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Willis in Too Hot to Handle? rightly says that more democracy is needed to deal with climate change, but this needs to go beyond neoliberal limits, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Rebecca Willis, Too Hot to Handle? The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change (Bristol University Press 2020), vii, 154pp.

In the climate crisis, there is a problem with parliamentary democracy. This problem is not of course exclusive to the climate crisis, but is highlighted on this issue where there is so much apparent agreement yet so little action. In the UK, unlike in, say, Brazil or the USA, there is no major party which does not at least give lip service to the reality of climate change caused by human activity. Even the Tories apparently agree that action on the climate crisis is necessary. This theoretical commitment to dealing with climate change is however not reflected in politicians’ behaviour.

Willis’s research on politicians’ attitudes to the climate crisis discovered a distinct disinclination to act on their knowledge of the reality of climate change by bringing it into policy discussions. Mentioning climate change as something of which policy proposals should take account would apparently have you branded as an extremist. In Parliament, of course, if any politician is perceived to depart from the neoliberal consensus, that is a signal that they are not to be taken seriously. On climate change, this extends to cover anyone wanting to consider even neoliberal proposals for addressing carbon emissions. If an MP brings up the climate crisis, regardless of their political leanings, they would be condemning themselves, in one MP’s understated but damning phrase, as ‘a bit niche’ (p.55).

This reality shows how, despite what politicians might say when youth climate strikers are in the headlines, the climate crisis is not genuinely seen as a serious issue. As Willis reports being told by an environmentalist who works with politicians:

‘If … you walk into Cabinet and you start saying “right guys, what are we going to do about climate change?”, you'll just get laughed out of the room. They want to be talking about the economy, and building stuff, and bombing people’ (p.57).

The reason why the climate crisis is being outcompeted by bombing people for politicians’ attention is, Willis argues, because politicians believe that we don’t care about it. Politicians interviewed by Willis consistently reported that the environment came well below ‘health, economy, education, crime, stuff like that’ in voters’ lists of priority issues. As one MP reported: ‘“I’ve knocked on hundreds, literally thousands of doors, and had tens of thousands of conversations with voters…and I just don’t have conversations about climate change”’ (p.8).

No votes in the environment?

It is this perception that there are no votes in the environment that leads some environmentalists to believe that there is no democratic route to climate action. As Willis notes, while most would not go as far as James Lovelock’s suggestion that the climate crisis means that ‘it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while’ (p.1), calls for the issue to be removed from democratic oversight and handed over to ‘experts’ are rather more mainstream.

In the face of these views, Willis rightly argues that the answer is more democracy, not less. The issue though is what that means in practice. For Willis, the central problem is a disconnect between MPs and the people they represent. Politicians, she notes, routinely think that their constituents are more right-wing than they are, and therefore tailor their priorities accordingly. There is also a tendency for politicians to favour issues where there is a clear, local connection and an obvious outcome. As one politician reported to Willis: ‘And you can’t say “I’ve campaigned to stop climate change. And now climate change is fixed, and I’ve delivered for you.”’ (p.85).

It is not precisely news that the climate crisis can often seem too large and intractable an issue to get a handle on, in comparison to, say, a local hospital closure. It is also the case that while MPs may tend to favour the local and immediate over the national, or international, and difficult, it isn’t always impossible to make links between these different levels of political issues. As Tony Benn recounted, a constituent of his in Bristol did this brilliantly in a letter to him following the USSR’s successful Moon landing, writing: ‘Dear Tony, I see that the Russians have put a space vehicle on the moon. Is there any possibility of a better bus service in Bristol?’ (To date, the answer has been ‘no’.)

Willis argues that the answer here is more democratic engagement at local level, citing the example of a citizens’ assembly in the north west as an exercise in citizen participation which could convince politicians that there are, in fact, votes in climate action. She makes a good case for the benefits of this exercise for those involved, but it is difficult to see how such democratic engagement could solve the wider problem unless it was able to take on neoliberal political assumptions.

Willis presents the belief that voters are irredeemably right-wing, and that therefore any left-wing policies will be doomed to failure, as if it is a reasonable, if mistaken, assessment of popular opinion. MPs are simply reflecting what they think their constituents’ views are, even if they are getting it wrong. This view of politicians and governments as enacting the will of the people ignores the enormous, concerted effort from government, the media, social institutions and so on to shape public opinion in directions that suit the elites.

Structures and power

The assumption that politics works from the bottom up is only tenable if you disregard the entire edifice by which the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas in society. MPs’ belief in the right-wing views of their constituents is never a simple assessment of the political temperature in their constituencies. In relation to the climate crisis, it is not a mistaken belief that stands in the way of action so much as an expression of the structural problem which makes achieving that action so difficult.

While Willis is clear that politicians have been slow to appreciate the extent of genuine, popular concern about the climate crisis, she also does imply at points that there is indeed a problem with people and their willingness to address climate change. She quotes, for example, a participant in the Irish citizens’ assembly about how people need to be educated to make changes in their lifestyles:

‘We need to educate people to make them aware of how and why. The government needs to make it possible. Introduce incentives to help people make these changes. I firmly believe that, if educated, the majority of the people would make these changes.’ (p.91).

In the context of a discussion about democratic difficulties, this can feel rather like an argument to dissolve the people and elect another, when it should be clear that the issue is not with people but with politics.

The question of whether ordinary people are the problem or part of the solution is of course central to a discussion of democracy and the climate crisis. It also shapes our understanding of what system changes means in this context. Willis is clear that individual choices, such as whether we travel by car or by public transport, are determined by the system in which those choices are made and therefore the infrastructure available. She points out that when her father grew up in a Yorkshire village in the 1940s, his family didn’t own a car and didn’t need to, as work, shops and schools were all local and there were buses to the nearest town. Now, however, anyone living in the same village without access to a car would struggle. Her last chapter on what we can all do about the climate crisis deliberately avoids listing lifestyle changes, because, as she says, ‘we are part of a high-carbon system: consumption should not be seen as an individualized pursuit’ (p.120).

Willis is undoubtedly correct here, but this conclusion does not square easily with her call for the introduction of personal carbon budgets as a symbolic policy to encapsulate an entire political approach. The idea of the personal carbon budget is that it gives each person a certain amount of carbon emissions for which they can be responsible. These are used each time they travel by car, book a flight, pay for gas or electricity, and so on. If they use up their allowance, they have to pay for more. Quite apart from the eye-watering civil liberties implications of the tracking of everyone’s lives that implementation would entail, carbon budgets are the definition of treating consumption as an individualised pursuit.

Class against the market

The argument for carbon budgets as a way of reducing carbon emissions is that they will impel people to make changes to their individual lifestyles and therefore stimulate the market to provide ways for them to do so. They look like a solution to the climate crisis only if you think, first, that the market is the organising principle of society and second, that supply follows demand.

This is a tenet of the neoliberal understanding of society as composed of consumers acting rationally for their individual interests in a market which will respond to their demands. In this view, it might make sense to think that the issue is how to stimulate demand for more environmentally-friendly ways of living, although even here there is still the thorny problem of how to make supplying them sufficiently profitable for the market to be able to deliver. If you understand, however, that supply leads demand and that we cannot rely on the market to provide the sustainable society we want, carbon budgets are no sort of answer.

For the author of a book calling for more democracy in the face of the climate crisis, Willis is remarkably dismissive of trades unions. She refers to these mass, democratic organisations of working people only twice, both times as defenders of jobs in fossil-fuel industries. Government, she says, will have to change how it listens to interest groups, including trades unions. It is difficult to interpret what she writes as meaning anything other than listening even less.

This is not to say that there aren’t issues to be worked out with and in unions representing workers in polluting industries like oil, aviation and so on. Willis’s treatment of trades unions does mean however that there is no place in the argument for just transition. This is a notable omission, since how we move people away from polluting industries and into suitable replacements should surely have some consideration here. If nothing else, taking just transition seriously is a way of engaging people with the issue and making the connection between the climate crisis and the doorstep issues that politicians insist are the only things we care about.

Willis is right that the climate crisis demands more democracy, not less. Thus, it is all the more surprising that her proposed headline policy of personal carbon budgets is something with such anti-democratic surveillance possibilities. Her interviews with politicians quoted here underline, perhaps unintentionally, that more democracy cannot mean just more of the same. What we need to be fighting for is the sort of radical democracy seen when workers at Lucas Aerospace came up with the Lucas Plan to turn their weapons factory to socially-useful production, or indeed when demonstrators in Bristol threw the hated statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston, into the harbour. Willis argues, not unreasonably, that in coming up with solutions to the climate crisis, we have to start from where we are, but this cannot be an excuse for not going far enough. The conclusions here are too stuck in the current system to present much of a challenge to the status quo. In fighting for radical democracy, we need to be too hot for our rulers to handle. This is just lukewarm.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now. 


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