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Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2006, 07:31 GMT 08:31 UK
Where have all the leaders gone?
Dr Matt Prescott
Matt Prescott

Consumer choice is not going to deliver the goods to combat climate change, argues Dr Matt Prescott. In this week's Green Room, he says the world needs strong political leadership, not just market forces, because there is no sale-or-return guarantee for the planet.

Sir Winston Churchill's ration book (Image: PA)
A whole generation survived without the luxury of choice
During World War II, a large share of humanity stared into the abyss.

In the unforgiving conditions, traumatised by their collective experience, almost everyone wanted to build a better, safer and fairer world.

They accepted this meant sharing some of their wealth and freedoms with others for the common good.

Public hospitals and schools were built, living standards were deliberately raised and ancient class divisions were broken down.

Later, as the developed world came to feel more comfortable and less vulnerable, many started to begrudge the spending of their money on such intangible, long-term benefits; the post-war contract between citizens and their states started to break down.

Why should consumer choice be treated as sacrosanct?
By the 1980s, politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had even started to suggest that there was "no such thing as society". Investors could single-handedly make the world a better place and any constraint on trade, such as a nasty old law, was quickly labelled as a burdensome hindrance.

The rhetoric proved to be hugely successful electorally in many countries; and while Reagan and Thatcher once stood at the fringes of political thought, their view of personal and consumer choice as an article of faith has become mainstream.

Even financial disasters such as Enron, the looming pensions "time-bomb", and Hurricane Katrina do not seem to have fundamentally shaken the widespread belief that the market will one day, somehow, mystically solve our problems.

Buyer beware

But why should consumer choice be sacrosanct?

Are consumers best placed to make informed choices? Are there not situations where a bit of straightforward regulation might be more effective?

Woman smoking a cigarette (Image: AP)
Information alone does not always produce the informed choice
It was as far back as 1951 that Sir Richard Doll first showed the link between smoking and lung cancer; yet consumers still choose to buy cigarettes.

Clearly, having a good evidence base is not enough on its own to produce sensible decisions.

In the case of climate change, our scientific understanding is increasingly robust, and it is becoming inevitable that we will have to reduce our carbon emissions drastically.

But we simply do not like the implications; we have become emotionally attached to our fossil fuel lifestyles and status symbols.

False economy

Governments and businesses, of course, need to remain popular. For businesses this means selling as cheaply as possible; for governments, giving us jam today as well as promising it tomorrow.

So who will take responsibility for unleashing the potential solutions to global climate change?

In the view of many, leadership from our elected representatives is essential.

This is especially true when it comes to changing the rules under which individuals and businesses compete, and making the hard choices for the long-term good of society.

Sale sign in a shop window (Getty Images)
Shoppers make choices based on price not environmental profile
By contrast, maintaining a business-as-usual approach merely encourages consumers to continue buying cheap, inefficient, technologies.

Another insidious side effect of governments not giving leadership is that businesses fear being undercut and losing market share, should they ever incur discretionary yet responsible costs which are being avoided by their competitors.

Undoubtedly, breaking this paralysis will require immense moral courage. For courage, leaders of today need only to look back in time a little and see what their predecessors did.

For example, the hard-won ban against slavery deliberately went against what was considered economically justified.

Prior to this ban, people had been free to own slaves for hundreds of years, and many could see nothing wrong with continuing to do so.

Now it will never be reversed, and the world economy has adjusted to operating in ways which do not require the exploitation associated with slavery.

Similarly, markets now need to be forced to address, and to assimilate, the environmental and social costs associated with climate change, and to move on to a higher playing field.

Act now or pay later

Today's competitive pressures and short-term profits simply should not be allowed to justify emissions standards and carbon prices being kept permanently low, at untold long-term cost.

Insurance firm AXA has recently estimated that, without action, climate change could be costing the UK economy in excess of 42bn per year by 2080.

If we started now, spreading the costs and inconvenience over the coming decades, preventing catastrophic climate change could be relatively affordable.

Fictional TV character Edina Monsoon (Image: BBC)
I don't want more things, I want better things
Edina Monsoon,
Fictional TV character

Alternatively, if we continued to delay action or suddenly decided to do everything we could in a panic, the costs and disruption could be enormous.

Crucial technologies or economic activities that are dependent on fossil fuels might be impossible to replace at short notice, and this could be disastrous for our entire civilisation.

It will not be easy, but we must learn to accept that consumer choice cannot be expected to solve complex, large-scale problems. Governments have to step up to the plate and to step in with legislation when it is needed; giving all the responsibility to markets and consumers is not good enough.

Actor Jennifer Saunder's fictional comic fashion guru and arch-consumer, Edina Monsoon, once wisely said, "I don't want more things, I want better things", and she was right.

We must find the courage to remove the worst products from the market, to build environmental costs into prices, and give the low-carbon alternatives a half-decent chance of getting established.

Consumers will then take care of the rest.

Dr Matt Prescott is an environmental consultant and director of banthebulb.org, an online campaign encouraging greater energy efficiency

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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