A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Malcolm Fairbrother on the climate emergency

Interview with Malcolm Fairbrother, sociologist based at Umeå University (Sweden). He is also affiliated with the Institute for Futures Studies (Stockholm), and the University of Graz (Austria). His research focuses in particular on the politics of environmental policymaking. He is working on the decoupling of greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth and on the moral duties we owe to future generations with respect to climate policy.


Does a solution to climate change depend largely on public opinion – mostly that of the middle and upper classes – in rich, polluting countries?

I agree, but I think this factor can be exaggerated in many ways. Firstly, lower income people in rich countries still have quite a significant impact. Think of a coal miner, for example. Secondly, do not discount the importance of corporations. A person with a higher income has strong political influence, but just one vote. Big industry has a lot more political power than individual people.


What are the most and least accepted climate policies?

The most popular ones are those that require companies to meet efficiency standards. People like the idea of buying cars that require less money to run and help to save the world by polluting less. Efficiency for buildings is another one. These are relatively popular measures and make a big difference environmentally. At the other end of the scale, there is nuclear power, which is very unpopular: even those who believe in nuclear power are not very vocal in their support for it. There is also a lot of opposition to bans on petrol or diesel cars. People like the idea of more efficient cars, but not the idea of making it illegal to buy new petrol ones. Taxes tend to be unpopular, but it makes a difference if you link a tax to something that the tax will achieve, and that people like, such as cutting other taxes to compensate. Ways of protecting the environment that pose costs to consumers, like taxes, attract frustrations. Other policies are much more subtle in their costs. For example, making cars fuel efficient also makes them more expensive, but you do not see protests against it. Policymakers would be wise to look for ways to achieve environmental results without imposing obvious costs on consumers.


Why are people so averse to carbon taxes?

The biggest problem with carbon taxes is that they are taxes. Carbon taxes are relatively popular compared to other taxes, but taxes in general are still quite unpopular. From the consumer’s perspective, the cost of such policies seems quite high. The tax could work if it was made very clear that it only applies to wealthy people. However, it is hard to be clear on where the cut-off is. We see this from debates on wealth or property taxes.


So, what is the hidden variable that explains policy acceptance?

Political trust is the hidden variable that research suggests matters a great deal. Imagine you are concerned about climate change and your government comes to you and says, ‘We have an idea’. If you think that everybody in the government is a liar, corrupt, and incompetent, you will not have confidence in their idea, regardless of your concern. On the other hand, if you live in a country in which the services are good, if your government comes to you with a new policy you will have more confidence in it. Evidence shows that there is hardly any correlation between support for higher fossil fuel taxes and belief in climate change. However, it has a very strong correlation with political trust.


So, does everything boil down to trust?

Aside from political trust, if you ask people ‘Do you think the policy will work?’ and then ask ‘Do you support the policy?’, the correlation between those two is strong, as well. The problem is, although people are worried about the climate, they are still unaware of the solutions that work really well. The media, think tanks and others should be trying to be very clear with the public on success stories. The public does not realise that carbon taxes do work, solar panels work well and are cheap, and that rules for vehicle and building efficiency are very successful.


Is the fairness of climate policies an important variable in terms of acceptance?

I would say perceptions of fairness matter a lot. The Canadian province I come from imposed a carbon tax and it was met with refusal in the rural area of the region. The people living there said, ‘We need to use our cars and drive a long way’. There were rigorous attempts to measure how much fuel people use in cars, and it transpired that the biggest energy users were not people in rural areas, but people in big houses on the outskirts of the city.


So what would you suggest to a well-intentioned politician?

There are sources of emissions that we have solutions to eliminate: coal is terrible, so they should set a phase-out date, and make it real. I would suggest talking to the utility companies to set targets to increase the proportion of clean energy used. When it comes to transportation, it is clear that electric vehicles are coming, so politicians should work towards creating the necessary infrastructure, like charging stations, for example. In addition, they should consider building efficiency standards, both in new buildings and in retrofitting existing ones. One important suggestion: think very sympathetically towards workers in polluting industries. If you are in an area with coal mines and drilling, it is sensible to say ‘We are going to help you when we close down your industry’ and not do what Macron did [triggering the Yellow Vests movement]. If all you do is raise fuel tax without making it clear what you will do with the money, it’s not surprising to encounter a backlash. Macron’s policy on fuel tax was not a bad one, but from a political point of view, it was poorly planned.


What do you make of the lifestyle change triggered by COVID-19?

I never thought it would make that much of a difference, but it is still presenting an opportunity. Everybody knows about Zoom now. People have thought more creatively about reducing how often they travel. The pandemic has changed the way they do their jobs. For example, in academia we are definitely going to travel less. In addition, COVID-19 has been such a massive social collective challenge that I think it has given people a sense that we are part of a global community: we can coordinate things, and sometimes scientists and government have some smart things to say.

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