The ‘prevailing orthodoxy’ (or ‘the zeitgeist’) is much like a rainbow: wherever you happen to stand, it always seems to be somewhere else. The term would never be used in sentences like: ‘My own views are fully in accordance with the prevailing orthodoxy’, which sounds just as unlikely as ‘that rainbow here right next to me’.
But with all that in mind, I would have thought that in our day and age, climate alarmists could not possibly present their position as somehow challenging or thought-provoking. The Fairness Instinct, a new book by the Fabian Society, does just that.
The book presents the results of qualitative research, based on focus group interviews and discussions, on what drives attitudes towards environmental policies. The results are then converted into policy implications. The two central outcomes are:
- Climate policies are not sufficiently coercive, and
- The terms in which they are presented are not sufficiently moralistic.
The first finding is that even people who express a strong commitment to cutting their carbon emissions will generally fail to do so if they believe others are not doing the same. When it comes to changing lifestyles for the sake of the environment, people are so upset by free-riding that even a small number of free-riders can undermine everybody else’s willingness to cooperate: ‘The corollary to “I will if you will” is the paralysis implied by “I won’t until everyone else does”’ (p. 62). Or more to the point: ‘The Fabian research reveals that policy should be less about “nudging”, more about “pushing”, “kicking” and “shoving”. This was linked to respondents wanting to do the right thing [...] but worrying that others would shirk their responsibilities and free-load’ (p. 67).
The second finding is that policymakers should stop trying to pitch carbon reduction strategies, such as home insulation or car-sharing, as a financially smart thing to do. Even if this strategy increased take-up in the short-run, it is argued, it is damaging to the cause in the longer run. Why? Because it appeals to selfish instincts. It is a strategy that takes place within the mindset of consumerism, which is precisely what needs to be overcome. It sends out the signal that it is OK to care about your wallet, that it is fine to be concerned about your personal finances – exactly the kind of mentality that the public has to be weaned off. So the message has to be ‘you’re evil if you fail to do X’, rather than ‘X will save you some money’.
Where have these people been over the past fifteen years? On the planet that I inhabit, the public has been scared witless over climate change, encouraged to feel guilty about almost everything. It was only when climate alarmism had fully gone mainstream that some politicians tried to phrase things in a more palatable language, trying to sound more positive and less miserable. But for the most part, the whole narrative of climate change has been one of guilt, fear and shame, not of saving £17.30 through installing treble-glazing.
Secondly, what exactly is ‘voluntary’, or mere nudging, in the current array of climate policies? Air passenger duty is not voluntary. Fuel duties are not voluntary. The subsidisation of renewable energy, slapped on electricity bills, is not voluntary. The cost of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, slapped on the prices of many goods and services, is not voluntary either. As Matthew Sinclair shows, most green taxes and quasi-taxes are already above the most pessimistic estimates of the marginal social cost of carbon, so on Pigouvian grounds, they’re too high. And then there’s the knock-on cost of environmental regulation.
But there is one set of readers to whom I would still recommend the book: those who still delude themselves into believing that there is any conceivable level of green taxation and lifestyle regulation which environmentalists would ever consider ‘sufficient’.