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The case for keeping it simple

November 28, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Public policy 

As the UN Climate Summit opens in Durban against a background of rock bottom expectations, is it worth rethinking the message about reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

A recent article in the Financial Times made grim reading for anyone hoping to see America show leadership in international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: Referring to tar sands, shale gas and fracking, Edward Luce explained how the combination of new discoveries and new technologies are opening up major fossil fuel sources. Together these sources could enable the US to move towards energy self-sufficiency. Quite apart from the impact of these energy sources on carbon emissions, what Luce calls America’s ‘new age of plenty’ could be disastrous for the already fragile political case for action on climate change.

In the face of rampant climate change scepticism, and instinctive hostility among Americans to the federal government signing international deals on their behalf, those making the case for US action on carbon reduction (including President Obama) have relied heavily on the security of supply argument. Americans may not be willing to accept their fair share of international obligations of emissions reduction but they are open to the argument that the US should reduce its dependence on unreliable or potentially hostile oil producing nations. Now, however, the exploitation of new forms of fossil fuel makes security of supply seem less important, leaving just an unpopular and under-developed case for action on climate change.

It is always attractive to pile up reinforcing arguments for a course of action. As a Government advisor I was used to being told – often on pretty tenuous grounds – that a scheme would not only bring social benefits but would in time save a huge amount of money by preventing some ill or other (a Treasury official once said to me ‘we have a special file we use for most arguments about long term social savings; it is round and in the corner of the room’). It is assumed by a case’s proponents that even if supplementary arguments are weak they can’t do any harm. Often this assumption is wrong.

Not only can a weak argument distract attention from the strong, if one part of the case is damaged it undermines the credibility of the rest, like a wonky leg on a table. If Luce is right about the new plenty, American environmentalists may start to claim that they never needed the arguments about peak oil or security of supply to make the case for reductions in energy use and investment in renewable sources, but the question will come back: ‘why then did you make those arguments in the first place?’

In the UK many green campaigners are keen to argue that promoting sustainability will have all sorts of beneficial side effects ranging from weaning us off the consumption treadmill to promoting social justice. This may well be true, but is it good tactics? I have often heard climate change sceptics on the right argue that the green movement exaggerates the threat of climate change in order to smuggle in an anti-capitalist, anti-market agenda which would never win public support in its own terms. The more environmentalists pile up the progressive causes which will be aided by action on climate change, the more credible this charge becomes.

Which is why I advocate a much more prosaic case. It is this: nearly everyone spends a significant proportion of their income on something which rarely gives them any direct benefit, to whit various forms of insurance. The chance of our house burning down or of us dying in an accident are remote but – although we may quibble about premiums and fine print – we accept the case that we need to cover ourselves for the worst.

It is not necessary to believe that man-made climate change is proven absolutely or runaway global warming inevitable to accept that the risk of climate change is greater than the risks against which we personally insure. Is it not, therefore, reasonable to argue that society as a whole should be willing to invest proportionately as much in cost (or opportunity cost) to reduce the climate change risk as we do personally to reduce much smaller personal risks?

This is not a case which lifts the soul, challenges the culture of consumer capitalism or even fosters twenty first century enlightenment. It may seem directly to contradict the thrust of the Common Cause Alliance (Friends of the Earth, WWF, Oxfam-GB, and CPRE) whose report explicitly warned that making the case for responsible collective action using the language of selfish individualism is ultimately counter-productive. My defence is that this is an argument which is currently being lost so we environmentalists need to be pragmatic and also that there is plenty of scope for value changing discourse around who pays for the insurance policy (both nationally and internationally).

But I suspect my view will prove controversial even within the RSA, let alone further afield.


Bleedin’ obvious? You tell me

February 10, 2010 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

 We hosted an event here yesterday organised by a Scandinavian charitable foundation which promotes dialogue about major social, economic and environmental issues.  Although flattered to be asked to attend, I was a bit sceptical.

There are so many places where various experts discuss these big issues. In the artificial environment of a seminar in a smart location and with the lubrication for good food and wine they soon develop great ideas to right the world’s wrongs. But rarely do these ideas survive their first encounter with life back in the real world. Maybe all the well-meaning conversation in the ends adds up to something, but I’m not so sure so I tend to turn down the many kind invitations I receive.

But as this event was here I didn’t really have an excuse. Partly, I suspect, because almost all the people attending really were experts in environmental economics, it turned out to be fascinating. In particular there was a presentation by a Swedish academic which, in essence, poured a very large bucket of iced water on many of the claims of green consumerism. Anyone reading this who knows this area will know all these arguments, but I had never heard them put together as powerfully.

First, she argued that the impact of economic growth and our consequent greater ability to consume easily outweighs any reductions in emissions resulting from greener forms of consumption. 

Second, she cited a study of twenty families who were given strong incentives to reduce their overall emissions by twenty percent (I can’t remember the reference, maybe someone else can help out). They families did change their living patterns and reported they were happy with the new arrangements. But then, as soon as the incentives were removed, they reverted almost entirely to their old ways. 

Third, in response to the idea that people can save money by consuming less – for example through home insulation – she explained the ‘rebound’ problem, which is that people go on to use their savings to buy new stuff with its own carbon footprint  

Fourth, she pointed out that the service or knowledge economy sectors, which people say allow us to consume more without using up finite resources, generally involve material goods, for example, the boxes or consoles for video games, or mobile phone sets.  

Her conclusion, as an environmentalist, is that the only way rich countries can get anywhere near their carbon reduction targets is to accept zero, or close to zero, growth.

As might be expected in a room of economists, some of whom were in business these views were very controversial. One respondent said that he could not think of a single human civilisation which had survived without economic growth. In particular, it was forcefully argued that technological innovation in the energy sector can break the link between growth and carbon emissions.

I took this from the exchange: the crucial challenge for the public in relation to climate change (if we accept it is real and man-made) is not so much to change our lifestyles (although we might choose to do that for our own ethical or symbolic reasons) but to give our leaders permission to make brave choices on our behalf. For it is only through regulation (preferably international) and through investing heavily in technological innovation that we can hope to reconcile growth and sustainability.

Not for the first time I fear I am guilty of Basil Fawlty’s judgement of Sybil ‘meet my wife, specialist subject the bleedin’ obvious’. But it was, anyway, a new line of thought for me.


Time for business to take a lead

December 22, 2009 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

My breakfast yesterday was at an event to mark the latest edition of the excellent Times science supplement Eureka. The event featured a fascinating but largely depressing panel discussion about the fallout of the Copenhagen Summit. It got me thinking about climate change through the prism of my old friend cultural theory. 

As regular readers will know, the theory suggest there are four fundamental ways of thinking about social change; the individualistic, the egalitarian, the hierarchical and the fatalistic.     

Fatalism is the default option for most people. Climate change is a huge, complex process that no individual or community can affect alone. Tackling climate change is in large part about shifting this sense of fatalism. 

Copenhagen was all about the hierarchical dimension of change: top down, strategy led, enforced through rules. But it largely failed. This reflected three problems; first, the difficulty of leaders committing to definite sacrifices in the short term for possible gains in the long term; second, the failings of international governance and, in particular, the idea that 192 countries could all reach a far reaching agreement; third, the difficulty of reconciling national political pressures to the demands of global decision making. Steve Howard from the Climate Group made the important point that even if the summit had agreed legally binding targets, it is very unlikely that President Obama could have got them through Congress (remember what happened when Al Gore signed up to Kyoto). 

This is why the commitment of each country to lay out its national commitments by the end of January 2010 may be a good thing. It may be easier to stitch together an international plan from national agreements than to make a global deal and then try to impose it on suspicious national populations and parliaments.     

On the egalitarian front – that is change driven bottom up by shared norms and values – the debate on climate change is in danger of shifting away from those who want action. I wrote recently that more and more people I meet from the political right talk about climate change in the same way they refer to the European Union, as a kind of conspiracy dreamt up by meddling lefties looking for a way to justify state interference in our lives. This mixture of right wing belief and populist anti establishment feeling can be very powerful. Over the top language from environmentalists calling for an abandonment of Western lifestyles doesn’t help. Climate change scepticism has been growing steadily in the USA, it has become the rallying call of the right of centre Australian opposition and it will no doubt be used by leaders and oppositions in other political systems. 

Individualists argue that the best way to tackle climate change it to look to markets, innovation and technology to find solutions. The story here is mixed. On the one hand we hear serious industrialists arguing that all cars could be electric within a few years; on the other hand, it is easy to be seduced into complacency by wacky schemes like piping sulphur into the atmosphere which are not only unproven but could prove on closer examination to be impossible or even counter productive. 

So, overall, things look pretty grim. Going back to the European Union analogy, I think business has a major role. Back in the mid-1990s business leaders argued strongly for the UK to join the euro but as the popular backlash grew (egged on by the media and note how the Express has now become outspokenly sceptical) they were less and less willing to put their head above the parapet. 

In terms of encouraging political leaders to get their act together, in relation to tackling right of centre suspicion and in relation to fostering technological innovation the global corporate sector is vital. 

But will it step up to the plate? When I asked this question on Monday, James Cameron (FRSA), Vice Chair of Climate Change Capital was very upbeat about business commitment while other speakers talked about the growing market for low carbon products and services. But Times Editor James Harding introduced a note of caution. If you ask the CEOs of the FTSE 100 if they care about climate change they will all say the right thing, he suggested, but if you ask finance directors in the same firms you might get a very different response. 

In the wake of Copenhagen there is a huge opportunity for international business (including investors) to take a lead in demanding and shaping global action.  And they have a window of opportunity ahead of next year’s Mexico summit. This may be a job for the Climate Group, but how about a New Year declaration from ten of the world’s most powerful corporate figures: Mittal, Buffet, Brin, Voser laying out their commitment and what world leaders need to do to create the right framework for future green investment? Sadly, I don’t have their blackberry numbers but if you do feel free to forward this post.


The Copenhagen leadership challenge

December 17, 2009 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

I am brewing a post – or maybe a series of posts – on ‘five mega trends in public services for the 2010s’. But often when I write about public services I get few if any responses so I need to find a way of making my great thoughts engaging.

While I am working on this, just a couple of brief comments on Copenhagen. First, do other people share my view that the worst outcome would be a weak statement written to save face but lacking the specificity or commitment to drive real change? Some say that even something like this would be worthwhile because it ‘maintains momentum’. But given how carbon emissions have kept rising since Kyoto, the danger is surely that the public think something has been done and the media focus moves on; meanwhile countries continue to fail to act. At least if the whole thing broke down there would be a public outcry and demand for new leadership.

Second, I wonder whether we might inspire our leaders to aim higher if we were more upbeat about what a real deal would mean. Every politician wants their place in history and if the 190-odd leaders all signed up to an ambitious, just and binding and global action they would all deserve that place. It would be a genuinely inspiring moment in human history. Just as there are monuments all round the world listing those who have died in war so – if a powerful treaty is agreed – there should be monuments listing those who made it happen.

Seeing hard challenges as opportunities for inspired leadership is very much an Obama schtick, so maybe the American President – who urgently needs some evidence that he can be effective on the global stage – will make all the difference. Ultimately, this is about the US President being willing to trade the risk that he is seen at home as having given up too much for the opportunity for the US to be seen as providing progressive global leadership. And this is why the concerted and successful attempt by the US populist right to rubbish the theory of man-made climate change is so dangerous. Obama needs to feel he can say to his people ‘this was a sacrifice worth making’ but he knows that he will face a loud constituency arguing that no sacrifices needed to be made at all.


Climate change – excuse my ignorance

December 2, 2009 by · 26 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

I have been getting so little response to my posts just recently that I thought I would write one that is bound to elicit a loud response (while I will also be pondering whether it is time to hang up my blogging boots).

The backlash against the stupid and unethical behaviour of climate scientists at East Anglia University, the shot across David Cameron’s green bows by former shadow cabinet member David Davis in The Telegraph this morning, and the Daily Express’ championing of highly controversial climate change sceptic Ian Plimer are all signs of a growing tide.

I had already begun to notice that among Conservative friends of mine the theory of anthropogenic climate change now ranks with the European Union as a subject that merely has to be mentioned to elicit a hostile reaction. Although the Tory front bench remains strongly committed to the need for a concerted action on climate change, at the level of party activists and political opinion formers a clear left right gap is emerging. At the recent Conservative conference the loudest applause on the fringe went to the sceptical views eloquently expressed by Lord Lawson.

The problem with knowing how to respond is that 99% of us have neither the time nor the expertise to make our decision based purely on the science. People with strong opinions throw around their favourite statistics claiming their views are scientifically based but this usually tells you much more about who these people are inclined to trust than what the facts say.

Maybe it would be better for the debate if more of us owned up to how much we rely on hunch, trust and selecting certain facts as the ones we intuitively feel are the most important. At the risk of sounding naive and feeble minded, let me try to be honest about what drives my views.
My starting point is two facts which I don’t think are disputed: first that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and second that human activity is leading to much more of it being pumped into the atmosphere, with much more to come if we don’t find alternative ways of generating and using energy.  Furthermore I find it hard to see why the overwhelming majority of scientists – from a whole variety of perspectives and disciplines – would sign up to the climate change thesis if there weren’t very good reasons to do so.

There seem to be two questions that cause the biggest quasi-scientific controversy. First, has there been major climate change in the past unrelated to human emissions and if so does this invalidate the IPCC thesis? Second, what is actually happening to the climate now and how can we predict what will happen in the future on the basis of assumptions about the link between human-caused emissions and temperatures.

On the first of these I think we should beware the argument that just because there was an unexplained correlation in the past, or even that a correlation doesn’t work perfectly, that it doesn’t exist. The fact that some people get lung cancer having never smoked doesn’t disprove the link. Equally, while a football team may have had an inexplicable bad run in the past doesn’t mean its present bad run can’t rightly be put at the door of its manager.

On the issues of climate trends and scenarios, I accept the precautionary principle (whilst not believing this is a principle that should be applied in all situations of risk). There are enough reasons to think rising emissions could drive accelerating warming to conclude it is not an experiment we should conduct if we can avoid it.

Finally, I believe that we can adjust to a low carbon economy without having to massively hamper other goals such as global economic development; not because we are all happy to become vegetarians and live in yurts but because a combination of changes in consumption, clever regulation and technological innovation can do the trick, and at the same time help us deal with the problem of the finite supply of carbon based energy.

As I read this back I know it lacks the certainty and authority with which so many non- scientists speak on this subject. I am discussing this issue on the Moral Maze tonight and I know I will probably – and not for the first time –  be the most wishy- washy voice. But given that the overwhelming majority of us who will be affected by the decision on climate policy maybe it is useful to explore basic arguments at a level accessible to a busy layperson.


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