Humanity relies on us getting our pitch right

Robin McAlpine

It has been a difficult week for people who believe in climate change. It isn’t just the dreadful decision-making coming out of Westminster and some unpopular decision-making from the Scottish Government, it’s the way it has empowered a brand of latent climate change denial that should by now have been consigned to the past.

The response of many to this has been simply to double down on the existing positions. No more oil and to hell with the North East of Scotland! Air Source Heat Pumps for all! Less public transport, less parking, more fines!

Since Common Weal produced the Common Home Plan I have been very focussed on one very important reality – being right isn’t enough, in a democracy you need to bring people with you. The signs are that too many people are being left behind by climate policy, and that is a dangerous situation to find yourself in when the public has the final say.

We simply cannot afford to mess this up. So what does it look like if you tell a story about fighting against climate change which is attractive to people who are not yet committed to the need for serious and urgent action?

First of all we need to understand what helps people in the lives they lead, what they value and what creates the kind of changes in their life which make them resistant. The trick is to operate within someone’s values and to help them more than you hinder them. You can make the experience of some things a bit worse, but that has to be balanced by making other things better.

If you’re going to disrupt their home by retrofitting insulation or installing a new heating system, they need to see the benefit afterwards. If you are going to require them to return bottles for reuse/recycling, you need to make it easy and you need to make alternatives much easier (for example, you don’t need glass recycling if people have access to ‘refill shops’ where they can reuse their own packaging and, in principle, save themselves money as well).

It is a mistake to look at a systems change (make no mistake, that’s what this is) as a series of unconnected activities, because it isn’t and because you need to look at the overall change in the round to create this balance that, on average, makes things better for people. That is at the heart of consent.

You also need to make it as low-cost as possible. A £7,500 grant may sound generous, but not if the project will cost you £15,000. That leaves a level of expenditure which would wipe out almost exactly the average savings of a UK household. And not if you aren’t properly honest with people about the cost.

Which also means you need to operate on the basis of basic efficiency. If you need to retrofit a street of houses, retrofit a street of houses, not one house at random over the course of 20 years (which is, in effect, the current system). And stop ‘making do’ and do it properly. There are people who have paid for insulation retrofit who will now need to pay again because it wasn’t specified to a high enough standard first time.

If you ask people to make sacrifices (and there will be some), in turn you need to make the experience of the sacrifice as pleasant as possible. For example, if you want to make people walk more and drive less, make it easy to do so. Park and ride, good public transport, pedestrianisation, designing urban spaces better – you can mitigate any sacrifice.

In fact you can make a sacrifice more pleasant than the alternative. I’m sure there was someone at some point ranting on about the disgrace of removing his god-given right to drive his car down Glasgow’s Buchanan Street. But try to reverse that decision now and it would create an uproar. Similarly with smoking on trains – the overall experience was better for everyone because of small sacrifices.

It is also important to understand the psychology of what actually is a sacrifice and what is just a change to what we’re used to. Let’s take consumption, the drive to own things. We assume that this ‘heavy lifestyle’ in which you are burdened with the cost and storage headache of ‘stuff’ you only rarely use is desirable. But is not having these objects a sacrifice?

If we look at this question properly and ask ‘what does a society look like that controls over-consumption for the sake of the planet but does not reduce the quality of life of its population’, there are simple solutions. You give people quick, easy access to high-quality versions of the things they only use occasionally. And you make the products they do on better.

The solution to this is tool libraries and quality leasing services. These are win-wins, good for consumers and good for the planet. It’s just corporations they’re bad for, which is a sacrifice most of us can make.

And there are big soft power thing we can do, like nudge people to spend less of their money on polluting products and more of their money on activities like relaxing, socialising and participating. This achieves the environmental goals you are aiming for while also (measurably) improving the quality of life.

But all of this is ruinously expensive, right? These are big, big developments with big, big investments needed, right? We need to do what we can, not what we should, right? That is definitely the prevailing view inside the Scottish Government.

Yet does it make sense? Doing ‘what you can, not what you should’ means doing things piecemeal rather than to a plan. And that is insanely inefficient. The whole point is that the way the Scottish Government is going about things just now will make a Just Transition much, much more expensive, and the outcome worse.

That’s not the only problem – because it means you don’t have a proper plan so showing the public how this all fits together and what it does to improve their lives is difficult. Not only can you not design a coherent, rounded solution to the biggest problem of our generation but that also makes it very difficult to describe this to people, to help them properly understand trade-offs and benefits.

And above all, it makes it very difficult to finance the whole project. Make no mistake, that needs serious thinking. It wold be different if Scotland was independent – Common Weal has shown how a well-planned Green New Deal could pay for itself by capturing economic gain from the work. But that can’t be done under devolution.

That is the dilemma that faces us. Do we try and create a major, coherent, popular and effective plan for a major national project if we may not be able to enact it right now, or do we dribble out an endless string of individually unpopular moves that cost people money and reduce their quality of life? Because that’s what we’re doing.

We can’t wait forever to act seriously about climate change and if there is a way to do it inside a UK which isn’t doing it itself then I struggle to see what that way is. If I believed we had no option but attempt a sticking plasters approach like the one we are taking, I’d turn my mind to how to make the best possible fist of it.

But I don’t believe that. I believe that a gold-plated scheme is possible in an independent Scotland and I believe that creating and promoting such a scheme is a brilliant way to make the case for Scottish independence while demonstrating quite clearly the severe political limits of the UK.

Sadly I am a long way away from being convinced the Scottish Government is up to the task, and I simply don’t trust it to do the planning properly. At first glance it has done the right things – held a Citizens’ Assembly to draw the public into designing the system better to embed public consent and it created a stakeholder ‘just transition’ group and tasked it with coming up with plans.

But having taken the plaudits it went on to totally ignore the former and all but ignore the latter, reverting to the minimalist, corporate-friendly mess we currently have. Scotland doesn’t have an attractive climate plan to sell to the public because Scotland doesn’t have any viable climate plan at all.

The result is good people defending bad policy because it’s the only policy there is rather than pressuring the government to make good policy. And it is making those who are not sold on climate action as a matter of principle tetchy and resistant, increasingly concerned that climate change mitigation is an assault on their quality of life.

This is a travesty. It is more than possible to create a serious, coherent, achievable plan. I know because we did it. And it is more than possible to make that plan really attractive to the public – certainly I think that the Common Home Plan is three parts gain to one part sacrifice. I believe people would like it if it was a real proposition for them.

The Scottish Government could step back now and build a credible plan for decarbonisation and, in the process, build a plan that stands a chance of not just being accepted but being embraced by the public. Instead it is doing that most Scottish Government thing of all – knowing what they are doing isn’t up to scratch but putting effort into suppressing dissent rather than fixing the problems.

There is an amazing, exciting, inspiring story to be told about the quality of life we could achieve in a post-carbon Scotland, and we’re doing the opposite. There is no excuse for this; it cannot be justified purely on the basis of the seriousness of the crisis. The options aren’t handling crisis badly or not handling it at all – yet you’d think that is all the options we have from the debate we’re having.

This is a brilliant story to tell, but we have to write it, and then we have to tell it. I remain as certain as I can be that we and the world will regret it if we don’t.

5 thoughts on “Humanity relies on us getting our pitch right”

  1. Bill Kerr-Smith

    The upset result in Uxbridge, which has been the trigger for all the current negativity regarding net zero policies, was the result of two things. One was Labour’s cowardice in refusing to stand up for the life-saving ULEZ proposals and the other was Labour’s failure to do exactly what you have suggested; bring the people with you. Only now are the proposals for scrappage schemes being advanced, whereas they should have been at the heart of the policy. But not just a scrappage policy.

    Politicians need to articulate a credible policy that will reassure the public – many of whom are on their knees under existing pressures and failures of the welfare system – that, although they may have to contribute some of the expense of alleviating the climate emergency, their contribution will be affordable and equitable. This can only be done if the cost is borne primarily through public funding. The issue is existential – no less so than war – and requires a war-time solution. Some of the cost can come from general taxation, with those who can afford it paying the most. Whatever seems fair to be met by the public themselves needs to be funded by ultra-low interest government loans, spread over decades, as only a government can do. The vast bulk of the costs needs to be met through QE (creating Green Bonds) and through taxation of the profiteering corporations who have created – and continually denied – the climate emergency.

  2. Scott Bamford

    I attended an on-line government workshop yesterday about Road User Charging.
    If looks like they are hell bent focused on implementing this ‘stick’ to reduce general road traffic.
    I mentioned that fuel tax counts for about 90p per litre and ‘road tax’ is already linked to the level of vehicle pollution. We already have a HUGE stick for private transport and don’t need another which will be another PR disaster going down like a bucket of cold sick with the tabloid press that will also enrage the public.
    Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye phone lines will go into full meltdown.
    There were six other members of the public on the zoom meeting, the facilitator and two government employees who I directly asked questions to…… but got no answers. The other folk there also made some very good and valid points, the Government should trust the public more, there were no lunatics at the meeting, apart from those who were employed by the government who thought the Road User Charging would be a good idea.
    What we do need is huge investment in public (and publicly owned) transport opening of rail links (Alloa to Dunfermline for one) and acknowledgement that rural communities are hit harder and also some acknowledgement of the impact of road tourism on west coast and Skye and what to do about it.
    So look forward to future of road charging, taking flack to the Government for all pain and no gain and once again adding another failure to bring the public onside regarding action needed for climate change.
    But at least I was consulted.
    Meanwhile on the news, the sea is boiling and a climate scientist said…….. we all need to do our bit ‘Individually’.

    1. ‘Road charging’ will succeed in reducing traffic levels by forcing off the roads those who are least able to pay the costs. The well, as usual, will be able to continue with the choices and lifestyles unrestricted. In fact, those who can afford to pay may actually support Road pricing as it will reduce congestion levels.

  3. florian albert

    ‘Common Weal has shown how a well-planned Green New Deal could pay for itself’

    ‘Has shown’ to how many Scots ? That is a serious question. How many Scots have even heard of this policy proposal, let alone studied it ?
    Common Weal has chosen to pursue political influence indirectly – avoiding the direct method of contesting elections.
    It has to be honest about how much, or how little, influence it is actually exerting.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top