News & Media Opinion Pieces Climate Change and the Financial Crisis. An Opinion

Climate Change and the Financial Crisis. An Opinion

The world of human endeavour has changed in the past few weeks and these few words, my own opinion, take stock of what this means for the natural environment. The new factors to be thrown into a revised equation of human health and survival are the financial crisis and the likely control of capitalism, the US election result and the emerging realism of China. It is possible to be very positive about these happenings. During the past fifteen years of unparalleled growth fuelled by consumerism, the ecological crisis has accelerated as evidenced by recent WWF and other reports. The journey towards catastrophe was unlikely to be arrested under an uncontrolled market economy. The excesses of capitalism have now brought unemployment and financial difficulty to the West and will increase poverty and famine in the less fortunate countries. Indeed, evidence for these sequelae is emerging already. Five months ago the international community promised $12 billion for the global food emergency but today less than $1 billion has been delivered. Contrast this figure with the $70 billion that the New York bankers will pay to themselves this year in blithe indifference to their recent deeds!

It is good news, then, that we are moving towards regulation and away from the view that our lives can be safely left to market forces. The only surprise was perhaps the naivety of those who had overseen the financial debacle. The individual prize surely must go to Alan Greenspan, former chair of the US Federal Reserve who said “Those of who have looked to the self interest of lending institutions to protect share holders’ equity, myself especially, are in a state of shocked disbelief”. This statement reduces to rubble the edifice of unfettered markets for the system is supposed to be self-regulating because of inherent feedback mechanisms. The collective prize must go Western governments for their hypocrisy. For decades developing nations seeking help in financial difficulty have suffered the imposition of market solutions by the IMF – privatisation of water and banks, unemployment and reduction in services to pay their debts. The financial bailouts by Western countries to their own institutions are precisely the solution refused to poor countries.

So how do these happenings impact upon climate change and the sustainability of the world?

The financial collapse may temper the upward rise of emissions for a while. The dirty coal burning power stations of China will not need to work so hard to fill the ships with consumables destined for the shopping malls of the West. The questioning of an ideology that all free trade is good may lead to the emergence of more local sustainability. But the big positive of financial collapse is that it offers a moment for reflection and a new start. Many leaders, organisations and individuals have expressed this almost simultaneously, reminiscent of the multifocal blossoming of the Enlightenment.

The New Enlightenment?
The calls for a new deal are so widespread that I will list only a selected few.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and American presidential candidate Barack Obama have proposed or supported a radical change of direction to sustainable growth—green energy for example. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for a “Green New Deal” that would rebuild and reshape the economy of the Earth. In support Obama has called for “Five million new green jobs, good jobs that cannot be outsourced.”

Rajendra Pachauri The Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that the solution on global warming will also be part of the solution to the current financial crisis.

Nicholas Stern and Ross Garnaut, economists, have joined Cai Fang (China Academy of Social Sciences) and Qin Dahe (Chinese Academy of Sciences) in saying that the crisis presents many environmental opportunities

British High Commissioner to Australia Helen Liddell, who was Britain’s Energy Minster between 1999 and 2001, says the financial turmoil could become a circuit-breaker ushering in a new low carbon industrial revolution.

Many organisations have joined the Chorus ranging from the International Energy Agency, the Worldwatch Institute and in Australia the ACF has joined the Unions in supporting green reform.

The US election
It has to be a positive that the financial crisis has struck in the final stages of the election campaign. It has ensured a Democrat win and analysis of their platform indicates that they will have a better chance of effective action on climate change and environmental issues than the Republicans. As mentioned above President Obama is in effect talking about a ‘green program’ although he has not used the word green. One thing is certain the world has to have the US on board if progress is to be made, and the chances of this happening have improved considerably.

However the obstacles to progress in the US should not be underestimated. These are the power of the corporatism, the embryonic state of climate change acceptance by much of the American community, and the intransigence against any interference with perceived personal freedom by a large proportion of the population. Progress will be difficult when many tell government to get out of their lives and continue to do what they want. Finally the US is insular to its own detriment. It refuses to learn from others and their general view of Europe as backward and socialist is an anachronism, for much of Europe is probably 20 years ahead of the USA in assessment and planned mitigation of climate change and its implications for health.

China’s concerns
China’s forthcoming attitude in these difficult times is increasingly positive. If you read China Daily the mouthpiece of the government, a recent “White paper: China’s policies and actions on climate change”
provides a detailed and realistic assessment of the danger that China is in. Looking at other press statements one gets the feeling that China will accept emission reduction targets if the developed countries will admit their causative role, acknowledge their huge carbon footprint and if they lead by promising significant reductions. The role for Mr Rudd is clearly as arbiter between the US and China to establish the first step.

Can we leave the Dark Ages behind?
The Enlightenment harnessed a reliance on reason with its basis in science to solve the society’s problems. It could be argued that the one area of current human endeavour to remain in the Dark Ages is the functioning of financial markets. Economics is rather like reading a cookery book, unscientific, prescriptive and susceptible to ideological capture. Its necessary reform must embrace practical service to all humanity and subservience to environmental need.

So if this is to be the new world hopefully a green one, how can we depict the old? It is expedient to choose an example from the UK. In October the Chatham House think tank was asked by the government for its thoughts on national food supply, for the British eat and drink six times as much as they can grow, a parlous situation for the future. In the same month, nearby to the thinkers, London celebrated the opening of Europe’s biggest, glitziest shopping mall, the cathedral of today. It cost $4 billion and is the size of 30 football fields. Frank Lowy of Westfield who built it said “It’s very exciting and I don’t think I can find enough words to describe it”. It would be unwise for me to print my words to describe it. Instead you might read the words of John Carroll on the psychology and social function of these developments in his book Ego and Soul published in 1998

What can you do?
I write this short review not just for your information but also to encourage you to do something positive even if it is turning off your electric lights, making sure your TV and computer are not on standby overnight and driving your car ecologically! (the latter is now compulsory for all Swedish schoolchildren who learn to drive) Climate change is an issue that cannot be solved by governments alone, it needs each of us to take action within our own lives. I am reminded of the words of Sir Crispin Tickell, Director of the Policy Foresight Programme in the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization at Oxford University

“Understanding the extent of the damage we are doing to life on Earth as well as to our own society is spreading. But most people still carry on as they did. The first requirement is to think differently across the spectrum – from economics to philosophy – and to reformulate our behavior in the light of it”.

Unfortunately we have evidence that a majority of our profession are not doing anything and neither are most of our representatives. This defines our task. A new member of DEA approached me at the Annual General Meeting asking for DEA literature saying that she was going to recruit new members. Now that is positive, for when colleagues are told why they are being lobbied, even if they do not join DEA they may get the message that they should do something.

And finally we might return to the positives in our present predicament. In the midst of many, very comfortable colleagues concerned about their diminished superannuation, some friends have commented that we now have the opportunity to return to true values in society and that the loss of wealth will bring communities together to face the real challenges of the future.

David Shearman