Arnold Schwarzenegger has the answer to the climate emergency. Don’t brag about the economic damage, he says, just say we need to “stop pollution”.
It might seem odd to cast the former bodybuilder and actor-turned-Republican politician as someone who has the answer to the most important problem of the 21st century. But Schwarzenegger’s focus on pollution as governor of California, and that of his successor, Democrat Jerry Brown, means that since 2008, by common accord, the Golden State has enjoyed the longest economic expansion in history. its history, while reducing emissions.
The contrast with other parts of the world – including much of the United States, where climate change is discussed in the darkest terms, and generally as a huge cost to businesses and households – is stark.
When it comes to discussing climate change, the key argument is not “the economy, stupid”, or the decline of biodiversity. The answer is to focus on pollution and its impact on everyone’s health.
To illustrate the point, Ipsos Mori found in a public attitude poll, timed to coincide with Earth Day last Friday, that concerns about climate change were beaten to eighth place by “not having enough of money”, fears of terrorism and the threat of crime. At the top of the list, in a survey covering 31 countries and 23,577 adults aged 16 to 74, was the topic “your health and that of your family”. This suggests that if climate action can be linked to well-being, the campaign to reduce emissions is a winner.
That’s not to say the economy can’t play a role in convincing households that the way we make and sell goods and services needs to change. An important reform would concern the way in which the State and economists would report on the “success” of economic policies, and in particular of economic growth.
The Treasury, the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility all measure economic success by the Office for National Statistics’ growth in national income, known as gross domestic product (GDP).
There has always been a problem with a gross measure of national income because it fails to distinguish between wasteful, and in many cases destructive, activity and the making and selling of things that benefit society.
Critics argue that GDP does not take into account environmental degradation caused by economic activity. This month, Environmental Audit Committee MPs said greenhouse gas emissions should be published alongside quarterly economic growth figures to help measure the UK’s progress towards net zero targets . In letters to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and UK national statistician Sir Ian Diamond, the committee warned that the narrow scope of GDP means it “does not recognize other indicators such as environmental and social capital”.
This request marks a step forward from previous efforts to create a dashboard of measures that includes biodiversity loss and landscape degradation. Such dashboards can create a blizzard of seemingly contradictory numbers, encouraging the Bank, Treasury and OBR to continue to focus on GDP, if only because it remains the most popular shorthand for GDP. economic success – if not economic health.
More radical is the proposal from Cambridge economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, who recently looked at the issue of climate change and policy-making for the Treasury. He said in a report last year that GDP encouraged further “unsustainable economic growth and development” by ignoring the impact on natural assets.
Dasgupta has been in talks with the ONS since the publication of his report to change the way GDP is calculated. Instead of a dashboard, he wants a single “net” measure that takes into account the emissions created to generate growth. Emissions are relatively easy to calculate and there is a large amount of literature showing how to do it. Net Domestic Product, or NDP, would then become the basic measure of economic success, because only when “asset depreciation” is taken into account can we judge whether we have made progress.
On May 12, when the ONS releases the latest GDP figures, it will unveil plans “for projects feeding into the creation of an inclusive income measure”. But when the planet is fried and pollution is on the rise, the timeline may be far too slow. Years could pass before there is any tangible reform.
The ONS – like the Bank, OBR and Treasury – is a natural follower, not a leader. Like trapped in an episode of Yes Minister, each asks the other to go first. Perhaps they would come under more pressure to sacrifice GDP for the NDP if more people accepted Schwarzenegger’s message that emissions create pollution — and pollution is bad for their health.