Innate in human nature is a desire to protect and improve our situation in life, and a readiness to do this collectively. People with poor situations want, very reasonably, to improve themselves with better housing, food and conditions, yet people with already good situations still want, less reasonably, to get even better housing, food and conditions. There is no top level cut off. People with a yacht want a plane. People with a plane want a rocket. Everyone wants something more. It’s human nature. It’s the basis of human progress but it comes with unintended and unexpected consequences.
Collectivism versus individualism
But no man or woman is an island, and in many situations collectivism works better than individualism. Families, extended families, tribes, regions, nations, continents and the world as a whole, and the institutions established within these groupings, can all provide individuals with many or most of the needs which the individual alone cannot provide for him or herself.
The human story is a fascinating mix of individual and collectivist successes and failures, shaped by humans. Individual success has often come at the expense of others. Collective behaviour has brought enormous benefits in the spread of education, health, employment and security, but has also brought coercive and bullying behaviour by one group over another, and many wars.
One bad apple is jealousy. The desire to have more often comes from a desire to get ahead of others. And fear is a driver for the get-ahead motivation too. Both normal and natural, but often overdone and uncontrolled.
The dilemmas about individual and group behaviour find expression in political systems. On the far left is Communism (one for all, all for one), and on the far right, red in tooth and claw Capitalism. Neither work well. The best compromise is some form of social democracy, with elements of both a welfare and a capitalist system operating together, with political parties attempting to pull the system more towards one direction or the other.
Different parts of the system are more appropriate for different requirements. Public health for example is best provided for collectively. Supply of consumer durables is best provided for within a regulated capitalist part of the system.
The role of the United Nations
The greatest and most successful collectivist effort internationally has been the creation and work of the United Nations (UN), but its success is generally constrained by the inability of states to agree to share sovereignty and work together in the best interests of all, setting aside, to some extent at least, the individualist aspirations and interests of individual countries. Governments represent their own populations, and the individualist approach often, short-sightedly, dominates the collectivist approach.
The COVAX scheme, started by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the European Commission (EC) and the French Government, to acquire and distribute vaccines to the under-developed nations of the world, paid for by wealthier nations, was a great collectivist initiative. But the good collectivist intention has turned into individualist squabbling and implementation failure.
UN’s collective climate policy
The latest United Nations (UN) Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report published recently was advisory only. Its ‘Red Alert’ left no room for doubt that climate change is happening rapidly, its impacts are worsening exponentially, and human activities are the cause. This was all known from previous reports, but the extreme urgency for remedial action was now clearly evidenced scientifically and emphasised much more. Global warming is caused by the increased presence, arising historically and currently, of Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane and other gases in the atmosphere, from many sources, and with many other contributory factors. But the biggest single cause is the burning of fossil fuels for electricity generation, industry, transport, heating and various other uses.
The 2015 Paris Conference established a non-binding agreement by all participating countries that an upper limit increase of 1.5 degrees beyond pre-industrial levels should be aimed for. Many countries made commitments to set national targets which would strive to achieve this by 2050. The Conference also pledged an immediate $100 billion of aid from wealthy to poorer countries to assist with their transition to a low carbon economy, much of which has not been provided. This Conference was described as successful, and in terms of a collective international agreement it was probably as good as was possible in the circumstances, given that the UN has no powers of coercion to establish and enforce a binding international agreement.
At this present point in time, approximately 1.1 or 1.2 degrees of additional warming are reported to have occurred already, more than that in some regions, and the consequences of that in terms of devastating, widespread and unprecedented wildfires, flooding, storms, ice melting, landslides and drought have been extensively observed and reported in recent years. It has been estimated that climate change has so far caused the loss of 5 million lives, already more than the 4.5 million lives lost through the Covid19 Pandemic.
The IPCC Report makes clear that the next level of devastation which would arise, after a further 0.2 or 0.3 degrees of extra warming, taking the world up to 1.5 degrees overall, is likely to be exponentially greater. The carbon budget states that the total amount of CO2 that can be emitted before we exceed 1.5 degrees extra and reach uncontainable levels of destruction far above those of today is 500 billion tons. At today’s rate of emissions, we’ll pass that in 14 years, in 2035.
There is widespread recognition and understanding of the extreme importance and urgency of the problem, and the solution options available, but unfortunately there is not widespread recognition, acknowledgement or agreement on the solutions or the speed with which they are needed. Even more than the Coronavirus Pandemic, this is an absolutely classic case where only the strongest collectivist solution will work. It is together or bust.
Member states’ individual climate policy
But standing in the way of a collectivist approach are many individual states dragging their feet, pursuing partisan agendas, seeking a perceived advantage over other states, or seeking to restrict their own disadvantages from the extra costs they perceive as being incurred. This is not only very short-sighted for them, but potentially lethal for every human being on the planet. It is powerful and grubby international politics at play, with the future of humanity as we know it at stake.
Take India, as an example, which is the third highest emitting country because of its large coal industry, but where the Government is saying that it needs to put the employment and welfare of its population above its climate change obligations. Or China, the highest emitting country, which has offered to aim for net zero by 2060. These Governments are being reasonable on a very blinkered and short-term view of the best interests of their own populations or their own agendas, but unreasonable and foolish on a collectivist world-wide medium and longer term basis.
In the lead-up to COP26, the forthcoming Climate Conference in Glasgow in November, it is the urgent task of the UN and the host country, the UK, to address the various individualist arguments, emphasise the costs to humanity of not giving climate policies the absolute priority that is needed, persuade countries that it is absolutely vital that they join whole-heartedly in the collectivist approach, and devise a workable compromise plan.
Can the two approaches produce real progress?
Unfortunately there is no visible sign of progress on this front, at the magnitude and speed which is required.
- An agreed, revised, lower new target for a maximum of 1.3 degrees extra warming beyond pre-industrial levels by 2035, and zero beyond that date;
- A cast-iron commitment by all countries collectively and individually to contribute to achieve that, with regular monitoring and sanctions applied in the event of non-compliance;
- A road-map to show how this will be done on a country by country basis.
In reality, on past performance, at this international level, the above is extremely unlikely. Some countries will make some progress, which in overall terms will be far too little, and far too late, and climate impacts will continue to worsen.
The Precautionary Principle now needs to hold sway. This means preparing for the worst. A major policy of Climate Adaptation is now urgently required in the UK and world-wide.
Again there is no visible sign of this at present.
Greta Thunberg was asked (reported in The Canary, 1 September 2021) if she was optimistic for the future, she said:
I don’t know whether ‘optimistic’ is the right word, but it gives me at least hope to see we have a huge potential of achieving change. We know that change will not come from the COP, from within these negotiations. The change will come when there are enough people outside on the streets demanding change.
Charlie Kronick, Greenpeace UK’s senior climate adviser, said (in The Guardian, 1 September 2021): Boris Johnson’s commitment to climate action is “wafer thin”. He went on:
“It’s not just the half-hearted gimmicky bus tour (a reference to an electric bus which will tour Britain dispensing climate action advice) which will end in November before the hard work of decarbonising the British economy will really start. It is the transparent hucksterism, the blatant hypocrisy and the almost criminally limited ambition that stands out……The government was failing to deliver real climate action – and is actually undermining it by approving new oil exploration in the North Sea, withdrawing the green homes energy efficiency grant, having neither a plan – or even a clue – for clean building heat, and providing completely inadequate support for public transport or active travel”.
Humanity looks to be doomed. No-one will be safe. Corporate individualism will have triumphed over benevolent collectivism, and human nature will have contained the seeds of its own destruction. Unless, as Thunberg says, enough people, individually and collectively, demand and enforce change.
Ed: Look out for Paul’s follow-up article shortly.