This House puts combating climate change before economic growth

In an impassioned debate at the Oxford Union against some of the world’s leading climate sceptics, STWR’s director Rajesh Makwana argued that economic growth is in fact the root cause of climate change and should therefore not be prioritised above efforts to combat global warming. 

The formal and prestigious debate took place on Thursday 20th May, with Makwana standing in opposition to the motion ‘This House would put economic growth before combating climate change’. 

Also standing in opposition were Lord Whitty - former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at DEFRA; Mike Mason – founder and managing director of Climate Care; and Zara McGlone – secretary and former women’s officer at Trinity College, Oxford.

Proposing the motion were four leading climate change sceptics: Lord Lawson of Blaby – former Chancellor of the Exchequer in the government of Margaret Thatcher; James Delingpole – conservative journalist, writer and broadcaster; Lord Leach of Fairford – chairman of the eurosceptic think-tank Open Europe; and Viscount Monkton – journalist, consultant and former special advisor to Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit in the 1980s.

Below is the speech delivered to The House by Rajesh Makwana.  

Madam President, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am not going to argue the climate science; instead I will start with the assumption that climate change is indeed man-made. And that being the case, if we wish to mitigate its worst offences, we must first agree on two simple facts: that the endless pursuit of economic growth is in fact the root cause of climate change, and until we base our economics on a more ecologically sustainable and socially just principle we will never solve the climate crisis.

For those who deny that climate change is a consequence of our impact on the planet, despite what common sense and science tells us, I say this: the pursuit of economic growth is responsible not only for increasing levels of environmental pollution, but for the unsustainable over-use of the world’s natural resources. The pursuit of growth at all costs has created a competitive and commercialised world where accumulation is valued over sufficiency, where the self-interested needs of the few are placed before the needs of the planet, and where there are more people living in poverty and higher levels of inequality than ever before.

In light of these facts, it must surely be unreasonable and illogical to place economic growth above most other policy concerns, let alone climate change.

Most of us will be very familiar with the evidence for climate change, and with the ongoing cycles of conferences that attempt to agree limits to emissions. But if we measure the success of these conferences by the growth in emissions over the past decade, or by predictions of future growth in emissions, it is clear that our governments have failed to recognise the necessary solutions to global warming.

Far from slowing down, global emissions have increased by 40 percent since 2000, and continue to accelerate at 3 percent a year. According to reports based on existing pledges to limit emissions, we are currently on track for a rise in global temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius – twice the limit leaders aspired to at Copenhagen.

Why do we seem so unable to mitigate climate change? The simple reason is because we are addicted to economic growth, and governments are not willing to contemplate a comprehensive alternative whilst they are too busy competing with each other for economic advantage.

Economic growth is the elephant in the room, and climate change is in fact a symptom of a much broader crisis that faces humanity. It is a crisis acknowledged not only by scientists and economists, but by many millions around the world who call for climate justice and understand that, beyond setting more insufficient targets, we need to radically change our relationship with the planet and with each other. And I am with these people when they declare that economic growth should certainly not be placed before climate change. The logic is quite straightforward: endless growth is unsustainable, unjust and unnecessary.

It is unsustainable because in a market economy the production of goods requires the throughput of natural resources, such as forests and fossil fuels. But the costs of using the resources of the natural world are not accounted for in the ‘old’ economics; they are considered to be in infinite supply, and their overuse is therefore profitable.

As men and women of common sense have long been arguing, there are limits to growth and these limits are determined by the planetary ecosystem that the economy exists within. If we examine the ecological footprint of the planet, we find that humanity is usurping nature’s resources and generating destructive externalities 40 percent faster than nature can replace those resources or reabsorb the waste.

It has also been calculated that if everyone consumed at the same level as most of us in this room consider normal, we would need three and a half planets the size of earth to sustain our economic activity. As far as I know, economists have yet to locate these additional two and half planets.

Intoxicated by their addiction to economic growth, policymakers seem blind to these realities. In fact, not only do they continue prioritising economic growth, they hail it as our saviour. They argue that it is possible to continue growing if we simply use fewer resources to produce our goods. Yet any gains in energy or carbon efficiencies are utterly dwarfed by the sheer scale of the increase in global demand for resources and a rapidly growing world population.

Let’s be clear: this rapacious consumption of the world’s resources and the resulting change in our climate are consequences of pursuing economic growth. Whilst trying to mitigate climate change, governments - in an effort to facilitate growth - continue to promote overproduction and excessive consumerism.

Endless growth is also unjust. Some would argue that growth is important in the case of certain developing countries, where it can lift people out of poverty and secure basic human needs. But even here, ample evidence reveals that the trickle down of wealth from economic growth is grossly inefficient. As the New Economics Foundation showed in their report ‘Growth Isn’t Working’, the returns from growth barely reach those who need it most, accruing instead to a privileged minority.

It is largely this inability to redistribute the benefits of economic growth fairly that has increased inequality, both within and between countries, to levels higher than ever before. And this in turn means that those in the developing world, who are already feeling the effects of climate change, have fewer resources available to adapt to it.

Climate change. Resource depletion. Poverty. Inequality. The list goes on to include resource wars, peak energy and much more. Analyse the doctrine of economic growth in any detail and it becomes clear that its faults are leading to our utter demise. We must then ask ourselves: on what grounds can we even dare to put economic growth before climate change?

Madam President, whilst denying humanity’s disastrous impact on the environment may be a folly of the highest order, promoting economic growth as a panacea for climate change is like trying to tame a fire by adding more fuel. We need a new economic paradigm that is not based on international competition, private profit or national self-interest, but is instead built on the foundations of sustainability, justice, cooperation and sharing.

Economic sharing enables us to limit the use of the earth’s resources and fairly distribute the right to pollute; it can enable nations to cooperate and continue to develop within planetary limits. Sharing enables us to value equality, and to root economic activity locally under the control of communities and not multinational corporations. The principle of sharing underpins all of these solutions to climate change, and to many other challenges that humanity currently faces.

But in a world where the pillars of our economic and political institutions are built on an irrational desire to compete and to accrue material wealth, such a necessary transformation of our economic framework may seem almost impossible.

And yet, realising that we have no choice in the matter, people everywhere are waking up to the fact that the vices of growth and accumulation for the few are no grounds for a sustainable and fair world. They are rallying in their millions in response to the dangers of climate change; they are demonstrating against unnecessary wars over scarce resources; and they are protesting against unjust austerity measures and our failure to end world poverty.

What the majority world is calling for is the overhaul of a defunct operating system at the heart of the global economy, for a fairer distribution of the world’s resources, and for governments to put people and the planet before the accumulation of profit and economic growth.

Madam President, against this seismic shift in public opinion, the denial of anthropogenic climate change is merely a minor distraction. For the real solutions to climate change apply equally to the problems of global poverty and inequality, and the demand for change will inevitably continue to rise until it is finally delivered.

The responsibility for meeting this challenge rests with those of us in this room who understand both the problems and the necessary holistic solutions; it is up to the people of goodwill who know in their hearts that they are here to play their part in a great transformation that awaits planet earth. One thing is certain: this transformation will not depend on economic growth.