A Stern lifestyle lecture

Now taxing our behaviour is promoted as the way to save the planet from humanity.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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Writing about the message of the Stern report, the British government’s 700-odd page warning of the threat posed by man-made global warming, Tony Blair claimed this week that ‘British people show a real passion to play their part, whether by driving less, not leaving their TV on standby, or just buying greener products’ (1).

‘A real passion’ for getting on a bus or turning off the television? Speak for yourself, prime minister. Whatever the truth about global warming, it is surely a sign of the low political climate today that just about the only thing our leaders can seem passionate about (apart from launching the odd foreign war of course) is the chance to micro-manage our lives, from what we buy in the shops to what we do in the living room last thing at night.

Behind the grim warnings of global destruction in the discussion of Stern, there was a discernible sense of relish in the way that government ministers seized upon the opportunity to propose green taxes and similar measures to police our personal habits. This seemed to have less to do with their shaky grasp of the science of climate change than their firm belief in what has been labelled ‘the new politics of behaviour’ (see Save us from the politics of behaviour, by Frank Furedi). The job of government today is seen not as formulating any grand vision of how to run society and shape the future, but telling people how to run their lives. Usually this is done in the name of promoting personal and public health. Now it can also be done under the banner of saving the planet.

David Miliband, New Labour’s environment secretary, has apparently formulated a long list of possible green taxes on cars, roads, flights, household appliances, rubbish collection and much else to make us polluters pay. The chancellor Gordon Brown reportedly objects to some of these measures, but that is about protecting his turf rather than rejecting the principle. Green taxes are coming whoever sits in Downing Street.

Thus taxation, an issue that until now has always been about the big questions of how you want to run society and the economy, is being reinvented as a moral measure of personal behaviour modification. It is a sign of how low political expectations have sunk that many on the left have welcomed this development. As one New Labour commentator put it, ‘We could be about to witness a radical change in the way people pay taxes: instead of taxation solely by income, it will be taxation by behaviour. In a world where the sustainability of the planet is at risk, who could argue with that?’ (2) Well….

I am no scientist or expert in climatology. Then again, neither are most of the leading doom-mongers. That did not stop Blair declaring that the end of the world is nigh unless we do as we are told; or foreign secretary Margaret Beckett talking about how ‘failing climate means more failed states’, as if the weather was another part of the public sector that has failed to meet government targets; or that well-known climatologist the Archbishop of Canterbury preaching that ‘millions, billions’ will die from global warming.

Who knows, perhaps their predictions of climate change apocalypse will turn out to be justified. But the political climate in which this debate is taking place ought to raise some pressing questions about the direction in which the wind is blowing.

Since when, for example, was it the job of the prime minister to declare that a report written by a banker is ‘the final word’ on a scientific issue? After all, a cursory survey of real climatologists would suggest that Stern is far from the last word on the evolving science of climate change. The sustained attempt to close down critical discussion on global warming, even putting those who question the official view on a par with Holocaust deniers, suggests that some in high places want to impose a political orthodoxy at the expense of scientific scepticism (see Global warming: the chilling effect on free speech, by Brendan O’Neill).

Even if the science of man-made global warming was as straightforward as Blair suggests, there would still be little that is scientific about Stern’s long-term forecasts of how much damage different rises in temperature are likely to do to the global environment, economy and population. As several experts have pointed out, such projections can be little more than guesswork – yet they are now presented, not only as good scientific coin, but as the ‘final word’ on the subject. (And on which other issue would a report commissioned by the government be accepted as any such thing in these cynical times?)

Away from the data and the details, the discussion of the Stern report also reflects some broader cultural prejudices of the age, which we have often discussed on spiked. There is the doom-laden assumption, for example, that the worst-case ‘what if?’ scenario is the most likely one around which we should plan for a fearful future. The entire debate seems to be infused with the anti-human spirit of today, which assumes that humanity and progress is the problem rather than the solution, and that our ‘footprint’ on Earth is always akin to that of a jackboot. As one headline on the Stern report summed up the self-loathing consensus, we supposedly have ‘Ten years to save the planet from mankind’. They are reading from a familiar script that was written long before Sir Nicholas Stern penned his report.

All in all, one need not be a scientific expert to see that the complex science of climate change is being subordinated to the simplistic politics of man-made global warming. A government and political class that lacks any authority of its own is now putting on the white coat of science (as Blair himself did at that forensic laboratory the other week) in order to justify imposing a new, more far-reaching version of the politics of behaviour.

One might reasonably object that the authorities cannot have it both ways. They cannot lecture us about the coming apocalypse to be caused by man-made global warming, yet insist that the ‘solution’ rests upon such petty little measures as getting us to sort our leftovers into recycling bins, or to pay an extra few quid in tax for a weekend flight to Europe.

To which they will reply, to coin the celebrity slogan of a well-known supermarket, ‘Every little helps’. The argument goes that, although the UK accounts for only two per cent of global carbon emissions, the British people can set an example to the world (‘passionately’ of course) and become a moral beacon for the sort of worldwide measures required.

True, the Stern report stresses the importance of coordinated international action to halt the terrible effects of climate change. Yet even here, much of the emphasis seems to be on imposing orthodoxy and creating a new etiquette for the way that carbon-conscious individuals should behave.

In the Treasury’s summary of the three elements of policy outlined by Stern, for example, the first involves using taxation and other means of carbon pricing to force people to face ‘the full social costs of their actions’. The third is ‘to inform, educate and persuade individuals about what they can do to respond to climate change’ because promoting ‘a shared understanding of the nature of climate change and its consequences is critical in shaping behaviour’. As Daniel Ben-Ami discusses elsewhere on spiked, where Stern does relate to the big questions concerning the world economy, the emphasis remains largely on the need for rationing and restraint (see How about building nuclear reactors in Africa?, by Daniel Ben-Ami).

Yet if we accept that we really are faced with a huge and growing global problem, the solution must surely lie in a very different direction. History would suggest that it is through the further advance of economic and social development that humanity can equip itself to cope with what comes next. In the past, progress has equipped us not merely to survive but to prosper in a warmer, cooler or whatever world. If there is a global problem, why not invest in global development and large-scale new technologies to tackle it. Instead, the doom-laden discussion of Stern and global warming more generally seems seriously to underestimate the adaptability and ingenuity of human society.

Back on planet New Labour, the ‘debate’ remains all about how best to restrict our personal consumption rather than finding bigger and better methods of producing what we need. When politics is about altering lifestyles rather than changing societies, the authorities have seized global warming as a tool with which to connect with people and urge us to conform to a new moral code, an eco-etiquette under which green taxes will punish our sins and reward our virtues. For our own good, naturally, and that of the planet.

There has been a lot of talk of how the ‘middle classes’ must be made to pay, rather than the poor. This is just the latest code for an attack on anybody aspiring to a better life for themselves and their families. They are issuing a Stern lecture to us all on the need to expect less, to make do and mend, to cut out the flying and driving and consuming stuff. As ever, the always-greener-than-thou George Monbiot could be relied upon to spell out the miserabilist spirit at the heart of this discussion, adding to his demands to stop holiday flights a new proposal to ban or restrict sporting events.

There are indeed big issues in this debate that we might start to show some ‘real passion about’, other than ‘not leaving the TV on standby’.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.


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Topics Politics


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