Healing the Rift Between Political Reality and Ecological Reality

Art by Nick Roney

A Q & A with Shaun Chamberlin

If U.S. greenhouse emissions are to be driven down to zero within a decade or even two, it will not be accomplished through building more solar and wind energy capacity and relying on market competition to eliminate fossil fuels from the economy. A direct, foolproof mechanism is required to drive oil, gas, and coal out of the economy, by law and on schedule. We need an airtight national cap on fossil fuel extraction and importation that ratchets down year by year, stifling all use by whatever deadline is set. 

It will be necessary to allocate the rapidly dwindling supplies of oil, gas, and coal throughout the economy to ensure that sufficient quantities go to serve critical needs and none go to wasteful or superfluous production. And as energy supplies are tightened, price controls and fair-shares rationing of energy in all forms would become necessary.

The most fully fleshed-out system for accomplishing the kind of fair-shares energy rationing we propose is the TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas) system, a plan created by the British writer and visionary David Fleming and worked out in detail over the years by Fleming, the British author and activist Shaun Chamberlin, and others. At the urging of Fleming and Chamberlin, TEQs were introduced, studied, and debated in the U.K. Parliament a decade ago but were judged by the government to be ahead of their time. Now, with a global climate emergency widely acknowledged, systems like TEQs warrant further serious consideration.

Fleming died in 2010 with his now award-winning magnum opus Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It still in manuscript form.  Chamberlin edited it to posthumous publication in 2016, but recognized that its sheer scale and unconventional dictionary format could be daunting.  Accordingly, Chelsea Green Publishing simultaneously published a more conventional read-it-front-to-back paperback that he produced from Lean Logic, titled Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy.

The two books have since acquired a global following, and Chamberlin is working less these days on formal policy proposals like the TEQs system and, he says, “more on the wider cultural change necessary to create a demand for such practical solutions,” including arrest with Extinction Rebellion as well as helping develop courses at several educational institutions, a full ‘Surviving the Future’ program at Vermont’s Sterling College and a new film, The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?, which is about to be launched after having garnered over 5 million views for its viral taster videos.

Chamberlin and I had a recent email exchange in which he discussed TEQs versus carbon pricing and how to close the rift between ecological and political reality. – Stan Cox

Q: You have written that a “quantity-based approach” to emissions reduction, such as TEQs or rationing in general, fosters a sense of common purpose and problem-solving, whereas “price-based approaches” such as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade do not. Can you elaborate?

Chamberlin: Well, we probably need to start by acknowledging the fundamental problem that we face in addressing climate change: the rift in realism.

Realism about the findings of climate science demands dramatic and immediate emissions reductions (perhaps 10% a year, every year, in industrialized countries) as well as carbon drawdown, in order to avoid catastrophic destabilization of the global climate. Meanwhile, present political reality in these countries says that such reductions are wishful pipe dreams.

So while realists about climatology rightly argue that physical reality “bats last” and does not negotiate, realists within politics argue with equal validity that any approach that tries to radically transform society against society’s wishes will be resented and, soon enough, rejected. The failure to reconcile these two realities has blocked effective action for decades.

The essential question then becomes clear: what kinds of policy might help to bridge the rift?

The well-funded assumption is that increasing the price of carbon is the answer, and many well-intentioned environmentalists support this, but I fear that it is a trap. As Tom Burke has powerfully highlighted, “the call for a carbon price is a shield with which [the oil companies] defend themselves from calls for faster change”.

In a world where around 80% of global energy still comes from fossil fuels, oil company CEOs know that carbon pricing leaves politicians in an unhappy bind, caught between raising the carbonprice (and so raising consumers’ energy bills, pricing the poorest out of heating their homes) or letting it slide. We all know how likely politicians are to take the unpopular route, and the oil companies believe that this will get them off the hook and allow them to extend their profitable and suicidal business model a little longer. In short, seeking to decarbonize by raising carbon prices is a guarantee of failure, pitching the desire for a livable future into an impossible battle against the desire to heat and cool our homes.

Instead, we need policy that aligns individual and collective motivations, creating common purpose towards the shared goals of affordable energy and a better future. And happily, the late Dr. David Fleming developed just such an approach in the form of his TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas) system, widely studied in the UK. With TEQs, a hard national cap is set on emissions, and reduces year-on-year, thus guaranteeing that we do what is required to maintain a benign climate. The simple, shared task then becomes apparent: to keep energy prices as low as possible and live life as well as possible under that shrinking cap.

This is something that everyone can get behind, with individuals, communities and all sectors not only working to reduce their own energy use (or its carbon intensity), but also collaborating creatively with others in doing so. Not to mention bringing social pressure to bear on those who aren’t “pulling their weight” and are thus pushing up prices for all, since the TEQs system guarantees an equal entitlement for all to a share of the available energy, the entitlement inevitably implies a clear day-to-day ‘norm’ for carbon consumption in line with what the climate science tells us is necessary.

At present, decarbonization efforts are always swimming against the tide. For example, if people in a community decide to reduce their consumption of petrol, this only serves to reduce the price of petrol a little, thus encouraging greater consumption elsewhere. It is disheartening. TEQs turns the tide, because with the total carbon consumption capped, any local reductions in energy use would not only save money for those involved, but also play a clear, practical part in reducing prices for others, straightforwardly and visibly aiding the nation as a whole in thriving under the cap. Once TEQs is implemented this shared motivation becomes transparent, in complete contrast to the current situation where concerns about free riders—and the sense that your personal contribution cannot make a difference—dispirit all efforts.

Q: The idea of returning the revenue from a carbon tax to the people as an equal per capita rebate (euphemistically called “fee and dividend”) is being discussed a lot here in the States as being economically progressive. Lower-income households tend to create lower emissions and therefore would pay less in carbon taxes than affluent ones. The rebate would in effect redistribute money from richer to poorer households. How far would that go toward resolving the problem of the pricing approach making energy more expensive?

Chamberlin: As you imply, Fee and Dividend is an excellent improvement over the classic carbon tax, taking the revenue received and sharing it equally between the population, meaning that in practice those emitting less than the average will benefit financially from the system. This helps to defend the political sustainability of the tax, since low emitters tend to be the poorer members of society, who may be in no position to contribute financially to society’s decarbonization.

The other widely advocated use for the revenue generated by a carbon tax (as by proposals like Kyoto2) is to reserve it for use in supporting the energy transition. This too would help to defend the political sustainability of the tax, in this case by providing funds to smooth the necessary changes in society, perhaps through funding renewable energy schemes, subsidizing public transport or providing support, advice and grants for household or community energy demand reduction initiatives.

There are pros and cons to both of these options, but neither would resolve the fundamental shortcomings of carbon pricing described above. The contradictory double agenda that underpins the incoherence of today’s climate policy—the need for both higher carbon prices and lower energy prices—would remain, thus leaving the “rift in realism” unresolved.

TEQs, by contrast, simply caps carbon emissions, thus leaving the drive for lower energy prices as a straightforward aim for the whole of society, continually galvanizing the transition to a thriving low-carbon future.

Of course, TEQs still faces the same decision as a carbon tax in what to do with the revenue generated. Here it adopts a middle way between the two options described. For the general population the revenue is returned (thus providing a progressive result, much like Fee and Dividend) in the form of the free entitlement of TEQs units that all individuals receive unconditionally. Meanwhile, the revenue generated by the auction of TEQs units to companies and organizations is reserved for supporting the energy transition (thus providing for needed collective-scale investments, much like Kyoto2). Again, this is part of explicitly aligning the personal desires of people and organizations, such as lower energy prices, with communaland societal desires, like retaining a benign climate

Why does this matter?  Well, it comes back to that rift between scientific reality and political reality. While it is tempting to think of adoption of a carbon fee or cap as a solution in itself, the true political challenge is getting and keeping the fee high enough (or cap low enough) to avoid destabilizing our climate. Which in turn means the transformation of our society so that it can thrive within such a limit. Without such a fundamental transition to low-carbon living, society (and particularly the poorest) will hurt badly as any effective policy makes high-carbon energy less accessible. This is both inherently distressing and likely to lead to irresistible political pressure to loosen or abandon any such policy—”enough talk of future generations, my children are cold today!”

And TEQs is far better placed to support and facilitate the depth of decarbonization required – and thus defend its long-term political feasibility – than an increase in the price of carbon ever could. As the UK Environmental Audit Committee found, “A meaningful reduction in emissions will only be achieved, and maintained, with significant and urgent behavioral change … We remain to be convinced that price signals alone, especially when offset by the [additional income from the dividend], would encourage significant behavioral change comparable with that resulting from a carbon allowance.”

Why?  Because a carbon allowance most effectively protects the most vulnerable (for example by providing entitlements to energy up front, rather than dividends that come long after fuel purchases must be made); because it has been shown to be more popular with the public (due to its fairness and effectiveness); and, fundamentally, because it destroys at a stroke the impossible political tension between needing to keep energy prices low and carbon prices high.

In so doing, of course, it provides our best hope of a worthwhile future.

For a more detailed look at the similarities and differences between TEQs and Fee and Dividend, have a look at my article “Fee and Dividend or TEQs? In the Aftermath of Paris COP21, What Should Effective Climate Policy Look Like?”

Q: Could you tell us more about your current work on the cultural change that is going to be necessary, and how Extinction Rebellion fits in?

Chamberlin: After I discovered TEQs I devoted a decade to campaigning for its implementation, including acting as an advisor to the UK government’s feasibility study into the system. Ultimately, however, I watched the Treasury veto the proposal, essentially because effective action to reduce emissions would have been a threat to economic growth. This was a wake-up call for me, as it became clear that a wider shift in our culture’s priorities would be necessary before such policy for a livable future could make it through politics.

As such, I have since focused on writing books, teaching and producing our new film, all to some extent focused on this challenge of economic growth, which presents what appears at first glance to be an irresolvable dilemma—either cease growing (and so collapse the economy on which we currently depend) or continue to grow until we overwhelm and destroy the ecosystems on which we all depend. This is the fundamental problem that we are gradually coming to realize that we face —the ever more apparent need for a new operating system for our society.

To quote David Fleming, “It is certain that there are no simple answers to this—none that could be proposed without proposing at the same time a transformation in the whole of the way we think, work and order our lives.” — (Fleming, D. (2016). Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy (p. 129). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.)

In this context, I see Extinction Rebellion (XR) as the first mass movement that takes physical reality, as opposed to social/political reality, as its starting point. It’s the first that asks the right questions. I got involved in October 2018, after being impressed by their occupation of the offices of Greenpeace UK Their simple demand was that Greenpeace let their huge membership know about XR, and the opportunity to personally do something more significant than sign petitions or make donations. Greenpeace refused.

This got my attention, having resigned my own Greenpeace membership in 2010 with a letter of frustration at their apparent lack of urgency, and respect for the present, ominicidal, political reality. As such, I took part in the formal declaration of rebellion in Parliament Square last Halloween, and the following week I was one of the first 20 to 30 arrestees whose headlines helped launch the global rebellion. Then later in November we blocked the five bridges around the UK Parliament, and that day was one of the most nourishing I have seen, being with perhaps 10,000 people who really understood what is unfolding on our planet and are willing to put their bodies on the line in resistance.

Since then, of course, the movement has grown immensely, which inevitably brings a certain dilution of knowledge. As such, over the months since I have been giving a lot of talks to XR groups about the scale of the predicament we’re in, and the need to discuss and address issues like economic growth, consumerism and the extermination of biodiversity, rather than imagining, for example, that a simple transition from fossil fuels to renewables is all that is called for. I’ve been finding receptive audiences.

Stan Cox is on the editorial board of Green Social Thought, where this interview was first published. His book The Green New Deal and Beyond: The Road From Climate Emergency to Ecological Reality, with a foreword by Noam Chomsky, will be published next year by City Lights Books.

Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought.