The one thing preventing real action on Climate Change, is also the solution!
Few would argue that the causes of the climate crisis, as well as our historical inability to take meaningful action, are at least to some degree driven by self-interest. Self-interest is indeed deeply rooted in our economic system, in fact it is key tenant of capitalist thinking and has been attributed to bringing about both great social benefit and ill.
Whether or not you’re familiar with Adam Smith’s magnum opus: “The Wealth of Nations”, or where your beliefs stand on capitalism and socialism; most will concede that the majority of humans act in their own self-interest — even if this derives from the desire to help others, emotion, belief or other non-materialistic reasons. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with self-interest in instances where it does not negatively impact individuals or society more broadly. So, it is hardly surprising that the majority of our organisational creations: companies, governments and institutions also act in their self-interest; sometimes these bodies have some particular purpose or principle(s) embedded in their DNA — which simply moulds what their self-interest is.
At some point society deemed that selfishness has a negative connotation, and hence we often use self-interested or self-centred as criticism. What this should convey, is that one has been too self-interested, for the collective good; that we are on the border line of having negative impact on others or have crossed it.
Our world is constructed on self-interest, and many of the benefits and comforts of our societies and civilisations are derived from economic systems that harness it. These economic systems are now threatening to destroy the very societies and way of life that they built. The Climate Crisis is an environmental response from our planetary ecosystem that has been thrown out of balance. The cause for this imbalance, is that we have not properly managed the emission of greenhouse gasses and depletion of ecosystems that could absorb these gasses. This is because our economic systems by design seek to minimise costs and maximise consumption. Examples where this is clearly in evidence is our food industry, with the massive health issues that have arisen from obesity and other diet related illnesses; and in the automotive industry with the deceit of “reputable” brands (on their emissions), leading to aggravated health impacts in our cities.
Does this mean we need to rid ourselves of self-interest? Is this even possible? Or perhaps more appropriately, in who’s self-interest is it that we put on the pantomime of ridding ourselves of this “evil”? One only need look at the current political landscape in the UK to see clear examples of this duplicity whilst our values and morals are rapidly eroded.
I say NO! What is needed is a change to our economic system so that it produces the outcomes we want from people’s self-interest. If we want to solve the climate crisis, we need to make delivering positive climate outcomes highly prized! This includes ensuring the appropriate financial and social (status) rewards and make the opposite costly and unpopular. This will require a shift away from communist era, planned economy tools — like setting climate targets, and let markets determine the necessary actions and investments based on risk and reward. What will this require? One approach would be to enhance the work the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has achieved with the Paris agreement and launch a global market for climate risk. This will require the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other global institutions to evolve to support this, a start to much needed global institutional reform and improvement in global geo-political harmony.
This would not only help to avert an imminent climate catastrophe, it would also be massively useful for the global economy in general, injecting a much-needed stimulus to global cooperation and trade at a time when it is under siege. It will also generate significant learning to inform possible pathways to evolve our economic system more broadly, as a consensus is emerging that our current implementation of capitalism is broken.