XR: Extinction Rebellion is unpopular, but most of us agree with them

·4-min read
 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

How you ask a question matters. “Why are you so stupid?’ is likely to engender a different response to, “Could we perhaps think this through in more detail?”

Take the issue of action to combat climate change, where the British public is, at least on the face of it, supportive. An Ipos MORI poll last month found that nearly three-quarters said they favoured increased investment in renewable energy in the UK.

But support for theoretical nice things — who is against harnessing Scottish wind or Cornish sunshine? — dissipates when hard choices are demanded.

Notably, 61 per cent of respondents said they were unwilling to take fewer flights, while 48 per cent — a plurality — were unprepared to eat less meat, both major sources of carbon emissions.

The inevitable brouhaha surrounding the so-called nappy tax is a case in point. First, as a former Treasury official, it pains me to see any potential revenue streams ruled out (and do not get me started on the fuel duty freeze.) But more broadly, this is an example of a clear negative externality — the environmental cost of disposable diapers — that is ripe for taxation.

Admittedly, we are not going to avert catastrophic climate change by placing levies on soiled nappies. And there is a debate around whether reusable diapers are that much more environmentally friendly, given the energy required to wash and dry them.

But this unwillingness to make difficult choices is the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. In a transition of any nature — let alone one as all-encompassing as the path to net-zero — things will change, taxes levied, nappies crapped in. And if you think the nappy tax would have been one of the more significant changes to our lives as a result of climate mitigation, the year is 2075 and I have some only partially submerged Miami beachfront condos to sell you.

Yet the truly unnerving part is not simply what the public is or is not prepared to give up, but its vast obliviousness to the scale of the adjustment ahead. Results from a recent focus group carried out by More in Common found that, when participants were asked how they believed Britain should pay for the cost of combating climate change, the instant response was by cutting MPs’ pay. This is discouraging for a number of reasons.

The Committee on Climate Change’s Sixth Carbon Budget predicts that the required investment programme to reach net-zero will come to roughly £50 billion a year from 2030 to 2050. The current figure is approximately £10 billion.

In order to fund this by cutting MP’s pay to zero, each would have to currently earn roughly £77 million a year. The basic annual salary of an MP is £81,932.

But more than this, changing the way our economy and society operates will require high levels of social and political trust, the absence of which can be fatal — see Covid-19 and vaccine hesitancy. The Conservatives and Labour have belatedly built a cross-party consensus on climate change. But the policies to avert it need buy-in from everyone.

“We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it,” commented then Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker in 2007. Climate change faces this collective action problem.

A core principle of Extinction Rebellion, which has again blockaded parts of the capital, is not a specific decarbonisation target, though they have those. It is that governments should tell the truth about the climate emergency we face.

It is not a popular organisation - according to YouGov’s ranking of the most popular charities and organisations in Britain, it comes in near the bottom, with 19 per cent support, only slightly ahead of the far-right English Defence League. Yet it is surely right. Those truths, associated costs (although of course the cost of inaction is far greater) and lifestyle changes have not been nearly well enough communicated. Engagement is key, citizens assemblies have been shown to be effective.

Like the invention of total war in 1914, the road to net zero will require not only government action and private investment but the mobilisation of our entire economy, underpinned by widespread public support.

Because, buyer beware: from where we holiday to the boilers that heat our homes, our response to climate change is about to get seriously personal.

What lifestyle changes would you be prepared to make to combat the climate crisis? Let us know in the comments below.

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