyway, I don’t think the historical example helps you at all.

  • Geoffrey Payne 17th Jun '07 - 2:34pm

    We in Hackney are organising a garden party on Sunday, July 15th on the theme of “We must be Green but what about freedom?”. We have invited Chris Huhne MP to be the speaker, so by all means have your debate here, but come along to this as well, it should be good.
    Details on the flock togther website http://www.flocktogether.org.uk/

  • Electric cars are not a solution to any of our problems. Firstly, electricity is a very inefficient means of transporting energy when the losses in transmission and in most methods of generation, the loss of energy to the environment are taken into account; and secondly, electric cars play into the hands of the advocates of nuclear power because as they are likely to be largely recharged at night this creates the off-peak demand that nuclear power stations require for their effective operation.

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