Being angry with all the Philip Hammond’s

by Morgan Phillips (TGT Co-Director UK)

Yesterday Philip Hammond – UK chancellor of exchequer – reportedly cautioned against a 2050 target for net zero emissions on the grounds that it would damage the economy and leave the Government with less money for public spending on schools, hospitals and everything else. Cue outrage and the re-trotting out of the 2006 Stern Review. Doesn’t Hammond know that the economic damage of inaction will be significantly higher than the cost of action?!

I’d wager that he does recognise this, but he also knows that if the UK was to unilaterally ‘take action’ on climate change there would be no guarantee whatsoever that other countries would do the same. And if the majority of other countries (especially the bigger ones) don’t take action, the UK, in taking action, will bear the cost of taking action and the cost of climate chaos. The UK is not going to be spared rising sea levels just because it was one of the countries that took action. In short, we can’t stop climate change on our own; we are a small player in this.

So, even if we started a rapid ‘Project Drawdown’ and succeeded in reaching net zero by 2050 (or preferably much earlier), it would all be for nothing because the relative inaction of the major polluters would push temperatures above 2°C or 3°C anyway.

Now, some folk, in a nod to this first-mover problem, will pooh pooh this sort of defeatist thinking, by indulging in some classic British exceptionalism. They will say things like: ‘The UK is in an enormously powerful position to take leadership, with its strengths in research and development, in innovation, in finance in the City, with our skills in city planning – there is enormous potential here.’ (Lord Stern, quoted by Fiona Harvey). To which the simple response is: yes we can lead, but it doesn’t mean anyone is going to follow. We’re not as powerful, or influential as some like to think we are. Why, for example, would any of neighbours follow our lead? After all we’re the ones currently embarked on the catastrophically misguided project of leaving the European Union.

In fact, I can think of more than one national leader who will observe the UK making life hard for a heavy industry like steel manufacturing and rub their hands in glee as they invite said company to set up business in their country instead.  

This is not to say I agree with Philip Hammond, I categorically don’t, I too am angry with Philip Hammond. I think we should take action even if it comes at a cost (as we keep getting told, we are the fifth, or maybe ninth, richest economy in the world, either way we can afford it).

But, I’m not just angry with Philip Hammond. He is acting just like every other Finance Director of every country or company the world over. I am angry with all the Philip Hammond’s. Even though every Philip Hammond probably knows that Lord Stern is right - action now to prevent chaos later is the economically prudent thing to do - they also know that all the other Philip Hammond’s have an incentive to cheat (not take action) and free ride off the benefits of everyone else’s action. Philip Hammond doesn’t trust the other Philip Hammond’s; he thinks most of them will cheat so decides to cheat too. All the other Philip Hammond’s feel the same, hence almost total inaction on climate change.

What then is the case for the UK Government committing itself to a target of net zero by 2050 (or indeed 2030)? The thinking I fall back on time and again is the simple premise I once heard Dr Rowan Williams say about environmental behaviour change: the right thing to do, is the right thing to do. Whether or not we succeed, we should still try, because in trying and being willing to give up something of ourselves for the sake of others, we can show those who are suffering and those who are most vulnerable, that we care about them. Not acting, despite knowing we need to, looks callous and selfish.

Finally, we should also do everything we can to enable people to cope and adapt to climate change and its intensifying impacts. It doesn’t look like the free-rider problem is going to go away anytime soon. In recognition of that enabling adaptation, compensation for loss and damages and support for climate refugees may in fact turn out to be the most urgent form of action.