Joyce McMillan: Here’s why governments are failing to tackle climate change

Hollow words are no longer enough as the world faces crisis, writes Joyce McMillan

June 2019; and for those of us who care about the threat posed by climate change, things are going badly.

Not only do we face the likely emergence as UK Prime Minister of a dangerous right-wing jokester whose backers include some of the most powerful climate-change deniers on the planet; but even here in Scotland - where the government has set out ambitious carbon reduction targets - it seems that those in charge are talking the talk, while often failing to walk the walk.

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Just six weeks after the First Minister declared a climate emergency at her party conference in Edinburgh, it was announced this week that once again, the Scottish Government missed its own carbon reduction target for 2017, largely because of transport emissions; as I write, the SNP are allying themselves with the Tories in the Scottish Parliament to oppose a strikingly modest proposal that Scotland reduce its urban speed limit to a default level of 20mph, thereby saving lives of pedestrians and cyclists, and perhaps encouraging some commuters out of their cars. And this is not because the Scottish Government is particularly bad at implementing policies that would support our transition to a more sustainable economy; it has rafts of positive policies in areas from marine protection to high quality food production.

It’s simply because, like all western governments, it tends to use radical language about the climate emergency we face, and then to act as if it has all the time in the world; and as if the maintenance of the old economy, and the continuous oiling of its wheels, must almost always take precedence. As matters stand, only 3.5% of the government agency Transport Scotland’s budget is being spent on walking and cycling, while more than ten times as much is spent on road building; and as the climate activist Greta Thunberg has so often and eloquently pointed out, statistics like these suggest that governments do not at all mean what they say.

Now there are, of course, various problems preventing governments from taking the necessary action. One is their terror of introducing unpopular measures to limit consumption. Another is sheer habit; governments have been aiming for conventional economic growth for so long, as the basic measure of their success, that they simply lack any other management framework.

A third, though, it seems to me, is the growing assumption that nothing can really be done about the unsustainable trajectory on which our economies find themselves without bringing down capitalism itself. After all, goes the reasoning, how can a system whose job, as defined by global markets, is to maximise short-term profit, ever take account of the need to recognise that the earth’s resources and resilience are finite? Faced with this choice between rogue capitalism and rational climate action, it’s perhaps not surprising that most western governments seem paralysed. Even the most social-democratic of them are not habitually anti-capitalist; and all of them are vulnerable to the kind of lobbying which suggests that without corporate capitalism, they don’t have an economy.

So far, so familiar; but it seems to me that we are now in danger of forgetting that it doesn’t have to be like that, and that other models of capitalism once used to be available; indeed any thinking Victorian might well recognise the madness of laissez-faire period through which we have just lived, and reflect on how, eventually, private philanthropy and state intervention had to come together to redistribute the economic gains of the industrial revolution.

Likewise, the postwar era, from 1945-75, represented the fastest and most sustained period of economic growth in 20th century history; yet throughout that time levels of state ownership were high, regulation was ubiquitous, trade unions were powerful, redistribution of wealth was the order of the day, and most businesses operated within those limits. And back in the 18th century, when the modern financial system was taking shape, the mantra of the greatest economic thinkers was not “free trade at any cost”, but “free trade under the law”; a clear recognition that commerce is an important feature of any free society, but that it must in the end submit itself to laws enacted for the good of society of general.

And today, of course, our laws increasingly need to reflect a stringent determination to abandon our carbon-based consumer economy, and move on; and we need governments strong and bold enough to set the framework for that new future, not only at national level, but in powerful international alliances, which move forward together, at speed, towards a very different world. It will not be a world shaped by the decisions of corporate capitalism, because commercial corporations have neither the right nor the ability to represent the common good with the clarity, vision and legal clout required.

If governments clearly set that framework, though, then the best of businesses will be there immediately, exploiting the new opportunities of a more sustainable, localised and circular economy; indeed it’s a shift that is already happening in states like California which have strong environmental legislation and in some countries across Europe. What these examples suggest is what we already know: that people prosper best, and have the best chance of surviving change, where commerce is the servant of society as a whole as represented by good government, and not the master of craven public representatives who have long since forgotten that their job is to represent the people. Over the last forty years, the people of Britain - and to some extent of Scotland - have sadly come to accept that servile relationship of government to capital as a norm. In the current climate emergency, though, it will no longer do; and only governments that recognise that truth, and act on it clearly and decisively, will continue to deserve the support of voters, in the turbulent decades ahead.