The key to winning the climate debate is not the economy: it’s health | Philip Inman
Arnold Schwarzenegger has the answer to address the climate emergency. Don’t amplify the economic damage, he says, just say we need to “end pollution.”
It might seem odd to pick the former bodybuilder and actor turned Republican politician as someone who has an answer to the most important issue of the 21st century. But Schwarzenegger’s focus on pollution as California’s governor, and that of his successor, Democrat Jerry Brown, means that since 2008, by broad agreement, the golden state has enjoyed the longest economic expansion in its history, while also cutting emissions.
The contrast with other parts of the world — including much of the United States, where climate change is discussed in the darkest terms, and usually as a huge cost to businesses and families — is stark.
When it comes to discussing climate change, the main argument is not “the economy, stupid”, or the decline of biodiversity. The answer is to focus on pollution and its impact on everyone’s health.
To illustrate the point, Ipsos MORI found in a public opinion poll, timed to coincide with Earth Day last Friday, that concerns about climate change were outweighed at number eight by “not having enough money,” fears of terrorism and the threat of crime. Top of the list, in a survey of 31 countries and 23,577 adults aged 16 to 74, was the topic “Your health and the health of your family.” This suggests that if climate action can be linked to well-being, the campaign to reduce emissions will fall to the winner.
This does not mean that economics cannot play a role in convincing families that the way we make and sell goods and services must change. One important reform will be the way the state and economists report on the “success” of economic policies, especially economic growth.
The Treasury, the Bank of England and the Office of Budget Responsibility measure economic success based on growth in the Office for National Statistics’ measure of national income – gross domestic product.
There has always been a problem with the aggregate measure of national income because it fails to distinguish between useless and, in many cases, destructive activity, and the manufacture and sale of things that are of benefit to society.
Critics argue that GDP fails to explain the environmental degradation caused by economic activity. This month, MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee said greenhouse gas emissions should be published alongside quarterly economic growth numbers to help gauge the UK’s progress towards net zero targets. In letters to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the UK’s national statistician, Sir Ian Diamond, the commission warned that the narrow range of GDP means it “fails to recognize other indicators such as environmental statistics and social capital”.
This request indicates progress in previous efforts to create a scoreboard for measures that include biodiversity loss and landscape degradation. These dashboards can create a storm of seemingly contradictory numbers, encouraging the Bank, Treasury and OBR to remain focused on GDP, not least because it remains the most common shorthand for economic success — if not economic health.
More radical is the proposal by Cambridge economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, who recently reviewed the issue of climate change and policy-making at the Treasury. He said in a report last year that GDP encouraged the pursuit of “unsustainable economic growth and development” by not taking into account the impact on natural assets.
Dasgupta has been in talks with the National Statistics Office since the publication of his report to change the way GDP is calculated. Instead of a dashboard, he wants a single “net” metric that takes into account emissions generated to generate growth. Emissions are relatively easy to calculate and there is a huge amount of literature showing how to do this. Net domestic product, or NDP, will become the primary measure of economic success, because only when “asset depreciation” is taken into account can we judge whether we have made progress.
On May 12, when the Office for National Statistics publishes its latest GDP figures, it will reveal plans for “projects that fuel the creation of a measure of comprehensive income.” But when the planet decreases and pollution increases, the schedule is likely to be very slow. It may be years before there is any tangible reform.
An ONS – like a bank, OBR and Treasury – is a natural follower, not a leader. As if they were trapped in a ring of yes ministerThey ask each other to go first. Perhaps they would be under more pressure to dump GDP in favor of the NDP if more people accepted Schwarzenegger’s message that emissions cause pollution — and pollution is bad for their health.