Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Time for a Green Leap Forward

Just because climate change has been bumped from the headlines by the economic meltdown does not mean that it has been miraculously solved as the most urgent problem facing the human race, would that this was so. However, it does mean that the political class may use this as an opportunity to ignore the issue.

The collapse of the financial markets is certainly a pressing problem – but we need to reject any idea that this means we can afford to forget about climate change or that building an ecologically sustainable economy is somehow incompatible with building a stable economy.

Many commentators have been looking back to progressive responses to the economic problems of the 30s and that has inevitably led them towards the New Deal and Keynesian economics. They’re right to do so, but we need to fuse this with a more radical vision that addresses climate change and safeguards the rights of workers.

Even mainstream economists are looking at ways to invest in industry and jobs to try to stabilise the economy. This idea of a centrally directed program of spending is the opportunity we need to insist that the government invests in renewable technologies. By capitalising on economies of scale the UK could become a world leader in cheap, ecologically friendly energy – not just wind, but tidal, solar and other forms of renewables. Our place in the world economy can become a tool for combating climate change at a time of economic difficulties rather than continuing to be a contributory factor in both.

We can have a centralised drive to create the tools for localised solutions. Micro energy production makes sense and requires big investment. But this needs to coupled with the flexibility on a local level to determine regional infrastructure, which means reversing the decades long trend of taking power away from local government. What ever government does we’re likely to see ordinary people moving back towards growing their own food and sensible frugality – we need to deepen that trend which involves investment, legislation and democratic empowerment.

Currently British manufacturers produce few if any wind turbines, and planning regulations make the whole process of moving to a low carbon economy unnecessarily expensive and time consuming. Gearing the country towards independence from fossil fuels does two things at once. It helps cut our environmental impact but it also distances us from the instability of international fuel prices and markets helping us become a more sustainable economy in every sense. It works from both the radical left and any mainstream political perspective. We’d be crazy not to pursue an avenue that can become the political consensus.

But what that does not mean is that we should swallow wholesale anything that looks a bit Keynesian and a bit green. We want to see real investment in the transport infrastructure – but whilst we’re likely to see such a move in the coming years we have to make sure it’s the right investment that suits the needs of ordinary people and actually cuts our footprint rather than creates a new form of waste.

It’s also clear that a neo-liberal government does not go entirely social democrat overnight. We’ve already seen attacks on migrant labour, flexible employment and working conditions and the moment trade unions don’t play ball the economic troubles will be used as a stick to beat working people. We need to present alternatives that show that far from being a problem protecting workers conditions or having a strong union is part of the solution, part of ensuring we’re protected from the worst effects of the downturn.

Spending programs alone could mean new wars, runways, nuclear missiles, roads and disposal appliances. There is an imperative to ensure this sudden and unexpected Keynesian consensus is not squandered. We need to invest in job creation to help prevent a cycle of decline, which requires government intervention. Let’s make sure it’s the right intervention.

All the cash reserves can’t simply go into a banking black hole, particularly when New Labour seem determined that any bailout should come without strings or democratic control. Whilst the characterisation of an economy built on selling coffee and financial services to one another is obviously slightly unfair, rebuilding the industrial base of the UK’s economy doesn’t mean a return to smoking chimney stacks but it can be a mechanism to combat economic slide, climate change and inequality.

That’s why the only appropriate response to the fiscal crisis is a Green New Deal.

2 comments:

Jack Ray said...

was thinking this the other day when they were talking about fuel poverty allowances and the like. Why not spend the same money building a public renewable energy industry that provides free electricity to the impoverished...
stimulate economic growth, relieve fuel poverty, combat climate change winwinwin.

Jack Ray said...

was thinking this the other day when they were talking about fuel poverty allowances and the like. Why not spend the same money building a public renewable energy industry that provides free electricity to the impoverished...
stimulate economic growth, relieve fuel poverty, combat climate change winwinwin.