The three philosophies which aren’t climate change denial

by | 1 Aug 2023

This is a great week for climate change deniers and a disaster for children - so it is helpful to understand properly the three political philosophies which offer an alternative. They're not all equal.

This is a grim week if you believe that a future is a good idea. This is the moment when sheer, total, knuckle-dragging ignoramuses are in their element. For complex reasons which involve not having complex reasons but either lying or openly saying ‘fuck the world’, climate change denial has taken a whole new direction.

Because you can’t actually deny the science any more – people can see predictions coming true with their own eyes. But what you can still do is say you believe in the science and then deny it anyway.

That could be some sociopathic shite about how ‘why should we stop killing our own children if no-one else is doing it – killing our children is lucrative’; it could be blatant lies like ‘we need oil and gas for when the wind doesn’t blow’; it could be some crime of cynicism such as ‘not killing our children is losing us elections’. But this is very much their week.

What is heartbreaking is what is on the other side – there are three basic philosophical options and they’re not really compatible. You think climate change believers might all be on the same page but they really, really aren’t.

Let me introduce you to ‘your three options if you want your young children to have a future’. The first is a market-based solution which you will hear called ‘Energy Transition’. The second is an individualised state-regulated solution which is known as ‘Green Deal’. And the third is the collectivist public works model known as ‘Green New Deal’. They are very different.

Energy Transition is very specific; your only focus is using markets to change how we generate energy. This is a minimalist neoliberal approach. It works on the assumption that it’s ‘just carbon, isn’t it?’ so if our energy doesn’t produce carbon, everything else can remain exactly as was.

Most importantly, in this vision of climate action you don’t need structural change and you don’t need to tackle waste or consumption. It is a purely ‘input model’; don’t change the machine, just the fuel. And because this is ‘a tweak and a nudge’, you don’t need to do anything other than incentivise the market to change its energy sources.

That philosophy is the home of ‘pricing mechanisms’ like Carbon Trading which seek to use capitalism to change capitalism without changing anything else. It is the philosophy of the centre right and the centre (though the centre is split). It is what Sunak used to pretend to believe in before he decided that his best bet at political survival was turning the climate into a culture war.

There isn’t an awful lot more to say about Energy Transition because mostly it is minimalist in nature. Energy Transition people don’t talk about land use, food production, global consumption and waste, energy efficiency (which is a blind spot for them because it is very, very difficult to make that work using market pricing) and very rarely heating (beyond waving vaguely at heat pumps).

You think climate change believers might all be on the same page but they really, really aren’t

The next big philosophical approach is the one that dominates the centre ground and a bit of the centre left. You can tell that because it is a cynical mangling of a better idea for the purposes of doing something centrists believe needs to be done, but doing it in a way that protects existing elite power interests (the defining characteristic of centrism is the desire to protect hierarchy, order and power).

There was a preceding concept known as the Green New Deal (we’ll come to that in a second), and the centrists hated it. They hated it because it is a transformative agenda which changes our economic system as well as our climate emissions, and because it involves large, collective action.

But centrist always pretend they’re good people so they can’t actually say ‘we hate your Green New Deal because it takes power away from very rich people and gives it to poor people’, so they say ‘yes, let’s do that, except totally different’. They dropped the ‘New’ and called it a Green Deal. And it’s a shit deal.

The Green Dealers see the route forward as they see everything – as a matter of the regulation of consumers and the incentivisation of big business. It does have a wider purview than the Energy Transitioners in that it does include agricultural emissions, heating, energy efficiency and recycling, but there are two important elements which disappeared along with the ‘New’.

First, collectivism was binned. Almost nothing being done under the name of Green Deal is collectivist. It is you who has to insulate your home as a consumer, you who has to find a new heating system as a consumer, you who has to be guilted into eating less meat as a consumer. The role of the state is to make it a bit less painful for you by subsidising your choices.

They’ll pay for half your heat pump but that’s your lot. If it can’t be fixed via consumption, it won’t be fixed. Even air pollution (which really can’t be solved by consumption) will be solved via a pricing mechanism, not through the collective provision of better public transport.

Meanwhile, where for the public it is two-parts stick to one-part carrot, for the powerful corporations on whose behalf centrists govern it’s the other way round. The gentlest possible regulatory change on big business will be sweetened with big perks or cash payments.

Basically centrists are cowards who will recognise what justice looks like but will then always pursue it based on protecting the powerful and force the pain of that protection onto the weak – but with some mitigation. That is basically the European Union, the first time the word ‘New’ was dropped from ‘Green New Deal’.

The third option is a structuralist, collectivist model. Here the entire task that has to be completed is set out in a strategic plan and it is tackled collectively on behalf of everyone, irrespective if this isn’t good for some big business. A Green New Deal does not see oil and gas as ‘part of the solution’ but a dirty legacy you get away from as fast as is humanly possible – until you don’t need them any more.

It looks at the cost of heating and says ‘by miles the best long term option is heat networks and most certainly not heat pumps, so let’s undertake a large-scale public works programme to build them’. It says ‘we can’t expect farmers to change their practices overnight so we must work with them collectively to make that transition as quickly as is possible’.

And it is the only version of climate change mitigation which takes the whole system seriously and says ‘look, you can’t fix heat until you fix heat loss, so we need to insulate and install heat networks at the same time, in bulk’. Which means its also the only version which takes consumption seriously as the major challenge we have to tackle.

Of those who accept climate change we need to ask one overwhelming question; can you achieve what you recognise needs to be achieved in the timescale that it must be achieved in using your philosophical approach?

The final characteristic of Green New Deal is that it sees its purpose as social as well as environmental on the basis that this is a task that requires us all on board and so it has to offer outcomes for us all, including the poor and the dispossessed. This is the sort of thing you only do once in many generations so it must also be the means of addressing big problems in our society.

Everyone who is not one of the sociopathic deniers falls into one of these categories, and they are completely different. Reasonable Tories are Energy Transitioners, Labour under Corbyn was Green New Deal but under Starmer it is teetering between Energy Transition and Green Deal.

The SNP were always Green Dealers – in fact, Nicola Sturgeon was one of the first politicians to make substantial play about dropping the word ‘New’. They have no interest in social transformation or challenging vested interests, they just want to claim the higher ground based on investing the least possible effort.

Environmentalists split. Many are on the left, but many aren’t. For environmental purists, social justice isn’t really anything to do with it. Decarbonisation must happen as fast as possible using any means available – which they think means ‘how do we get heat pumps in now’.

Many in the Scottish Greens are Green New Dealers, but neither Patrick Harvie nor Lorna Slater are among them. They are both very firmly technocratic Green Dealers. In fact, you can’t vote for a political party in Scotland which proposes a Green New Deal approach.

This all matters very much. The reason is that both Green Dealers and Energy Transitioners are wrong. The economy we have can’t be tweaked into the place it needs to get to (it requires a more sweeping system change) and it certainly can’t be achieved by placing the burden on households and not taking on big business.

I guess you could create a right-of-centre version of a Green New Deal (the structural approach is necessary but it doesn’t have to have a social mission), but there is no climate-aware right-of-centre systems change philosophy at the moment. It doesn’t need to be a left wing model, but it does need to be a collectivist and a strategically planned and coordinated model.

By now we should be treating anyone who says oil and gas is part of the future with contempt. For those who accept it can’t be part of the future we need to ask one overwhelming question; can you achieve what you recognise needs to be achieved in the timescale that it must be achieved in using your philosophical approach?

I don’t believe that either Green Dealers or Energy Transitioners can honestly answer yes to that question. Yet, depressingly, the future of the planet is currently a game of chicken between them and the sociopaths.

And now I realise I can’t leave it on that depressing note, so I better write another piece tomorrow explaining the realistic, hopeful alternative which is genuinely within our grasp, domestically and globally.

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