Would Meaningful Climate Change Policy Stand a Better Chance as a Centrist Issue?
Chris Goodall Talks to Andrew Keen on Keen On
The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the deeper economic, political, and technological consequences of the pandemic. It’s our new daily podcast trying to make longterm sense out of the chaos of today’s global crisis.
On today’s episode, Andrew talks with Chris Goodall about his new book, What We Need to Do Now, and what a zero carbon future looks like.
From the episode:
Andrew Keen: Improving the atmosphere is, of course, what you write about: What We Need to Do Now: For a Zero-Carbon Future. You came across my radar with a very concise and convincing nine-point plan for the UK to achieve net zero carbon emissions. Chris, outline your book. What do we need to do to go carbon neutral?
Chris Goodall: What I wanted to say to begin with is that what the world needs to do, both the United Kingdom and everywhere else, is to overinvest in renewable electricity. We need to turn everything that can use electricity to using electricity as quickly as possible, whether it’s things like electric vehicles or steel production. Now, when we do that, we’ll have so much electricity that much of the time we will have too much.
AK: To jump in here, Chris, and excuse my ignorance here, but there are people who argue that electricity is no cleaner than coal, that it in itself creates pollution, that it wrecks the universe. What’s your response to that?
CG: We move completely away from fossil fuels in electricity generation to renewables. The balance of renewables will depend on where you are, what latitude you are. Here in the United Kingdom, we are investing heavily, correctly, in offshore wind. In many parts of the United States, such as where you are, Andrew, it’s more logical to invest in solar power. But we all, almost everybody in the world, all seven, eight billion of us, are living in areas where there is reasonable access to renewable energy of one form or another, with the exception of a few hundred million people. So, we can make the transition to an electric system that’s entirely based upon renewables.
AK: Does this approach to renewables fix the whole problem? We’ve had a lot of shows about the environment. We had Jason Hickel earlier this week, one of your English colleagues. I’m not sure if you’re in the same camp. His argument is less is more, that we have to fundamentally change capitalism or indeed move away from capitalism. Does your solution, Chris, what we need to do now in terms of zero-carbon futures, does it require fundamental reform of capitalism, or can it be done within the current market infrastructure?
CG: Look, there’s a difference here, Andrew, between markets and capitalism as it’s currently evolved. We have got a deeply destructive, in almost every sense, version of capitalism, which has mutated over the last 40 years from a properly market-orientated system. Now, obviously, climate change issues are very closely related to political issues. And what we’re seeing, unfortunately, is a capturing by the political left of the main thrust of climate change. That is to say, in the United States, radical action on climate change is to some extent associated with the far left of the progressive movement, led, of course, by AOC. Now, I have every sympathy for everything that she says, but we have to make actionable changes.
AK: When you say that, I’m expecting you to basically say that you don’t agree with AOC and that camp on the Green New Deal.
CG: What I think, what anybody thinks individually, is not necessarily that important. I find her political prescriptions incredibly attractive. But she sits on the far left of the American political spectrum. In order for us to do something about climate change worldwide, we have to make climate change an issue which is grabbed hold of by the political center. Even in very divided countries like Great Britain and the United States, there still is a political center. And without moving climate change to a centrist position, we’re not going to get the consensus on the actions we need to take. So what I think about AOC and the Green New Deal, both in the United States and where it originated here in the UK, isn’t really relevant. We have to make sure that the actions we’re proposing on climate change are broadly politically acceptable to the large bulk of people who sit in the political center.
AK: That’s a really interesting, provocative position. Do you think we need to politicize the environment more? We had the French economist and environmentalist Lucas Chancel on the show earlier this month with his new book, Unsustainable Inequalities, that linked social justice very intimately with the environment. Does the environment need to be included in that basket of political concerns? After all, just as many people are concerned with the environment, they’re also concerned with the increasing inequalities between a tiny aristocratic class of the global wealthy and the rest of us.
CG: Yeah, indeed. In my book, I try to make the point, without dragging politics into it too much, that to be successful, actions on climate change absolutely need to restore some semblance of social equality to our societies. Both the United Kingdom and the United States have fractured, unequal, malfunctioning societies, states that are no longer capable of taking action across a wide spectrum of activity. If we are going to get climate change to the top of the political agenda, we can only do so if it becomes supported by the center of the political argument, not just by people who sit on the extreme left.
AK: How do we do that, Chris? For many environmentalists, if things don’t change by 2030, we have a very dark, almost apocalyptic image. We had Erin Brockovich on the show, very well-known environmental activist, who describes Cape Town year zero, the end of water by then. How dark do we need to paint a picture unless the environment is addressed?
CG: Don’t try and paint it too dark, because if you make it seem hopeless, people give up. “Why should we bother doing something about this?” The really encouraging thing that’s happened in the nine months since my book was published is all of a sudden, this issue has moved to the top of the agenda of many large actors in our modern economy. We may think that Amazon has a generally destructive role wherever we are, but nevertheless, it’s an extraordinary example of a company that was resisting doing anything on climate change a year ago and now sits as one of the principal instigators of rapid change in corporate attitudes in America and elsewhere. There are enormous reasons for optimism. We’re in a desperately difficult situation, but with the help of large corporations, we will be able to move faster than we have ever done in the past.
AK: We had the French economist Thomas Le Roux on the show a month ago talking about his new book, The Contamination of the Earth. He divides history up into two periods, and he said that we are charging headlong into the abyss after 1973. Do you think that narrative is fair? Are things really as bad as people like Le Roux points out?
CG: I would probably be slightly less extreme in that opinion. But on every index pretty much, things have got dramatically worse in the last 20 years, yes. Biodiversity, soil quality, soil carbon, ocean health—the list goes on. All of them are to some extent linked by climate change. It’s the burning of fossil fuels, the overwhelming of our ecological systems which is doing this. But as I say, getting people to say to themselves, “Yes, things are desperate, therefore we will act fast,” isn’t actually the way that change occurs in human society in my view. The way to get things to happen is to say, “If we take climate change seriously, we can build a better world and not stress too much that if we don’t, we are in a hell hole.”
AK: Yeah, I think that’s a nice way of putting it, and I think books are important. We’ve had all sorts of books on the show about the environment, some more literary than others. We had the teenage anti-plastic activist Hannah Testa on the show recently, and she quoted Robert Swan, the arctic adventure, when he said, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” What is the role of ordinary people in all this stuff?
CG: What individual people should do, in my opinion, is live the life that you think we all should lead. So that means being a good climate activist, taking all the measures that you think you should take in order to improve the position on greenhouse gas emissions, for example, and backing those political parties, those social groupings—whether they be on the local community recycling organization or general national movements—to move climate change and all the related ecological environmental issues to the front of the political agenda.
AK: Hannah Testa has her high five Rs: refuse, reuse, reduce, recycle, raise awareness. What do you think of that strategy?
CG: I think refuse is the interesting one, isn’t it? We need to be good environmental citizens. We need to make a decision not to consume or not take actions which result in large scale emissions. But, look, I’ve been writing books in this area for 13 years now, and I continue to feel that that’s often a very difficult decision for people to take. For example, air travel: the UK is, per head, the greatest polluter of the atmosphere because of air travel in the world. We travel abroad a lot by air. The percentage of our emissions that come from aviation is dramatically higher than the world average. Getting people to say, “No, I’m not going to go on holiday by air to the south of Spain,” involves a very difficult decision for people to take. And forcing them into doing that is tending to reduce the acceptability of environmental initiatives. We have to accept that there are many aspects of modern life which people find extremely attractive; it’s very difficult to say to them, “No, you’re going to have to stop doing that right now.”
AK: In terms of your nine-point plan, flying is number eight. Is that politically the trickiest? What about driving?
CG: We’ve seen an astonishing rise in the percentage of cars in most countries around the world, not the United States, that are electrically powered this year. The figures for November 2020 are roughly triple the percentage market share for electric cars in Europe compared to November 2019, to give an illustration of this. This is a revolution that is unstoppable and it’s accelerating. No question about it. Now, building an electric car in the first place also involves a lot of emissions, so it’s not good enough for us all to move to electric cars. We need to improve public transport. We need to reduce the amount of movement around what we do. But as I said, this is very, very difficult to get through politically and needs to be handled with extreme care.
AK: Are the Americans particularly bad on this front in terms of stopping flying, stopping driving, or do you see the same opportunities and challenges and problems in Europe and the United States when it comes to a zero-carbon future?
CG: You’ve got a long way to go, even in California, compared to European countries, not particularly the UK; the UK is not a hero in any of this, but northern European countries have changed many things about the way their economy, their society, operates. I don’t wish to be disrespectful to the United States, but the unsustainability, the excess consumption of goods of material goods in the United States means that the climate change problem is even further away from being solved than it is in the United Kingdom.
AK: In terms of Biden’s policy, what in particular would you like to see Kerry and Buttigeg and the rest of the team focus on?
CG: Well, it’s probably an impossible dream, but I would like to see a global carbon tax. That is to say, all goods produced with carbon emissions as a result need to have a tax imposed upon them, which reflects their environmental cost. And I think this new administration might just be interested in doing that. Certainly, Janet Yellen has mentioned it in the past. So, there is hope. The reason that’s important is that if we don’t have a global carbon tax—that is to say, a uniform tax which is imposed around the world—there will always be accusations that individual countries are cheating and benefiting. They are exporting goods which have a high carbon imprint, which is not properly taxed. It’s possible to imagine within the next two or three years the United States and China agreeing that this might be the right way forward, and that will pull the European Union, which won’t be particularly interested in this, into line. This is something which you can’t get people excited about. Carbon taxation has had a difficult, short life so far, but nevertheless, it’s absolutely vital to the creation of a world in which environmental bads are properly accounted for.
Chris Goodall is the author of several successful books and writer for Guardian Environment Network and other energy websites, such as Abundance and The Ecologist. His latest book, The Switch, covers the unstoppable rise of solar power.