The Environment working group addresses global warming by focusing on the social justice issues inherent both in the phenomenon itself and in the decisions that are taken to fight it. Against this backdrop, the nature of the social question has changed: class struggle has become a struggle between lifestyles, an existential struggle between the definition of the best way of life and the norms that should characterise and impose it. Consequently, while an important question, at the level of specific regulations, is how to ensure that ecological solutions do not turn into social problems (as we saw at the very beginning of the yellow vest movement in France), it is also necessary, more broadly, to take the measure of all the social transformations that structurally co-occur with global warming. The challenge then lies in preventing these new struggles over normative power from giving rise to new inequalities, but also, taking a more constructive perspective, to consider whether the resolution of ecological and social problems could go hand in hand, in a thoroughly reinvented conceptual and policy framework.
The initial reflections of the working group have shown that the coordination of the ecological and social aspects takes place at three levels, which can constitute three focal areas:
– It recreates a differentiation between the global and the local, the economic and the political.
– It needs to be considered from the outset when formulating concrete environmental policies.
– It creates a fundamental dilemma in the public debate, undermining the message of transition.
I. Coordinating the ecological and social aspects recreates a differentiation between the global and the local.
1. Climate change is a global issue: in theory, solving it should also be a global undertaking. However, there are no legal instruments to apply pressure on such a scale. International law was not designed to subject global society to a common best interest of this nature. The hope that a planetary governance would emerge to respond to the urgent problem of global warming is struggling to turn into a reality.
In this context, there is very strong pressure on large international companies (and their shareholders), precisely because they have a global reach, and because they have resources that States no longer have. In a way, today, large companies are the only entities at the global level. That is why we turn to them.
Investors, whose role is to assess risks on assets, have now integrated the climate as a major risk. This new-found awareness is truly global, not just European. 300 investors representing $30 trillion are starting to challenge the most polluting companies head-on about their practices. 31 central banks, the Bundesbank and the People’s Bank of China amongst others, and six sovereign funds, including four from the Middle East (whose money comes from oil reserves), have put climate on their agenda.
The fact remains that, despite the power they wield, despite the relevance of their global scope, economic and financial players often do not feel legitimate, nor equipped, to make arbitrations that traditionally fall within the scope of democratic voting and government action. This is particularly the case for the social issues that are inherent in the ecological transition and that make it considerably more complex.
2. While the ecological problem is global, the social question, i.e. the question of inequalities as it relates to this ecological problem, is both global and local. – Global, because the accelerated industrial catch-up of developing countries and their legitimate aspiration to equal the old industrial countries in terms of technological capacity and living standards cannot be disregarded. – Local, because the measures taken to combat global warming are perceived within nations as threats to employment, to the financial equilibrium of the middle classes and the most modest citizens, and even, more broadly, to lifestyles.
Coordinating the ecological question with the social question thus recreates a fragmentation of the problem, reintroducing several levels of responsibility: while the global understanding of the climate issue is basically quite simple and common to all, the recognition of social inequalities is far more diversified, far more complex, depending on the cultural context, but also because it is played out at two levels, within and between countries
3. The question therefore arises of a distribution of responsibilities and a differentiation of action levels. Global warming, by its very nature, involves the responsibility of economic and financial players whose reach and influence is also global. Should we, in a way, consider (this hypothesis was formulated by some members during the meeting) that the proper scale of action to fight global warming is at this level, at the level of major economic and financial players, and that dealing with the potentially resulting inequalities should be the responsibility of policymakers at the local level? Put this way, the hypothesis is assuredly too radical. But it leads to similar, more general questions: Should all the players involved be responsible for both the ecological and social aspects concomitantly? Or does the intertwining of the two aspects call for a division of problem solving?
II. Lessons must be learned from some failures to ensure that concrete action against global warming incorporates the social dimension of the problem.
1. We have several examples of climate actions that can aggravate social inequalities if they are not designed with this aspect in mind from the outset. A carbon tax is fundamentally anti-redistributive, because it weighs proportionally more on low-income households. Accompanying measures are therefore needed, for instance short-term, flat-rate financial redistribution, and this has not been done in France despite recommendations by economists. Policymakers must also take responsibility for this type of tax, and that seldom happens.
The problem is not limited to the carbon tax. The support system for renewable energy is largely anti-distributive. With the Contribution to the Public Electricity Service (CSPE), a worker living in a low-rent housing project finances a senior executive who has photovoltaic panels installed on his roof. The French ecological bonus-malus scheme was originally redistributive, as it impacted wealthy buyers of SUVs; that is no longer the case, as it now finances wealthy buyers of electric vehicles. Through a kind of “infernal mechanism”, the economic system works in such a way that what was initially redistributive becomes anti-distributive again after a few years.
One way of coordinating and reconciling ecology and economy would be to give carbon a value, a global price. On the one hand, this would make it possible to put in place redistributive measures at the local level. It would also lead to placing emphasis, on a global scale, on a problem currently shrouded in international negotiations, that of the inequality between countries that have fossil fuel resources and those that do not – an inequality that is not only North-South but that runs through Europe and the industrialised Western world.
2. But the social question cannot be reduced to redistribution. Ultimately, integrating it into the ecological transition can only mean also making this transition an opportunity for job creation in new sectors (carbon storage, renewable energies, innovation) and for the reshoring of a number of activities. These are high expectations, shared by all players (political, economic, social partners), but intermingled with uncertainties and concerns, a case in point being China’s rapid and powerful positioning in photovoltaics. What will it take to make these sectors competitive, i.e. develop new industrial capacities that create jobs? How can the “professional transition” be organised so that the ecological transition may comprise a broad social dimension?
3. We can take this even further. The energy transition – like any historical moment – can only be achieved with the mobilisation of a whole set of social forces determined to change their lifestyles. It cannot therefore be reduced to a set of regulatory measures.
The problem is not only one of action, but of lifestyles. A norm cannot suffice to guide the behaviour of an entire people. An existential change, a change in lifestyle cannot take place without a significant amount of conviction. Households must not only be helped to bear the cost of the energy bill, they must be helped to change: that means giving up the dream of a suburban house with a two-car garage and adopting circular economy behaviour. People need to be convinced that changing their way of life does not necessarily mean losing out in some kind of new class struggle. A narrative must be constructed in which transition is set on a course, a terminus ad quem. We need to work on the goal: what is a zero carbon budget? What does carbon neutrality mean?
III. Coordinating the social and ecological aspects can also lead to rethinking the conceptual framework of public debate as it relates to the notion of responsibility.
1. How can one hold a responsible debate that is not tied up in its own dilemmas? In the current state of public debate – in particular via the social media – every initiative, every measure envisaged is likely to be accused either of miscalculated or unsuspected negative consequences or of nefarious, insincere intentions (e.g. greenwashing), which can lead to paralysis or to a justification of the status quo. The feeling of wandering in a labyrinth, where each possible approach can be denounced as yet another dead end, does nothing to facilitate quick and efficient decision-making or to help convince public opinion.
In a way, the ecology/social divide is one of the fundamental dilemmas of contemporary discourse: we have to switch to the electric car, but it will destroy industrial jobs to a considerable extent; we have to reduce the use of fossil fuels, but it will slow down the growth of developing countries, and so on.
2.This proliferation of dilemmas is perhaps the result of a now too broad and too lenient use of the notion of responsibility, which has become a new mantra, a moral imperative all the more emptied of its content as it becomes more widespread. Where Max Weber made a distinction between two moral attitudes, the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility, we seem to be caught in an ill-thought-out, unsatisfactory amalgam of the two. For Max Weber, the ethics of responsibility is that of the rational player, who tempers a thirst for the absolute by considering the possible causal effect of a concrete action in a specific context.
Today, responsibility has become a new absolute. The ethics of conviction has taken hold of the notion of responsibility, it has, so to speak, absorbed it. Everyone is held responsible for everything, without limit – not for his or her own action, in his or her own field, but for the planet, unconditionally. Everyone is expected to consider the consequences of their actions ad infinitum. This leads either to paralysis or to hubris – only divine providence can infinitely envisage all the consequences of an action.
It then appears necessary to rank the consequences and construct a differentiated notion of responsibility in order to define what is the responsibility of each person, so that he or she can be fully cognisant of it and implement it. New emphasis should also be placed on the notion of “fairness”, involving measurement, suitability, weighting and efficiency.
3. This theoretical work must be carried out with immediate practical objectives: a reflection on this “fair” responsibility may in particular involve setting a framework to formulate recommendations.One of the objectives of the working group is to provide recommendations specifically related to the role and scope of investors. Investors are already engaged in a number of initiatives to combat global warming. How can they contribute, through non-financial analysis, voting policy and investment choices, to an ecological transition that is socially fair?