Humanity relies on us getting our pitch right

by | 8 Aug 2023

If we want to tackle climate change in a democracy, we need to think very hard about how we develop plans and how we describe these plans to citizens.

It has been a difficult week for people who believe in climate change. It isn’t just the dreadful decision-making coming out of Westminster and some unpopular decision-making from the Scottish Government, it’s the way it has empowered a brand of latent climate change denial that should by now have been consigned to the past.

The response of many to this has been simply to double down on the existing positions. No more oil and to hell with the North East of Scotland! Air Source Heat Pumps for all! Less public transport, less parking, more fines!

Since Common Weal produced the Common Home Plan I have been very focussed on one very important reality – being right isn’t enough, in a democracy you need to bring people with you. The signs are that too many people are being left behind by climate policy, and that is a dangerous situation to find yourself in when the public has the final say.

We simply cannot afford to mess this up. So what does it look like if you tell a story about fighting against climate change which is attractive to people who are not yet committed to the need for serious and urgent action?

First of all we need to understand what helps people in the lives they lead, what they value and what creates the kind of changes in their life which make them resistant. The trick is to operate within someone’s values and to help them more than you hinder them. You can make the experience of some things a bit worse, but that has to be balanced by making other things better.

If you’re going to disrupt their home by retrofitting insulation or installing a new heating system, they need to see the benefit afterwards. If you are going to require them to return bottles for reuse/recycling, you need to make it easy and you need to make alternatives much easier (for example, you don’t need glass recycling if people have access to ‘refill shops’ where they can reuse their own packaging and, in principle, save themselves money as well).

It is a mistake to look at a systems change (make no mistake, that’s what this is) as a series of unconnected activities, because it isn’t and because you need to look at the overall change in the round to create this balance that, on average, makes things better for people. That is at the heart of consent.

You also need to make it as low-cost as possible. A £7,500 grant may sound generous, but not if the project will cost you £15,000. That leaves a level of expenditure which would wipe out almost exactly the average savings of a UK household. And not if you aren’t properly honest with people about the cost.

Which also means you need to operate on the basis of basic efficiency. If you need to retrofit a street of houses, retrofit a street of houses, not one house at random over the course of 20 years (which is, in effect, the current system). And stop ‘making do’ and do it properly. There are people who have paid for insulation retrofit who will now need to pay again because it wasn’t specified to a high enough standard first time.

If you ask people to make sacrifices (and there will be some), in turn you need to make the experience of the sacrifice as pleasant as possible. For example, if you want to make people walk more and drive less, make it easy to do so. Park and ride, good public transport, pedestrianisation, designing urban spaces better – you can mitigate any sacrifice.

In fact you can make a sacrifice more pleasant than the alternative. I’m sure there was someone at some point ranting on about the disgrace of removing his god-given right to drive his car down Glasgow’s Buchanan Street. But try to reverse that decision now and it would create an uproar. Similarly with smoking on trains – the overall experience was better for everyone because of small sacrifices.

Do we try and create a major, coherent, popular and effective plan for a major national project if we may not be able to enact it right now, or do we dribble out an endless string of individually unpopular moves that cost people money and reduce their quality of life?

It is also important to understand the psychology of what actually is a sacrifice and what is just a change to what we’re used to. Let’s take consumption, the drive to own things. We assume that this ‘heavy lifestyle’ in which you are burdened with the cost and storage headache of ‘stuff’ you only rarely use is desirable. But is not having these objects a sacrifice?

If we look at this question properly and ask ‘what does a society look like that controls over-consumption for the sake of the planet but does not reduce the quality of life of its population’, there are simple solutions. You give people quick, easy access to high-quality versions of the things they only use occasionally. And you make the products they do on better.

The solution to this is tool libraries and quality leasing services. These are win-wins, good for consumers and good for the planet. It’s just corporations they’re bad for, which is a sacrifice most of us can make.

And there are big soft power thing we can do, like nudge people to spend less of their money on polluting products and more of their money on activities like relaxing, socialising and participating. This achieves the environmental goals you are aiming for while also (measurably) improving the quality of life.

But all of this is ruinously expensive, right? These are big, big developments with big, big investments needed, right? We need to do what we can, not what we should, right? That is definitely the prevailing view inside the Scottish Government.

Yet does it make sense? Doing ‘what you can, not what you should’ means doing things piecemeal rather than to a plan. And that is insanely inefficient. The whole point is that the way the Scottish Government is going about things just now will make a Just Transition much, much more expensive, and the outcome worse.

That’s not the only problem – because it means you don’t have a proper plan so showing the public how this all fits together and what it does to improve their lives is difficult. Not only can you not design a coherent, rounded solution to the biggest problem of our generation but that also makes it very difficult to describe this to people, to help them properly understand trade-offs and benefits.

And above all, it makes it very difficult to finance the whole project. Make no mistake, that needs serious thinking. It wold be different if Scotland was independent – Common Weal has shown how a well-planned Green New Deal could pay for itself by capturing economic gain from the work. But that can’t be done under devolution.

That is the dilemma that faces us. Do we try and create a major, coherent, popular and effective plan for a major national project if we may not be able to enact it right now, or do we dribble out an endless string of individually unpopular moves that cost people money and reduce their quality of life? Because that’s what we’re doing.

We can’t wait forever to act seriously about climate change and if there is a way to do it inside a UK which isn’t doing it itself then I struggle to see what that way is. If I believed we had no option but attempt a sticking plasters approach like the one we are taking, I’d turn my mind to how to make the best possible fist of it.

There is an amazing, exciting, inspiring story to be told about the quality of life we could achieve in a post-carbon Scotland, and we’re doing the opposite

But I don’t believe that. I believe that a gold-plated scheme is possible in an independent Scotland and I believe that creating and promoting such a scheme is a brilliant way to make the case for Scottish independence while demonstrating quite clearly the severe political limits of the UK.

Sadly I am a long way away from being convinced the Scottish Government is up to the task, and I simply don’t trust it to do the planning properly. At first glance it has done the right things – held a Citizens’ Assembly to draw the public into designing the system better to embed public consent and it created a stakeholder ‘just transition’ group and tasked it with coming up with plans.

But having taken the plaudits it went on to totally ignore the former and all but ignore the latter, reverting to the minimalist, corporate-friendly mess we currently have. Scotland doesn’t have an attractive climate plan to sell to the public because Scotland doesn’t have any viable climate plan at all.

The result is good people defending bad policy because it’s the only policy there is rather than pressuring the government to make good policy. And it is making those who are not sold on climate action as a matter of principle tetchy and resistant, increasingly concerned that climate change mitigation is an assault on their quality of life.

This is a travesty. It is more than possible to create a serious, coherent, achievable plan. I know because we did it. And it is more than possible to make that plan really attractive to the public – certainly I think that the Common Home Plan is three parts gain to one part sacrifice. I believe people would like it if it was a real proposition for them.

The Scottish Government could step back now and build a credible plan for decarbonisation and, in the process, build a plan that stands a chance of not just being accepted but being embraced by the public. Instead it is doing that most Scottish Government thing of all – knowing what they are doing isn’t up to scratch but putting effort into suppressing dissent rather than fixing the problems.

There is an amazing, exciting, inspiring story to be told about the quality of life we could achieve in a post-carbon Scotland, and we’re doing the opposite. There is no excuse for this; it cannot be justified purely on the basis of the seriousness of the crisis. The options aren’t handling crisis badly or not handling it at all – yet you’d think that is all the options we have from the debate we’re having.

This is a brilliant story to tell, but we have to write it, and then we have to tell it. I remain as certain as I can be that we and the world will regret it if we don’t.

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