Caroline Lucas MP: A compelling speaker on climate change and limits to growth

Saturday 19th June was a good day: a progressive centre-left political conference organised by the think-tank Compass gave me a ringside seat for both a Labour leadership debate and a speech by the leader of the UK Green Party, Caroline Lucas MP.

Since becoming the first Green party MP only last month, there is no doubt Lucas has become something of an environmentalist rock star, and which I don’t agree with her on, well, almost everything, she is clearly an intelligent and able voice for green issues. She was one of many people that day to relate climate change, a specific issue high on their agenda, to ecological limits to economic growth, the big picture. This is a perspective often ignored by climate change technocrats.

What are these “limits to growth”?

“Ecological limits to growth” – not a snappy title, I admit. In brief, the argument goes that economic growth is unsustainable because it consumes finite resources – oil, coal, precious metals – and tends to impact on environmental amenities in ever-increasing ways – collapsing fish-stocks, amassing rubbish, polluting the atmosphere, destroying biodiversity. Up to a point new technologies can offset this, but basic thermodynamics say there’s only so much energy to be had from a given amount of oil, and similarly if factories halve their CO2 emissions, that’s great, but if the number of factories then doubles you’re back to where you started from. See Prosperity without Growth by Professor Tim Jackson for the definitive and pleasantly hysteria-free summary of what this means for global society.

The Stern Review: Climate change could cost a 5% to 20% loss of global economic growth without appropriate mitigation

Putting climate change in context

But do we talk about climate change with this context in mind or not? Well, in a seminar on ‘New frontiers in climate change politics’ later that day I quite inadvertently hijacked proceedings by bringing up this issue, which led to involved discussion. Great for me, everyone else who was there – sorry about that!

My concern: climate change is now a mainstream issue. The Stern Review and IPCC reports, for all their detractors in the many worlds of people talking about climate change (including those who think they’re grossly conservative and those who think they’re grossly exaggerated) have established climate change as a respectable, mainstream issue. Government rhetoric and the mainstream media tend to treat it as such. Ecological limits to growth, however still sounds a bit like lefty hippie nutjob stuff.

View 1: (Greenpeace spokeswoman) – “I don’t know how we can” and “we don’t want climate change policy pursued without reference to other ecological limits”.

View 2: (International Relations professor, others) – “Limits to growth” are political dynamite. It smacks of opposition to growth, always popular and never more so than in a recession. And if being opposed to developed-world growth is bad enough, questioning developing world growth is very dangerous turf. In many ways, rightly so.

Getting the message out – quietly!

So how do we square this circle. We talk to the issue but mind the language very carefully. If we’re turning to biofuels for energy that increase land shortages, or geoengineering techniques with biodiversity ramifications deal with the specific, not the general. Meanwhile quietly ratchet up the language on ‘standard of living’ and ‘flourishing’, ‘well-being’ maybe even ‘happiness’ as an alternative to growth where possible. On the individual issues get the message out, both on the details of peak oil, of biodiversity loss, of fisheries collapse, and of the big picture, that society needs a broader restructuring from growth to sustainability and from purely financial improvement to social improvement. At that point, maybe we can start pulling it all together.

Changing the climate change conversation

Why do this, other than for its own sake? Climate change debates live and die by the social attitude to climate change, and, like it or not, climate scepticism is on the rise. Moreover, rather than being the poorly researched propaganda of oil company stooges it’s sometimes portrayed as, it’s a well-researched, well-argued set of ideas that are well placed to fight and win major PR battles. This is, at least for now, a bad conversation for environmentalists to keep having.

Transition Towns movement: "looking at peak oil or climate change in isolation is both futile and potentially dangerous" (The Transition Handbook, 2008, p.43)

The Transition Towns movement sees climate change and peak oil as fundamentally linked, and why shouldn’t this be a universal principle? That if we’re going to cut carbon emissions or set up adaptation schemes, they should have as many functions as possible. A lot of time this will mean other environmental amenities: we should be winning the energy battle on energy security, and the forest preservation (and reforestation) battles with other forest advantages, like firming up soil to reduce flooding and preserving biodiversity where possible (give some academic references). Many climate change sceptics believe climate change is a risk but has natural causes, meaning there’s still a need for adaptation there. (It’s worth noting that the types of trees and the contexts in which mitigation, adaptation and biodiversity are best served are very different, presenting some conflicts, but compromise here is the best way to go).

The long game

Should we keep discussing climate change itself? Of course. But this is both a risk and an opportunity. There is a risk that climate change will be “solved” only to leave havoc in its wake. There is an opportunity to shift the conversation onto the bigger issues with society as a whole, and perhaps through that process we will shed some light about why climate change is so much discussed to so little effect.