Global warming, capitalism and theories of social wellbeing are matters of lively debate and deliberation – bringing all three together is bound to generate an exciting discussion. This is exactly what happened in the Post-Crash Economics Society’s first event of the semester whereby, in collaboration with the University’s Political Economy Institute, we hosted Professor Ian Gough (LSE) who gave a talk on his new book: Heat, Greed, and Human Need: Climate Change, Capitalism, and Sustainable Wellbeing.
Professor Gough’s work builds on an increasingly relevant question: how can we square the circle of sustainable growth while meeting (equitably) the needs of people? Naturally, the discussion began by framing the issue within the context of intensifying concerns about global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and the subsequent effects of higher global temperatures are catastrophic. Attempts to alleviate these concerns such as our most ambitious coordination agenda, the Paris Climate Agreement, do not go far enough. The current combined climate policy output, through mitigation tools, geo-engineering, and adaptation, will see us undershoot (by an approximate factor of 1/3) where we need to be in terms of emission reductions.
The discussion then shifted to a theory of the causality of these effects. According to Gough the staggering rise in global emissions output is rooted within a system of capitalism, which prioritises profit, economic growth, and the accumulation of resources. It is noted that while capitalism has been a relentless driver of technological change contributing to the improvement of eco-efficiency, we have nonetheless seen growing output (and emissions) outpacing any technological efficiency gains. This system is underpinned by a theory of consumption generated climate change and the propagation of a further dimension of inequality. As it stands, the richest 10% of the population are emitting nearly half of global CO2 emissions.
Drawing on previous work, Gough then fixed this evidence within a theory of social wellbeing at the basic level. Human need is said to be a function of three core elements: social participation, health and autonomy. The threat of climate change on these basic needs (through such disasters as air pollution, floods and rising insecurity) bridges a gap between social and environmental policy and establishes a rationale for policy intervention. With this, Gough calls for a transitional arrangement through a plethora of eco-social policies.
This transition is modelled on a three stage process: first equitable green growth through activity state steering of markets using regulation, taxation and subsidies. Then a transition to a sort of middle ground in preparation for a more radical final stage by engaging in the recomposition of consumption. This requires shifting demand through resource and preference changes towards needs and not luxuries through what Gough refers to as a new social consensus – not too dissimilar to that post-WWII. Finally, we must reach an equitable downscaling of economic output (or degrowth) by finding alternatives to growth.
In summary, what Ian Gough achieves with this book is to situate the issue of climate change within a more connected framework accounting for its causes and its effects. By demonstrating their connections to inequality and geographical, he has enhanced the way we look at the issue of climate change and the rationale for tackling it with joined up climate and social policy. Gough’s work also provides a platform with which to transition to more radical climate reduction mechanisms by calling for a recomposition of consumption. By reevaluating what humans require to be sustained and attributing that to a core set of needs, Gough is able to question climate change inducing activity that goes beyond these basic needs.
What remains to be done however, is to consider more intricately the consequences of following these policies through in a way that is sustainable. In the first case, the effects of climate change reduction on a government’s abilities to generate further reductions is an underdeveloped area of research. To take just one example, Norway’s generous electric car subsidies (including free parking, charging and exemption from 25% of VAT) is posing issues for public finances. If we take Gough’s aim to recompose consumption away from high carbon goods, this approach erodes the tax base on which that intervention rests. Pushing us away from fossil fuels and other pollutants diminishes the tax revenues associated with them (the OBR estimate fuel duties accounted for £28bn in 2016-17).
Such a matter would be compounded by a further measure Gough prescribes to reduce consumption pollution: dynamic pricing for high carbon output goods. By definition, charging higher taxes on high carbon goods will also have the effect of diminished revenue from shifting consumption away from them. Therefore, for Gough’s approach to deliver the sustainable shifting and reduction in consumption through the methods he advises, there needs to be more consideration paid to how these methods will be funded.
You can purchase Professor Ian Gough’s latest book here: Heat, Greed, and Human Need: Climate Change, Capitalism, and Sustainable Wellbeing at a discounted price for a limited time.