There is a current of opinion which suggests that there is no climate change debate, science has proved beyond doubt that human activity has changed and is changing the planet’s weather. Against this there is another current which suggests that either there has been no climate change or that if there has been then this is part of a natural cycle and humans have had no impact upon it. As is often the case in politics many of the participants in this discussion are actually talking about something else and the global warming hypothesis is being used as a proxy for another issue altogether. Broadly speaking those who favour State control and regulation of the economy are on the Oh Yes there is side of the argument and free marketeers favour Oh No there isn’t.
Because the hypothesis is being used as a pawn in a Left/Right game then any objective truth there might be out there can be dispensed with. Studies and data are routinely dismissed, ignored or misrepresented where they do not fit in with the preferred ideological position. If climate change is real then the case for State intervention and international regulation becomes overwhelming, if it isn’t happening then the Left has lost a stick to beat the markets with. Since facts are now only tangentially relevant to the debate then effectively a stalemate has been reached and nothing much can be expected to alter in terms of global policies unless or until some major catastrophe occurs or until weather patterns have displayed stability over a decade or so.
The big philosophical casualty of this is Green philosophy. Prior to the emergence of the climate change hypothesis a distinctive Green outlook on the world had developed and was being discussed. Since global warming took over this has been subsumed into the existing Left/Right discourse. It is understandable that Greens would seize on this issue both because it appears to be urgent and because it opened up a way to make alliances very quickly with other social forces. Nonetheless given that the climate change debate has stalled they may be well advised to re-advance their original position since the passage of time has not made it less relevant and it does have the potential to break the Culture Wars log-jam which has now built up.
Briefly the Green proposition is that the planet has limited, finite resources and humans have potentially unlimited, infinite demands which will exhaust the planet. More specifically they argue that the dominant economic models, both capitalist and socialist, aim at continuous economic growth through the production of goods and services and simultaneously human population growth is on a huge unprecedented scale. The two things taken together are unsustainable and will lead, sooner rather than later, to the planet becoming uninhabitable by more than a fraction of the number of humans now living. The main arguments against this that I have heard are that a) the planet’s resources are greater than we think and b) human ingenuity is such that it will find a way around the difficulties when the need arises. Or, to put it more succinctly Yes its a problem but its not our problem. The main question arising from this is less a Left/Right one than it is about values: do we have a responsibility to provide for future generations or can we leave them to take care of themselves?
So far as the initial Green propositions go it seems incontrovertible that Earth’s resources are finite and that the rate at which these resources are being consumed or destroyed is greater by a huge factor than at any previous epoch of human history which is simply unsustainable for more than a limited time. I think, however, that Greens err in decoupling the questions of economic growth and population growth. The second is a factor of the first. While advances in medication and sanitation have played their part in demographic changes the first exponential population growth in Europe during the Industrial Revolution preceded these advances. The capitalist perpetual growth model requires large populations to act as producers and consumers and it requires urbanisation. A move away from these things will lead to population reductions without the need for explicit policy interventions. Social engineering aimed at birth control is anyway necessarily authoritarian and often, as in forced abortions and compulsory sterilisation, morally abhorrent. Even semi-compulsory unofficial population controls such as that experienced by some of the poorer sections of Western societies are problematic; the fact, for example, that in some US cities the number of abortions exceeds the number of live births among African-American women is at least disquieting if not outright repugnant.
The key question, if we accept the Green premise, is not how can we reduce human population? or Is Socialism better than Capitalism? What we have to find is a way to reduce the environmental footprint of the current human population without adding to the burden of suffering that so many humans currently experience. At present levels of technology and production humanity already possesses the resources to ensure a decent life for everyone without need for further growth. To many the idea of abandoning the project called ‘progress’ or that of an unending rise in living standards sounds blasphemous but really we need neither of these things. What we need is happiness and neither growth nor material possessions is a guarantor of that, indeed in a divided world with diminishing resources these things guarantee suffering, instability and huge waves of migration.
What economic model to adopt and how we get ourselves from where we are to where we would be better of being are matters that are open to debate. Left wing strategies are not the only ones possible here although the Left has largely colonised the terrain at the moment. Anyone, however, who accepts the moral duty which we have to steward our fragile planet’s resources for future generations has a contribution to make to this discussion and it is a discussion we need to have regardless of the games being played over the climate change hypothesis.
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