I originally wrote this piece in May 2019…so yes events (esp #brexit) have moved on, but I still stand by the substance of my assertions and analysis. If anything the #climateemergency is even more pressing….but given the vacuum of principled political leadership, seemingly less likely to be addressed! I have also covered some of the subject matter again in subsequent blogs in 2020 (What sort of Wales do we want?) and 2021 (The Environment, Tax and Wales)
I watched the David Attenborough climate programme in April 2019, Climate Change the Facts[i], shortly followed by my reading of the heartfelt speech by the impressive Greta Thunberg to our politicians[ii]. I think it hit me, almost an epiphany, we have to make radical changes in almost every aspect of how we live, especially our economic and mobility choices; and we must do so quickly if we are to avoid causing serious and damaging changes to our planets ecosystems and so bequeath our future generations a world that will be much more difficult for humans to live on.
In my mind a wide range of emerging and current issues and challenges -local national, international and global seemed to come together. Although not perfectly and seamlessly.
The recent news related to the burning and accelerating deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest, fires in the Arctic and the rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet really hits home how serious this issue has become. More alarmingly the relative impotence of our political and economic system threatens to make us bystanders to our own destruction.
I don’t think anyone has all the answers – I certainly don’t. Nonetheless I’d like to share a stream of consciousness (so no literature review or references….and it is as a result a little disjointed) that may have some relevance for us in Wales.
I also plan to continually update, and revise based on feedback…so happy to take comments as I know I need to better refine my thoughts!
Let’s first look at the issues. The most serious and to which all others are subordinate…
Climate Change is real…
Climate Change is real, is caused by us and without dramatic action, will have a runaway effect and serious impacts for Life on Earth. Politics and its institutions have failed us in both recognising the scale of the challenge and in bringing forward measures to mitigate.
That’s all we need to say, too much debate already; international, national and individual action needed not more soundbites!
If you still “don’t believe”, please look at NASA[iii] , Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[iv], etc
I don’t want to come over all “preachey”; I am as guilty as everyone else and have, like most of us, become too comfortable with how I live. I am also clear that our politics is not helping, and that Brexit is a massive distraction from what should be our primary focus. As I argue below, I think the forces behind Brexit are only going to exacerbate a serious situation.
Economy, Consumerism & Waste
Complicating our climate change challenge is our economic model. Some aspects of capitalism and free markets have brought millions of people out of poverty across the globe, have accelerated the implementation of new technologies and improved the quality of life for many people. However, not everyone has benefited equally and in recent time a failure to regulate and direct the market has left us with new issue and challenges. I will let the economists comment on this, but it seems to me that the law of supply and demand and the consequent “efficient use of resources” to maximise profits has not, but should be constrained by the environmental costs of using those resources. The problem is that for decades we did not really see those costs – but they are there, and we are now all paying the price.
Perhaps diminishing returns have set in for that economic model, especially in the more developed economies who are rapidly being caught up and overtaken and can no longer base their economies on a disproportionately large share of finite global resources whilst ignoring their responsibility for having caused most of our global climate change problems. It is a moral corruption to stand aside when island nations around the world are threatened with survival.
Our time at the “top table” has ended. The UK is a small country and getting smaller in global terms; India, China, Nigeria, Brazil Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Russia, Iran, Ethiopia, Japan, Egypt, The Philippines and many more all have bigger populations; when their economies per capita catch up then UK’s global position will become clearer.
More important and a major cultural challenge, is our role in that global market as consumers. Consumerism is perhaps like a virus and has now infected the whole world. Since the industrial revolution and a phenomena that accelerated in the 1920, abated in the 1930s and 40s and which has increased almost exponentially since the 1950s, is that we have been persuaded that we need more products, more often; that we need to update and upgrade them on a regular basis (encouraged by products with increasing built-in obsolescence) and that it is good to be able to buy things from anywhere in the world, whenever we want, and to discard our waste with impunity. The issue of plastics dumped in our oceans and rivers is alarming and a potential life threating symptom of this phenomenon.
At that the same time we have and are killing the “local”, the idea of making things last, of re-use, of repair, of just good enough or making do with what we have.
Insufficient and/or poorly applied regulation, global markets and an insatiable demand for the next version is killing the planet. This impacts fashion (how many seasons a year?), energy (data centres, always on devices, air conditioning and central heating fed by massive fossil fuel based power stations), ever new technology (iPhone 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8….X), mobility (cars, cars, cars & unconstrained air travel), global distribution (Amazon, Ebay and exotic foods) etc. This virus is killing us, and the planet and needs to be treated.
However, our ability to do so and address the serious issues we face is being hampered by the small matter of Brexit….
Politics, Economics and Brexit
I assert that Brexit probably has little to do with Europe, is a symptom of a deeper malaise and has demonstrated that we have had issues of economic isolation and disengagement brewing since the rapid de-industrialisation of the 1930s (It was in 1936 that Marquand’s “South Wales Needs a Plan[v]” was published in the face of the decline of the coal industry!).
This issue has stewed all the way through the good days of Keynesian economics and into 1970s (when the UK was known as the “sick man of Europe”) through the 80s (“there is no society[vi]” and “gis a job[vii]”) and 90s (“things can only get better”) to the fallout of the 2007/8 financial crash. Our response in 2007/8 was to bail out the banks. Perhaps that was right, perhaps not; I don’t know. I do know it is easy to look back in hindsight and criticise; but we are where we are and yes, you reap what you sow. Very few saw our current difficulties coming, me included. A noxious mix of simplistic often anti-expert, rhetorical politics combined with decades of industrial decline in some communities has led to political disengagement and indifference. This has opened up room for an ugly divisive politics that David Cameron (what Danny Dyer said) released from Pandoras Box.
Today’s political debates are generally (although not always) characterised by right wing, anti-expert, “1930s” populists at loggerheads with a left that, in the main, wants to revisit 1970s socialism combined with a banner based distain for entrepreneurism, private ownership and markets. Both sides have also undertaken a little revisionist political and economic re-positioning to make them appear to be on the “right side of history” so they can say “we told you so”. Again not very helpful or progressive. The kind of dialogue and debate we often hear is not even worthy of a 6th form common room. If you are offered a black and white either/or option…. take a long hard look, things are generally more complex, and the answer is often grey.
In fact, the lack of honesty, new ideas and intellectual rigour pervading our current politics is as much a worry as the state of the planet’s ecosystem. But we desperately need new ideas and a way forward that can help us collectively address those local and national issues and at the same time help us deal with the primary challenge of climate change. It’s a perfect storm at the moment …. the ship is going down and too may are arguing, without realising, about where and how we should sink!
More dramatically from a Welsh perspective, the UK has been found out. A lack of written constitution has let a right wing, climate change denying political alliance grab the reigns. A considered constitution would never have let such an ill-defined proposition be put before the public…and certainly not without an agreed constitutional means to close the debate. Brexit exemplifies a complete failure of the UKs democracy which needs legality, an informed electorate as well as a vote to have any meaning.
There are as many versions of Brexit as there were people who voted for it (and as at 30th April 2019 I still don’t know what #brexit means). The phrase “give people the brexit they voted for” is arrant nonsense and coming from the Prime Minister is a clear abdication of responsibility and her duty to the stewardship of the UK. The current ambiguity being shown by the UK’s main opposition party is equally depressing. Stop playing politics with everyone’s future. What we have now are the ERG, Boris and Farage (What Russell Brand said) gang claiming we wanted a “no deal” Brexit all along…. I don’t recall seeing that on the side of a bus! The likely coronation of Boris Johnson is only going to exacerbate this sad state of affairs.
The reality is that the UK has spent nearly 50 years integrating with Europe; politically, socially, economically, culturally, bureaucratically, financially, administratively, legally, academically, in fact in every way possible. The idea the UK can just pull out with no consequences is grossly naïve. Details matter…. and to spend the next decade trying to work through untangling the mess of Brexit is a massive distraction from the real issues we face – especially climate change. No deal brexiters should be forced to study some of the implications in a little more detail.
In 2016 many people voted leave for what they felt and I understand, as good reasons – dislike of European bureaucracy, greater UK sovereignty (although I am still not clear what that means), better control of immigration (albeit leaving the EU has no impact on non-EU immigration and that there are provisions in the EU treaty to control EU immigration that the UK has never used!) more money for the NHS, and to undertake more global trade . All against a backdrop of a sense of communities being ignored by politicians for decades.
However, there are real and in 2016 unknown, costs and impacts of Brexit and the reality is that many of the soundbites can’t be delivered. For example the loss of European Medicine agency and risk of a gradual relocation of pharma clinical trials ecosystem to EU, sensitivity of manufacturing and especially automotive supply chains to border controls and likely relocation of activities to EU, the slower growth of our economy as a result of any form of Brexit, the role of Euratom, vulnerability of NHS to reduction in EU staff, the understated importance of international collaboration in developing and implementing environmental policy and regulation, the risk to hundreds of EU academic collaborations and loss of intellectual capacity at UK universities as staff leave (that’s already happening), loss of freedom of movement and right to work in EU for all UK citizens ( I am not happy about that ), the importance of immigration to the UK economy. There are countless others.
Furthermore, there are no “easy trade deals”; the idea that places like China (remember the Opium wars), India (100 yrs of imperial servitude), Ireland (800 yrs of imperial servitude), etc will want to help “Great Britain” and do “great deals” with us is frankly laughable. To also think we would be able to leverage a good deal from the US, an economy many times bigger than the UK is another naive proposition. It is also clear our ability (or inability) to export is more to do with the UK than the EU, aptly demonstrated by the fact that Germany already exports twice as much to the US as the UK – being in the EU hasn’t stopped Germany having a trade surplus? The UK’s imbalanced economy is suffering from an over reliance on financial services. More alarmingly its difficult to see how this can easily be changed given HMRC tax revenue is as a consequence over dependent on a sector whose recent history is punctuated with miss-selling scandals (endowments, pensions, PPI, etc) and stories of grotesque executive pay. The next miss-selling scandal related to car financing is already cooking! These issues are made in the UK, not Brussels.
More bizarrely is I think an overlooked fact that to sell into our closest and biggest market (the EU) UK suppliers will have to adopt EU standards and regulations relevant to those products and services. Today the UK has influence over those regulations. Post brexit we will not.
The climate emergency also requires us to reduce the scope and scale of global supply chains. Brexit is offering the exact opposite, with illusory trade deals across the world requiring longer and more costly supply chains, whilst at the same time damaging those more environmentally friendly shorter and lower cost supply chains (in comparison) across Europe.
There are many more examples….details matter. Above all else this situation is impeding our ability to address some of the long term and structural issues the UK economy faces.
Another stark truth is that that the “British” are the planet’s most “successful” immigrants and as an imperial power over the last 500 years “Great Britain” engaged in military campaigns against nearly every other country on the planet; it seems slightly hypocritical therefore, for some in the UK to have an issue with immigration when we wrote the book! The reality is that a lot people in a lot of countries have a slightly less then rosy view of Britain’s imperial past and many in the UK have an overstated and sadly unchallenged view of both Britain’s past and its current status the world. Even the prefix “Great” is a little dated don’t you think? David Olusoga’s recent article in the Observer captures this phenomenon very effectively.
In my view, many (not all) of those promoting Brexit and the ERG inspired 1840s gun boat theme park Britain, are the same people who deny Climate Change, hate that the most vulnerable in society may need help, have little interest in helping those in our most disadvantaged communities, in 21st Century can’t acknowledge that the UK may have global responsibilities and wont acknowledge that the UKs influence in the world is on a declining arc (that’s just a demographic and economic reality). More alarming most of the proponents of this reactionary ideology seem to have little grasp of detail and technicalities, preferring to hide behind meaningless and shallow undeliverable rhetoric.
So, today, we risk a post Brexit UK government that prefers a more mono culture UK, likely has a dislike of too many “foreigners” (the behaviour of the UK Home Office in relation to Windrush and “Settled Status” provides a forewarning of the type of anti-other forces being unleashed) that will try and restore some ladybird book version of Britain that never existed. More seriously you will get a government that will help the planet burn in a deregulated race to the bottom bonfire, whilst you eat your last morsel of chlorinated chicken and cough up your last penny to pay for your healthcare; this is what’s in store for us whether that’s what you thought you were voting for or not. I want no part of that kind of UK – and Wales does have a choice.
The EU has helped some of Europe’s oldest countries deal with the fallout of war and centuries of political upheaval, to roll back fascism, provided hope of a better more secure future for millions of residents of the Eastern bloc countries before and after the fall of communism in the late 1980s and has become the world’s most successful and enduring international partnership.
We know the EU is far from perfect; its approach to the Greek financial crisis left many people asking serious questions of it and the German banking sector. Of more concern perhaps is the recent trade deal the EU has struck with South America via Mercosur (the South American economic trade bloc). Whilst it further demonstrates the folly of a UK Brexit trade policy outside the EU, it also risks accelerating the damaging deforestation of the Amazon rain forest as Brazilian farmers turn to more beef production to process and ship to the EU. We clearly have some work to do!
Nonetheless the EU is the best arrangement we have yet developed to work together internationally for a common good. Above all else these features make our current predicament all the more depressing.
The stark and fundamental reality is that an effective response to the challenge of climate change, which is the primary and existential issue of our time, requires a degree of international partnership, collaboration and sacrifice that is the very antithesis of Brexit.
Urban sprawl, too many cars and not enough public transit…
Getting away from economic and politics…
We also plan our living spaces badly, like our appetite for new/upgraded stuff, especially in the UK (and North America); we have been persuaded that we need space and 3 or 4 bedroom house with drives (for our cars) procured in a volatile housing market that has distorted the UK economy. More damaging these homes are more often than not, built miles from where we work, shop, access public services and with scant provision for public transport. (I penned a few words on this in relation to development in SE Wales[viii]).
I have also written a little more on cars esp re the controversy re the M4 Relief Rd in South Wales
This has been getting worse since the 1950s (when most people used public transport and/or active travel!) and now it is, in many cases, much more difficult to access work and hospitals for example without using a car. A situation exacerbated by a reduction in public transport provision over the same period[ix] Figure 2 (perhaps kicked off by Beeching); albeit over the last 15 years there has been an uptake in rail usage demonstrating the folly of those decision of the 1950s and 1960s.
Figure 2 Passenger Transport % in UK 1950 – 2010
Consequently, today, cars and mobility are a problem. We have built our lives around a freedom that is slowly killing the planet. We dont have a right to travel where ever and whenever we want in our own personal vehicle. This freedom has a massive cost with 000s of cars clogging our roads (that are stationary most of the time) leading to sprawl and encroachment of green land. In parallel and again another phenomenon that has accelerated since the 1950s, is that we have depreciated our public transport networks so that now they are currently incapable of providing a service for all without massive further investment. Then there is the massive waste of energy and natural resources to produce (let alone operate) these millions of vehicles that spend 95% of their time not doing anything. It’s as bad to have to design our cities around cars when they are not moving as when they are! The idea that electrifying such a grossly inefficient mobility ecosystem will help is grossly naïve. We desperately need to review our personal mobility choices and options. Nor do we have a right to be able to travel globally whenever we want (until we better mitigate the climate impacts of air travel). We need a long hard look at our love affair with the car (I also penned few words on this on 2017[x]))
Inequality and corporate excess
On equality, or perhaps better expressed as inequality, we clearly have some issues that have been exacerbated by the increasing role of technology in our production infrastructure and which has also contributed in part to the Brexit phenomenon and the rise of far right politics across the globe.
In the 1920s, rich entrepreneurs employed thousands of people (Getty, Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Firestone, etc….). Those jobs were hard and not always well paid, but they did at least help share some of the economic dividends by re-cycling some of the value created – often very locally. Today Bezos, Musk, Gates and their like generally employ/employed far fewer people per ££ profit than their illustrious predecessors. So the economic dividends are not shared as widely and worse still as many employees are on “zero hour contracts” and low wages, demonstrating that poverty and financial insecurity is an issue for those in work, not just those out of work.
Furthermore, whilst I applaud their energy and entrepreneurial ingenuity it cannot be right that any individual on a planet facing so many challenges can be afforded the privilege of his/her own buccaneering interplanetary adventures.
I don’t want to supress anyone’s desire to be entrepreneurial, the opposite, I want to encourage more of us to do so, I have even “tried” myself”. However, we need to really consider how the dividends, especially from large corporates, are shared (more equitably?) and what their and our wider social and global responsibilities are.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) will (probably) change everything
Exacerbating the risk of this growing global inequality and unlike any economic industrial disruption of the past, AI will soon be upon us and it presents both an existential radical threat and opportunity It may also begin to impact what it means to be human. I am not as dark as Kurzweil[xi] but can see a world where most of our economic value (if we still have any in 20 yrs!) is generated by far fewer people. A big question is do we let those who own the capital/AI or have those jobs that created that value retain so much of it…or do we have to develop a more sophisticated fiscal regime. What new value transaction will we create to replace what we have?
Do these developments force us to think differently about Universal Basic Income; do these development force to re-reconsider how our entire economy functions; especially the presumption of continual economic growth. Can an economist tell me if that means, by implication further depleting already scarce resources and causing further environmental damage? or if there are ways to avoid those outcomes. Not asking for a friend…. I’d like to know, we all need to know.
A broken fiscal system
The global issues of inequality, AI and climate change combined with more local issues of post -industrial decline leads us directly to questions related to our fiscal systems. In the “developed world” we have and continue to tinker with a fiscal system designed around 19th Century methods of production – which were labour intensive. Yes there were rich moguls in the 1920s like Rockefeller, Getty – but as stated above they employed 000s of people so one might argue the economic dividends were more evenly shared. Today millions of people in developed economies live on the edge, jobs are less secure and people in work are in poverty….is it me? That can’t be right.
Furthermore, the global fiscal regime is morally corrupted if global corporations can legally apply means to minimise their exposure to fair taxes…. I don’t blame them; I blame a system that needs to be rebuilt form the bottom up. Robin Hood anyone?
However, the best on the right can do is to offer to tax less and on the left to tax income more. Is this the best we can do? I think Piketty[xii] had it right, concentrated wealth and asset value, not income, is a problem; when so few own so much, when land is locked up with a few families for centuries (for an asset that was there before any of us – ask the Native Americans) such gratuitous ownership is ugly. We should tax for a better world.
How do we know what’s true?
Another recent feature of our politics is the growth an “anti-expert” rhetoric. Isn’t it amazing how many ill qualified people will confidently and sometimes aggressively proffer their views on climate change and evolution but remain silent on matters of relativity and quantum physics as James West so eloquently set out[xiii]. We have big problems and challenges and the leaning toward undeliverable populist rhetoric is not going to solve those problems. In fact it is likely to make it worse as most of us do not possess the critical faculties or training to analyse and differentiate what we are bombarded with by our oversupply of 24 hour “news”.
This article by James Melville is also worth a read.
On the latter we need to reflect that human beings evolved over millions of years and our ability to absorb information was limited to the camp fire story passed down by our elders; to trust the wisdom of our parents uttering not to play with the lion, put our hand in the fire or eat the poisoned berries. That is where we are in evolutionally terms – we have evolved to trust what we are told. The critical faculties required of science and intellectual debate in most cases have to be learnt and encouraged – it’s not always a default setting – despite our innate curiosity. As Sagan once said we need a balance of wonder and scepticism when looking at the world.
To now be bombarded with soundbite news on multiple channels 24 hours a day has two profound impacts. Those producing the “news” are more concerned about filling “column inches” and “clicks” rather than the “truth” and as consumers, we generally can’t tell truth from non- truth. The idea that a debate on evolution or climate change needs to be balanced by proponents of creationism or a view that “the planet’s climate has always changed so climate change can’t be as a result of human activity” is a symptom of a world gone mad. Something needs to change ….
Too much anti politician rhetoric and lack of understanding of the working of Government
We live in dangerous times when being an elected politician is actually putting your life at risk. That can’t be allowed. I don’t like all politicians; some do not do a good job and are driven more by self interest than common good. However most, in fact the vast majority, are driven by honourable beliefs and principles and do their best. Most of those I have met or dealt with are of that persuasion and I am impressed by their commitment to the causes they believe in and the communities they serve (including the honourable member for Neath). Being a politician is tough going – you get blamed for everything and thanked for nothing, and have to deal with the detailed implications of issues that many members of the public think are just a question of implementing simplistic rhetoric & policy statement. Detail matters….and in most cases is hard!
I am not sure I could do it….
We also fail to understand how governments work – and I am not claiming to know – politicians are not “in charge”, power does not reside with one person (good!). The mandarins at Whitehall (for UK) and Cathays Park (for Wales) hold most influence over “power” which dances around between Ministers, MPs,/AMs, officials and advisors. The challenge for getting anything done is trying to understand how that complex and ever changing ecosystem functions and how to influence it.
This is democracy – its imperfect….and to damage it because it fails to fulfil some utopian ideal is dangerous and can lead to authoritarianism, we have seen this before. I am not saying we can’t improve – especially perhaps now the need for a considered written constitution for whatever the UK becomes or perhaps what Wales becomes – but at its core the role of the imperfect elected representative at the heart of an inefficient bureaucracy is fundamental.
All in all we really do have quite a challenge on our hands…
So what can we do…?
It seems a daunting challenge, and whilst we all can make personal contributions it is governments across the world that need to do more. There are plenty of more qualified people who are better placed to develop effective policies and responses……can I just offer the following; and I acknowledge I risk of sounding like a competitor at a 1970s Miss World Pageant (I’d like to see World Peace, etc)!
Firstly and most importantly, the world’s countries with the most capacity to help need to set aside their differences and come together to forge an International Marshall plan or “Apollo programme” to address the climate change crisis. Perhaps 1% GDP from all countries can be directed toward a radical green “new deal” (NATO countries are supposed to allocate 2% of GDP to their military after all?) with a key focus on:
- Investment in new green energy and renewables, new energy storage technologies (eg bigger better batteries) as well as energy reduction and efficiency measure; we also need to further mitigate risks by developing more carbon capture technologies (with the caveat below); a major development programme for new materials to replace our use of plastics. All our universities should be engaged.
- Massive environmental clean-up operations around the world. This will be hard and maybe some damage is already locked in, but we have to deal with our rubbish and especially the amount of plastic now strangling the environment. This will also require major investment in new “clean up” technologies– this can and must include biological innovation not just engineering.
- Protection of rainforests (better use of worlds military capacity to protect the last rain forests and their ecosystems perhaps?) and a global reforestation programme (which it seems to me would be the most effective and sustainable carbon capture technology) – not just in the equatorial regions but everywhere. The UK was once covered in forests – lets replace as much as we can, everywhere.
- In relation to the Amazon Rain Forest, I wonder if international resources could be secured to “lease” (for 100 years perhaps) the rain forest from Brazil, Peru & Columbia to help ensure their protection? It would have to be a persuasive price to secure Bolsonaro’s interest (given his current encouragement of further deforestation) but we all have to pay if we want to protect our environment rather than expecting countries like Brazil not to do what we have already done to our forests.
- A major research programme and debate – what kind of economic system do we need to maintain a balance with our environment and deliver a more equitable planet. I dont know, does anyone? There are too may soundbite black and white views out there at the moment – we need some hard data and informed and intellectually honest debate. Can a Universal Basic Income play a role, what opportunities does AI present, how do we protect and nurture local economies, how do we reduce our need to commute every day at the same times, etc.
We also need a revolution in personal mobility so that green public transport and/or active travel is the default option and the role of the car is reduced the level of the 1950s or earlier. This means:
- Less use of personal cars and much more electrified public transport – this by implication means a massive investment programme in rail, light rail and buses. This needs to be supported by fiscal measure and incentives to encourage people to use public transport and tariffs to deter car use. In Wales the recent decision in respect of the new M4 could be a tipping point (I did set out some alternate PT schemes instead).
- In parallel, a revolution in new technology to support Mobility as a Service (MaaS) and Demand Response Transit (DRT) to connect those people in places where mass transit or active travel can’t easily or affordably reach (eg areas of low population density and rural communities)
- We also need to build more densely around our public transport networks with properly formulated Transit Oriented Development (TOD) plans; in Wales we have to review all plans approved but not yet built. We also have to retrofit more effective public transport infrastructure and services where practical to some of our legacy car based developments.
- Massive encouragement in active travel and investment in infrastructure to make it easier and safer – this means reclaiming the roads from cars in many of our urban areas.
I think every country should work to change how we produce, source and consume food.
- Primarily we need to eat less meat and encourage adoption of a more plant based diet
- Source food produced more locally and from smaller local suppliers/providers. I penned a few words on this in respect of local bread making and ideas for the “foundational economy” in South East Wales
- Encourage a more natural diet less dependent on additives and preservatives
- We also need to reduce our food waste
In support of the above, we also need global collaboration to develop a new international tax system.
Post Scrip 2020: In the UK we are tied to a fiscal regime designed at the outset to raise money for war, then modified as the industrial revolution and mass employment took hold in the 19thC. However, with climate change, AI, etc we need to rethink. In particular we have to develop a mechanism to capture more of the external costs of global capitalism, costs which have been a major contributor to our climate emergency. Our freedoms and choices to buy all sorts of products with long supply chains and/or built in obsolescence or to use cars without paying the full cost (eg New cars every 2/3 years, New Zealand Lamb, plastic wrapped exotic fruit or soon to be Chlorinated chicken from the US) have costs – environmental, carbon, animal welfare, societal, etc that no-one is paying ….but there is a bill to pay!
I also penned a blog in early 2021 about the need to tax the damaging external costs of our economic activities.
I assert, that aside from supporting everyday government expenditure, our fiscal regime should be based on three primary objectives:
- To protect and enhance the natural environment
- To address inequality and poverty
- To support only sustainable economic growth (and I agree we need to be a lot clearer on what that means) and public services
This in detail will require a range of fiscal innovations, for example…
- New international measure to deal with tax avoidance – especially “off shore” tax havens
- New taxes for wealth, land, and a shift away from income, maybe a global financial transaction tax (Cf “Robin Hood”)
- Fiscal measure to encourage/incentivise markets to bring forward innovations to help address those objectives
- More taxes to discourage behaviours and materials that damage the environment and incentives for those that do not
- This should especially impact our mobility choices to discourage car use and encourage public transport (reduction of fuel discounts, removal of free parking, more toll roads, etc)
- Everywhere more support for small and local economies (e.g. in Wales much lower business rates for small, local independent businesses and/or other fiscal measures that help the small independents ). I also penned a few words on this in 2017 – Hand Made in Ebbw Vale
- More punitive taxes for unnecessarily long supply chains and large corporates with higher levels of profit per FTE employed
- Perhaps we each need carbon allowance to restrict some of our environmentally damaging behaviours!
A new news
We are also losing an ability to tell fact from fiction. So can we develop a publicly funded “slow news” service. In the UK that could mean a complete revision of the BBC Charter so that it produces news once every 24 hours not every minute of every hour of every day! News that has sources checked, experts consulted, positions and claims challenged- all objectively undertake without bias; that data and evidence is used to achieve balance, not rhetoric and soundbite. We need to inform people objectively and with intellectual honesty. This is vital….
In respect of Wales broadcasting also needs to be fully devolved.
How do we pay?
It may seem daunting but there are some obvious sources of funding (aside from developing a new fiscal regime) which can support a global climate change programme – if we are brave enough to re-direct them.
Firstly, how many of us were aware that global Military spend is of the order of $1.4Tn a year and that the US Department of Defence spends about half of that – nearly $700Bn every year! Just to put that in perspective, NASA by comparison is small fry with an annual budget of only $20Bn. In fact the entire Apollo programme in 2017 dollars only costs about $150Bn (and I need to check that !) a third of what the US DoD spends in a year. What the hell are they doing with all that money? I am no conspiracy theorist…but it wouldn’t surprise me if the US Military already had a base on the moon! In comparison the UK spends about $50Bn a year, China over $200Bn, Russia $60Bn, India, $60Bn, France $60Bn.
Just imagine what we could do to help the planet and address real global issues of climate change if we could re-direct just some of that huge military resource. We clearly have the resources globally to deal with all the climate challenges we face (probably with enough left over to fund a mission to Mars!).
Getting back to the US; as a 6 year old in 1969 I was captivated by the Apollo programme. That was a moment the US inspired the whole world when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon (and was a stark contrast to the Vietnam war of which, at that time, I was totally unaware) . The US today has the resources and I hope it can re-discover the political vision and intent to deploy those resources to inspire the world again, this time to help address the threat of climate change.
Another potential large source of funding could be secured if we exploited the current untaxed and unregulated trade in illegal drugs. Estimates suggest it is worth $500Bn[xiv] a year plus all the costs resulting from its criminalisation. Let’s legalise, regulate and tax….and then focus on the treatment of addiction and misuse. Vast sums could be redirected to an ambitious global climate change programme
There is clearly enough resource to deal with climate change crisis.
Wales, The UK and EU
Given this mess in the UK and the very real likelihood that within 10 years of a damaging Brexit, Scotland will be independent and Ireland will be unified, where does Wales want to be in those circumstances. I know where I dont want to be. So for the first time I am getting in touch with my “independent side”. Not small exclusive nationalism, but international and collaborative, inclusive. The last fires of the 2012 Danny Boyle image of Britain have nearly been stamped out by Boris, Nigel, Jacob and Co. I/we need to move on, and we perhaps need to start a conversation about what Wales is to become and what sort of relationship we want with England, Scotland Ireland and the EU. In my professional experience of Whitehall, Wales only ever gets half way up page 2 on a list of UK priorities. I am not sure that’s good enough anymore. I am not prepared to let Whitehall behave so indifferently anymore. I also think this debate should address the relationship of the different parts of Wales to one another.
I want to be Welsh and in Europe and I hope part of a much more 21st Century, forward thinking and outward looking federation for the UK. If the UK at Westminster gives up and instead embodies anti-expert, right wing, market led economics post Brexit, then that is a throwback I want no part of; more importantly it is grossly ill-equiped to address the primary issues facing the planet, climate change. In those circumstance it will be necessary to seriously consider what sort of future we want for Wales.
I penned these words earlier in 2020 on the subject of Wales’ future…
Step back and consider how this planet looks
Finally a thought experiment to put all this in perspective. Imagine we are not alone in the universe and somewhere an advanced species has cracked the trick of faster than light travel and in doing so has managed to stumble on earth. What do they see? They see a sick planet infected with a virus that has run out of control over the last 200 years, and especially over the last 60, as its numbers trebled with a devastating impact on every other living thing? The virus is choking the planet with CO2 from burning fossil fuels, strangling the planet and oceans with plastic, burning the forests that actually absorb CO2, exterminating other species and in doing so, is destroying the ecosystems it depends on for life.
It would be a very puzzling find and one worthy of study. And they would look and scratch their heads trying to work out what the hell we are doing and if/when they should intervene to save both that species and the planet.
Then they look a little harder and see that some of us are not like that – deep in the rainforest of the Amazon Basin and Papua New Guinea, a small number of isolated hunter gatherer tribes still live in balance with the world around them. They may in fact decide they are the real representatives of our species and seek to support them as they would be the only humans capable of surviving a major global calamity. I am not sure the rest of use deserve any help at the moment. However, in terms of an ethos that seeks a balance with nature we could learn a lot from perhaps the least understood representatives of our species. Worth reading, “Don’t Sleep there are Snakes”[xv] for an insight into society and survival in the heart of the Amazon.
To conclude (nearly), as important as multi-national governmental action and cooperation is an equal need for us all to make choices as individuals to help address the challenge of climate change. For example: how and when we travel: what we eat: what, how and when we buy; how we manage our own use of finite resources. It will mean a positive choice to eat less meat, buy less new stuff, re-use more, travel more using public transport and active travel, to maybe make do with less; to be a little hotter or colder than we’d like, to take more time. It may make us all a little more respectful of the fragility of our planet and all the life on it.
The need for leadership…
Finally, in essence – this is a choice, to respond to climate change, to protect our world and to ensure both our survival and that of our future generation. We have the capability and resources to do so, but we perhaps lack, today, the necessary political leadership. In fact, it seems to me what leadership there has been, has been best demonstrated recently by a 92 year old TV presenter and 16 year old Swedish Schoolgirl! So I have no doubt to support their efforts and to get everyone focussed on the issue, direct action in the short term is absolutely necessary.
So, above and beyond anything else and as a precursor to the massive changes we need, is an absolute need for principled political leadership. Leaders prepared to tell people the truth – even if those truths are difficult and unpalatable; in matters of survival honesty matters.
Sadly, too many think leadership is being all things to all people, saying what they think people want to hear to secure the applause and make themselves feel good, to feel liked and popular. This is no time for such narcissistic indulgence.
The job of politicians now, more than ever, is to seek out and listen to experts to help develop radical policy interventions, to redirect resources and funding and to engage us all in action. They need to do the hard yards, risk the brickbats and unpopularly to persuade their electorates of the importance of these policies and to help create a vision of a human society in balance with nature and the environment and able to support a sustainable and inclusive economy.
We really don’t have a choice….do we?
[v] H Marquand, 1936, South Wales Needs a Plan
[vi][vi] As claimed by Margaret Thatcher in an interview with Women’s Own in 1987
[vii] As requested by Yosser Hughes in, “Boys from the Blackstuff”, written by Alan Bleasdale in 1978 and dramatised for TV in 1982
[xi] Ray Kurzweil, 2005, “The Singularity is Near”,
[xii] Thomas Piketty, 2014, “Capital in the 21st Century”
[xiii] James West, 2019, Climate Change and the Media https://ejwwest.wordpress.com/climate-change-and-the-media/
[xv] Daniel Everett, 2009, Dont Sleep there are Snakes – Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle”
4 thoughts on “Climate Change, Brexit and The Economy (…and Wales)”
Brilliant analysis! What we need is people like you in charge instead of the small-minded leaders (of all parties) who seem to be utterly blind to the stark realities staring us in the face.
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Great list of challenges and potential solutions. I would only comment :
1) Basic Income is becoming an ever more urgent step to reshape our economic model in ways that will not only check rising poverty and inequality, but also empower local communities. Please come to the first Wales event on Basic Income 7th June in Porth which will include input from Prof Guy Standing amongst others. Also watch some videos on YouTube of Andrew Yang in USA, who shows how different our politics could be with the right leadership.
2) Applied technology is a top priority to accelerate Wales transition to a local #CircularEconomy. Today’s linear Global supply chains that are not only destroying our climate and ecosystems, but also serve mainly to extract wealth from the Welsh economy (from gas and petroleum, to food and Internet services). The Ellen McArthur foundation is very good on this, but Wales should also be investing in local hub based models a bit like the German Fraunhofer Institutes (which most politicians have not even heard of, so if not do look it up).
3) You correctly identify the importance of Global Partnership to establish an economic trade framework in which these locally based initiatives can work. I wrote about this in my own ebook “The Global Race” by Robert P Bruce, most of which remains very pertinent, and runs counter to the “The And Us” thinking behind Brexit. I would also like to see these Global initiatives framed in the context of the UN Global Goals which remain an excellent model on which to build Global consensus for change (just with the addition of clean air, which should have been the extra 18th Goal).
Overall I applaud your piece, which proves that the right ideas are at last gaining ground, over the old populist ideologies of left and right. However to gain popular support we need to build them into simple new narratives that can be sold to voters, and ALL political parties have so far failed to do this.
I hope you might make it to Porth on 7th June, in which case I will see you there.
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Thanks for a very interesting analysis. As someone who has been working on conservation of tropical forests for 30 years or so, and specifically the climate change link for 12+ years, allow me to comment on a couple of your proposals:
“Protection of rainforests (better use of worlds military capacity to protect the last rain forests and their ecosystems perhaps?)”. This “lock them up” approach has been widely discredited, e.g., https://www.forestpeoples.org/en/news-article/2016/fpp-statement-survival-internationals-complaint-against-wwf. The problem is (see also below) is that people live in these forests and they have rights, even though those rights are often/usually ignored by national governments and others.
“[A] global reforestation programme … lets replace as much as we can, everywhere.” This already exists (https://www.bonnchallenge.org/). I agree that it needs greater support and that support applies everywhere, including our local areas in Cymru.
“I wonder if international resources could be secured to “lease” (for 100 years perhaps) the rain forest from Brazil, Peru & Columbia to help ensure their protection?” The problem here is, who would you lease the forest from? The Government of Brazil? All of the indigenous peoples in the forest do not recognize “ownership” by the GoB, so such a lease would represent a violation of their human rights. You would find yourself wrapped up in countless (US) lawsuits immediately!
Because the problem is ecologically, economically, and socially so complex, a simple solution is not feasible. I believe that the solution must involve (inter alia):
a) Reducing the value of forests for production of ecologically damaging products like palm oil, for example, through international programmes to incentivize sustainable palm oil production against internationally-recognized standards, e.g., https://rspo.org/
b) Increasing the value of forests for production of environmentally positive products such as carbon conservation, e.g., https://redd.unfccc.int/ (this is the programme I have been working on for 12+ years)
c) Recognizing the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples living in and around forests, to provide them with the resources to resist damaging change (see https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html). This would need to be tied to measures to ensure that the indigenous peoples themselves do not start engaging in destructive economic practices.
Thank you…good to get insightful comment from people with expertise and experience in such matters.