Being right isn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

by | 2 Jun 2023

If you implement important climate emergency policies in a way that relentlessly makes people's lives worse, the risk is a backlash. And if there is one thing we can't afford when it comes to the climate emergency is a public backlash.

Policies I greatly support are being implemented and… I’m nervous about it. Why? Because I’m worried that these policies are too isolated, too uncoordinated. I’m worried because the result may be a backlash. I’m worried because winning the legislative game isn’t enough – we must take the public with us as we do.

The policies I’m thinking about are the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) and Glasgow’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ). Both of these are very important in their own ways. We really do need to take rapid steps towards a circular economy. In fact getting a circular economy right is, for me, the difference between creating an ‘eco-utopia’ versus a ‘green corporate dystopia’.

Meanwhile transport is an area where we’re doing damage but also being very slow to act on it. For a number of years, Common Weal had an office on Union Street in Glasgow, which was Scotland’s most polluted street. Having written a policy paper on the health impact of airborne particulate matter back in the 1990s I am very conscious of the long-term health risks.

So great – the DRS and the LEZ must be getting me really excited? Nope, they’re making me nervous. Here’s why.

Arguably, we face the biggest challenge any generation has ever faced. Plagues, wars, economic crises – they are traumatic and horrible, but when they end, gradually a world in which we can live reasserts itself and history moves on. That isn’t necessarily true of where the world is now. There might potentially be no liveable world to reassert itself.

Which makes this a massive problem that carries so, so many other massive problems inside it. We have a vested interests problem. My reading of the titans of capitalism is that they are now perfectly aware of what they’re doing and where it will lead, but they look at all the other titans of capitalism and know they’re going to do it anyway.

Which means they will do it too. There is a disaster-capitalism mindset which I fear now accepts that they are going to make money by destroying the world, but they’ll be dead before it happens and so its down to someone else later to clear up their mess.

We have a money problem, because there are now damn few governments around the world which are not totally captured by the mindset of neoliberalism in which collective action is never acceptable if it is expensive. Investment in tackling climate change is very insufficient.

An enormous amount of the messaging around climate change reverts back to the implication that it’s your fault (it’s not) and that you’re going to have to sacrifice

When these two issues come together, we get the worst-case scenario – any money is actually invested in climate change is syphoned off in profits by the already rich (which, in a nutshell, is a description of the modern global economy). So the money doesn’t even achieve what it could because it is being directed not to the best solution but to the most available commercially-lobbied option.

This leaves us with an outcome problem, because what is good for the corporates isn’t good for the rest of us. Look at the Scottish Government’s ‘PFI for Trees’ scheme and ask yourself how much of the investment in rewilding is being wasted as it is syphoned off. Look at the DRS and the way it privatises public sector recycling into a company that pays its boss twice as much as the First Minister.

And this is all exacerbated by a framing problem. Much of the messaging around climate change implies that it’s your fault (it’s not) and that you’re going to have to sacrifice. Things get worse for you so they can stay the same for the rich and get better (a bit) for ‘future generations’.

However, the sacrifice currently being asked for isn’t nearly enough to protect future generations but is more than enough to lead to disillusionment. What there absolutely isn’t is any real promise of action on climate change that makes your life better. It’s all downside.

And that’s what makes me very nervous about what is happening in Scotland. Absent a plan (they don’t have a credible climate change plan) and without available funding (no-one will look at how wasteful public spending in Scotland can be) the Scottish Government is grabbing the options at hand, and they’re all sacrifice options.

If an individual gets the same bottle of beer at a higher price and now has to collect bottles and deliver them to their nearest ‘reverse vending machine’ to get the price back down to what it was, there is absolutely nothing about their experience which isn’t worse. If, overnight, people can’t drive their car into Glasgow but are given no improved public transport options, nothing gets better for them, everything gets worse.

If you do it properly it is different. In the German bottle return scheme there was serious investment in collection. In Germany there are various ways you can return bottles and it is easier. They are not crushed and recycled in an energy-intensive way like the Scottish scheme, they are refilled (or at least half of them are, 25 times for plastic bottles, 50 for beer bottles).

That’s possible because they negotiated with all the German breweries and standardised the beer bottles. It is a pretty seamless system kept in the public domain which was not excessively painful for citizens to get used to.

Then look at countries which have successfully reduced traffic in their city centres – and look at the improvements to public transport they make. I would love to get to Glasgow by public transport, but it adds half an hour to my journey time in either direction, which means a journey to Glasgow turns out to be equivalent to a journey to Dundee. It’s like moving all my meetings 50 miles north.

If we cannot take the public with us, positively and enthusiastically as partners, the risks of backlash are enormous – doing the tough thing now and making the world’s vaguest promises about better things to come is asking for trouble

Usually, the easy things a government can do to get easy outcomes is referred to as ‘low-hanging fruit’. But this isn’t ‘fruit’. This risks being received by the public as the ‘nearest available whip’. Nothing gets better, everything gets worse.

I am worried because I already know two people who rely on being able to get to Glasgow for work. Both of them have cars that in different ways are going to be excluded. Both have precisely the same lack of public transport options that I have. Neither are climate change deniers; both support action. But they’re not happy.

I’ve been worried for a while about whether the Scottish Government could actually pull off a workable DRS even if it is allowed. If you live in a rural community, where is your nearest ‘reverse vending machine’? If you’re an old lady in a suburban housing estate, how far is your walk with a bag full of bottles? Do you just accept that everything you drink is 20p more expensive?

Some things will be a little harder in an eco-utopia. How do we make them pleasantly so? For example, walking a bit more and relying on a car less can be really nice if things are set up for it. Or alternatively you can make some things better while other things get a little harder. For example, food prices will rise, but you can bring housing costs way down, make houses cheaper to heat, warmer, less draughty.

But if you hammer the public with nothing but a relentless list of ‘things getting worse’ and if you do that when public services are getting worse and (for many people) an economy and a housing system which are both also making things worse for them, you end up building resentment.

Policymakers are great at telling themselves that ‘it is only the bad people who are angry at this’, but policymakers all earn a lot of money and live close to places where there will be reverse vending machines. They all want an electric car anyway – and they can afford it.

That is precisely what policymakers told themselves over the 20 years of stagnant wages in the UK (‘look, the good people know this is all for their own good in the long run’) – and then we got Brexit, because people kick back against being told their life will get worse.

If we cannot take the public with us, positively and enthusiastically, as partners, the risks of a backlash are enormous. Doing the tough thing now and making the world’s vaguest promises about better things to come (‘sorry your car is banned, but look at this glossy leaflet about a Metro system which is probably never going to happen and will be decades away if it does’) is asking for trouble.

I’m nervous. We may not get two chances to avoid turning the public against climate change action if we create a situation where every time the public hears about climate action it they know their life is about to get worse. A life getting worse right now will always trump a life getting worse at an indeterminate point in the future.

The public really do want climate action, but it is the job of policymakers to turn that into the basis for a better world, not a worse one. We must take the public with us. We can’t ‘punish’ them into being the public we want.

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