Confronting the power of the polluter elite

Dario Kenner is the author of Carbon Inequality: The role of the richest in climate change. He outlines how a green and fair economy needs to confront the power of vested interests.

Transitions are unpredictable. They can receive a boost like when the UK passed the Climate Change Act in 2008, but there can be devastating setbacks too. Since 2008 there’s a long list of them, the worst of which was the creation of the Oil & Gas Authority, which is mandated to maximise extraction of Britain’s remaining fossil fuel reserves. See also the approval of a third runway at Heathrow, or the undermining of renewable energy.

The lesson here is that even with legislation like the Climate Change Act there are no guarantees the transition will advance. This also applies to recent legislation on net zero emissions by 2050. At this crucial moment when there is still a shrinking window to address the ecological crisis, we desperately need guarantees.

We do not have time for progress which is then reversed by the political power of vested interests. This is why I argue that policies to push forward the transition must simultaneously economically weaken the polluting companies by, for example, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and coordinating a phase out of fossil fuel extraction and imports.

If this doesn’t happen then these companies, and the people who run them (I call this group the polluter elite and identify them in a database) will come back again and again to defend their profits which are based on activities that produce pollution. We do not have time to wait for these companies to voluntarily end their hugely profitable fossil fuel extraction.

Inequality and the ecological crisis are intertwined. As the polluter elite and the companies they run pay lower and lower income, wealth and corporation taxes, they increase the economic resources at their disposal to pressure government – via lobbyists and donations to political parties – to maintain business as usual. There has been too much emphasis placed on individuals making the ‘green’ consumption choice when it is these companies who are shaping the consumption options of the general population to keep them restricted as much as possible to the high-carbon options on which their wealth depends.

This political power combines with government dependency on energy to drive economic growth, which has the basis of its legitimacy with voters (the concept of structural power). It is a potent combination which results in a lack of political will to halt the ecological crisis, and governments prioritising corporate profits ahead of citizens’ health. Consistent government inaction on air pollution is evidence that the social contract is weakened.

We know that determined and scientifically informed government can make a difference. Politicians and administrators who can put the national interest ahead of ideology and the interests of the polluter elite can create change – and that needs public pressure.

There are now a range of existing and new social movements calling for the government to act. This is right in a democracy. Social movements have the authority and the legitimacy to accelerate the transition and can make choices to do this in a just way by, for example, supporting the poorest to shift to low-carbon consumption options. However, government policy does not happen in a vacuum. This is why the growing political power of the polluter elite needs to be explicitly highlighted and countered in public campaigning and policy proposals.

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