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Essay: Climate change attitudes and policy formation

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One of the main concerns with climate change in a liberal setting is that we allow it to be presented as a ‘choice’ – a matter based around personal preference or rather we allow the NORMATIVE aspects of it to take hostage of the objective factual truths and therefore stall the necessary political changes that need to be made in order to prevent further environmental ruin.

According to Andrew Dobson there are three key normative aspects that determine this outcome; first, the grounds of disagreement over what we consider as appropriate ‘thresholds’, for example when talking about the amount of CO2 in the air there is a lack of unanimous agreement over what is considered irreversible. Second, the arguments over the fungibility of the natural world versus man made. Third, the struggle British Government (or any liberal government in his words) encounters in trying to balance other social agendas against those of sustainability. In short, the policy wording of our governmental bodies regarding the nature of sustainability shows that it ‘has yet to be converted into a principled and integrated feature of the decision-making process.’ This determines not only how well the state is able to formulate and progress environmental policies but also how it evaluates the process by which people come to value (or disregard) environmental degradation. Environmental agenda on some level fails to reach policy makers ears because instead of focusing on ‘becoming a productive ally in the work of shaping, critiquing, and justifying sound environmental policy agendas or clarifying key debates… [it] has largely chosen to turn inward, becoming an increasingly specialized and insular academic’ subject and therefore of comparatively low value in terms of political discourse. This rightly therefore not only affects the evaluation of scientific findings, but also the way politicians acknowledge the part climate change plays on cultural, historical and social factors in people’s lives. This then affects not only the governments’ but also public understanding over the question of fungibility. Many of us that have ever come into prolonged contact with wild nature, one not encased simply for man’s enjoyment come to realise the significance of having it available to us. The problem therefore with those that underestimate the significance of natural ecosystems is not simply in the lack of educational awareness as to our negative ‘footprint’, but exactly because of our anthropocentricism – we value the earth only because of the use we can garner from it for ourselves. The term natural ‘capital’ whilst a seemingly harmless phrase has monetary significance. Appearing in some important governmental policy work it becomes a sure indicator that the political evaluations of the world around us are still steeped in economic terms. Placing not only the normative evaluation upon the land in the name of man’s survival but that of economic deftness as the superior evaluative platform. Overall to presume that nature’s capital (not natural capital) is interchangeable further exacerbates the debate over whether it would be better to wait and compensate any negative consequences of climate change that may arise in the future as opposed to initiating some basic but significant policy changes now to tackle some of the more pertinent issues (such as radically reducing our plastic output). The discussion in terms of what’s to come is seen as the question of what we leave behind for the future generations of man, as opposed to other life forms. It would be far more desirable if liberal societies and especially their governments would forego this lacklustre discussion altogether. That which is natural is invaluable, because we cannot (yet) mimic nature’s clean-up processes and the effects of our actions are already readily felt all around the world. Whilst science cannot give us all the answers how to best prioritise the impending changes that need to be taken, (facts without a moral value are just numbers ) it can certainly highlight where to start – what are the most urgent aspects pertinent to a prolonged and satisfactory life of current and future generations.

Popular public opinion in the UK shows that those acknowledging man made climate change sit at around 46% versus those in denial at 10%, with a relatively high number of 39% of those that believe in the mixed footprint that is both ours and natural to the planet itself. Whilst some of us can rejoice at the fact that the majority of those supporting the reality of man-made climate change is comparatively large it is the ‘partial’ group that is most interest and concern. A survey carried out in 2007 has found that a ‘majority of U.S. respondents (54%) advocated a “wait-and-see” or “go slow” approach to emissions reductions’ a trend that is seen globally. Caution therefore seems to be the operative measure. Morally there is inherently nothing wrong waiting out to see if something will produce a desired or undesired effect, however this assumption regarding climate change is a faulty one. Delaying or ‘wait-and-see’ works well in short lag cases where the results are relatively quick to come by or the process of input and outcome is linear. Something like global warming is unfortunately incompatible with this train of logic. There is a big misconception amongst the public at large, even the informed half about what the research findings on climate change show us and there is often the misconception that if we simply reign in our footprint we would be able to stop any further damage. This is not true; CO2 can take up to 200 years to decompose meaning that even if we manage to curb our output to be carbon neutral in the near future, what is left in the atmosphere will continue wreaking damage quite a while after. This aspect can often escape people’s awareness and feeds into the chasm between motivation and caution. This misconception on the consumer level is also greatly damaging when it comes to life on a day-to-day basis; ‘the absence of co-ordinated societal concern feeds into the lack of political will among politicians to propose changes, and the dangerous inertia of the investment industry continues unchecked.’ We continue to consume in ways that we have always known despite the increase in awareness (especially in the West) because we are still deprived of the necessary explanations and information of where our products really come from, and what sort of footprint they leave behind. This is a combination of a variety of reasons; lack of research and the enormity of the task of measuring such ‘footprints’, the obvious unprofitability of letting your consumers know how ‘unethical’ one’s product really is and deprived life circumstances that limit the amount of environmentally healthy choices that one can actually make.

This lack of motivation, and especially lack of knowledge is exemplified in the question of whether it would be more financially viable to adapt to climate changes as they appear or whether preventative measures are in fact more financially viable. Bjorn Lomborg’s article as summarized in Peter Singer’s ‘One World’ mentions that ‘despite the intuition that something drastic needs to be done…economic analyses clearly show that it will be far more expensive to cut emissions radically than to pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures.’ However in the international community the understanding that prevention is better than cure has been acknowledged as far back as 1972 with the Stockholm Conference which agreed upon the importance of prevention and prudence rather than stalling. The argument from prudence is therefore based on the practicality that it demands rather than on its perception as a virtue. Meaning the ‘ability to govern and discipline oneself using reason’ in everyday affairs often directed towards future focus rather than there solely being based on what sort of persons we would like to be. ‘A prudent policy would say if we can do things about that which are no-regrets polices like being efficient in the use of energy, looking at none-fossil fuel sources’ that would be a logical step’ this frame of mind is certainly reflected in some of the measures that liberal states attempt to encourage its citizens to do – making recycling easier, home insulation and boiler replacement subsidies and making public transport more accessible. However, emissions that can realistically be reduced by voluntary individual actions account for only an abysmally small proportion of the total emissions; ‘if every household in high-emitting countries like the United States and Australia voluntarily reduced emissions by an average 25 per cent, national emissions would drop by only about 5 per cent.’ Therefore, the state tactic that focuses on individual acts either underestimates the problem at large or attempts to wilfully delay the deep restructuring that our societies require to tackle this in full. ‘Evenly distributed risks require us to focus primarily upon the severity of harms that may flow from…the risk; an unevenly distributed risk leads us to focus also upon the unjust nature of the unequal distribution.’

One could argue that faulty public assumptions should not drastically impact on the decisions of the state especially where there is credible scientific evidence. However, whether it is the public or various other interested parties that aim to influence public policy we find the liberal society at large stranded between these assumptions that allow climate change to become a normative question that sees individuals fighting the state over the perceived infringement of liberty over green reforms as opposed to the important focus on the inevitability of the changes that are affecting the planet (regardless of whether humans are totally responsible or not). One of the problems with allowing climate change to exist as the former is that the sort of objectification of the issue can categorise it simply as a lifestyle choice, which greatly impacts on how high in the hierarchy of public needs it is placed. Science can therefore answer a lot of the dilemmas about what can and should be done on a quantitative level, however in practise economic profit almost always outweighs any other considerations that appear as less financially favourable even at the expense of the public.

Economic growth should not be the only way to evaluate the inadvertent costs of the current issues surrounding climate change. A focus that is based only on financial gains will without a doubt miss out on the wider implications that climate change has on cultural and social agendas and can also entrench the fight over what should be done into often two opposing camps that not only polarise but exacerbate said concerns. For example, if you want to wean the world of fossil fuels, which the west is far more readily prepared for, then you are automatically excluding the developing world from their chance at affordable and rapid growth. There is a growing awareness that this doesn’t have to be so black and white and certain clauses within the Paris Agreement attempt to mitigate some of these disparities by attempting to assign varied levels of responsibility and burden , but the focus on climate as a political and economically incentivised issue lengthens the process of change.

This is potentially where liberalism should be at its most useful. The state is the primary producer of knowledge and education, alongside our communities, and perhaps the best way in which to encourage more participation from its citizens to act accordingly. Climate change literacy doesn’t in itself create a moral value over the land but it is the necessary step that leads to greater environmental awareness and consequentially more conscious behaviour. By nature, liberalism also aims to avoid all pretences at chauvinistic behaviour whether that’s nationalistic, sexually or otherwise driven. ‘Hence liberals contend that all humans deserve equal rights, and that we should follow a policy of ‘respect for others’ and ‘respecting others as equals’ means acknowledging the impact climate change has on our rights. To some liberals, this also means a natural extension into the non-human animal world as well as nature, not necessarily in a moralistic sense, like Aldo Leopold would offer us many straight forward liberal thinkers have a problem with this – the earth isn’t a moral being in itself, but it is a functioning mechanism that reacts just like us to stimuli and will consequentially produce a response. Some writers have even gone onto draw analogies about the struggles of abolitionists in the United States and link the current environmental attempts at reaching the wider public over climate change as the new social agenda – a war ‘against human chauvinism.’ However even without looking at the moralistic reasonings of mistreating the earth, we can see how liberalism has evolved over the years from an ideology that trampled over the many victims of economic progress into an ideology that is open not only to protecting the rights of minorities but also for allowing dissenting views to be expressed freely – the hallmark of toleration.

De-Shalit remarks that the fight of the environmentalists of today is much like what liberalism has always stood for, which is the resistance to dominant forces that attempt to monopolise people’s life’s. Environmentalists despite growing warnings and science about climate change have to continue battling governments and companies that pollute the environment and escape much of the responsibility for their own waste, with governments that often overlook this for financial reasons. However despite this endearing analogy, it begs the question; why has liberalism not done more and why is it considered incompatible with greater climate agendas? Climate change, pollution and species extinction are no longer issues that are ‘happening to others’, most liberal countries that have been the biggest polluters in the decades leading up to now have avoided facing the harshest effects of overconsumption, but not anymore.

Johnson’s basic argument goes that climate change is much like the ‘tragedy of the commons’ where a community that is sharing a common source continues to deplete it collectively but either individuals are unaware of they simply choose to ignore this fact. These actions eventually lead to the degradation of the said area, without having any one individual principally responsible. The presumption is these cases is therefore to attempt to salvage the land through policy and state support (or through collective user agreement) however Johnson rejects this premise where ‘every commons user ought, morally to restrict her or his use to a level that would be sustainable if all other users reduced their use in a similar way, and to do this regardless of what others do.’ This is because to him, no one persons’ ‘unilateral restraint can be reasonably supposed to prevent [or contribute to the prevention of] the harm.’ (Statistically speaking it might be true, if we go by the above mentioned data, but to suppose that collectively there isn’t a bigger impact is to be either in denial or ignorance). To Johnson the claim for one’s own gain seems to be of higher importance; anyone who draws resources from the land albeit at an unsustainable level is set to lose any of the gains he makes and even if one refrained from using the resource, another would take his or her place. The only rational way of avoiding beneficial and supposedly economic loss is to continue using the source whilst seeking a law or a reform in the meantime that would enforce the required limitations across all parties fairly.

Sinnott-Armstrong argues that like the data suggests individual actions such as driving ‘a gas guzzling SUV’ have little to no effect on the planet. Therefore, one’s own actions based on the assumption that ‘I can make a difference’ are faulty. To him it is unlike lying or murder because no single person is the direct recipient of the act. However one cannot simply ignore the obvious that if individual actions aren’t the cause then what is? Environmentally-unfriendly acts therefore may not cause such specific harm, but they certainly contribute to it.

Both Sinnott-Armstrong and Johnson however believe that at least at the level of policy making citizens have a choice and even a responsibility to elect officials that represent their concerns best, however neither one of them gives more weight to the actual issue in question. To them ‘commons problems presuppose that rational individuals seek personal advantage of the greatest degree possible’ and they do so without consideration for others. However, Hourdequin points out two of the ways that the above assumptions are false, the first problem is with the extremely atomised perception of responsibility that we all hold over climate change and second, the lack of weight given to the concept of integrity. If you are a person that continues to drive that SUV, and just so happen to be the candidate for your constituents that are otherwise concerned for the planet, then the hypocrisy of being elected without leading by example is somewhat illogical. ‘When we see in others a lack of coherence between their political commitments and personal choices…we may come to question [their] sincerity’ and even their trustworthiness as a politician or indeed as a concerned citizen and activist. The importance of this shouldn’t be underestimated, and whilst it may be a difficult concept to quantify, we can accept that when we trust in the state to take hold of some of our freedoms, even when done with consent we deserve leaders that lead by example. ‘There are ways in which so-called ‘unilateral’ actions by individuals can influence other individuals not to take advantage of the resources remaining, but to see the restraint of others as a model for their own exercise of restraint.’ Nevertheless ‘the question of what I am ready to do (and the amount I am willing to pay) is [therefore] a function not only of what I believe to be good, but of what I see others doing or being willing to do. The self can never be understood in isolation, instead ‘persons are constituted by and through their relationships with others.’ This means that we look to others, first as children, to learn what constitutes as virtuous or appropriate behaviour and what we teach and how we conduct public discourse in the name of climate change matters greatly. More significantly Stephen Macedo points out that public values will always influence private ones. Whilst we would like to believe that our private family lives are outside the scope of the state, the nature of liberal ideology permeates the way we interact in these structures to no small degree; a husband cannot treat his wife and children as he likes, nor can we participate in certain acts that may be pleasurable to us simply because we are behind closed doors. A citizen of a liberal state to some greater of smaller extent is always a member of a larger community that is committed to equality, toleration as well as at the most basic level awareness that if our actions are harming others we are required to take a step back. The liberal state is entitled at least in that way to restrict our actions in order to safeguard others.

Hardin’s own solutions to the problem of the Commons is somewhat less democratic; ‘mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected’ but it need not be discouraging. Liberalism does not have to take a back seat, it does on the other hand have to commit to a certain structure of values, that would be coherent enough to imply a direction in which society is heading, otherwise we are left stranded between ‘fatalism, willful ignorance and fear of public embarrassment.’


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