Tuesday 1 December 2009

Bravery called for

The results of the poll published yesterday on Welsh attitudes towards climate change made interesting reading. No doubt, like most poll results, they will be subjected to a range of different interpretations.

What I found most interesting was the conclusion that a little over half had reached, namely that they as individuals can make little difference; and that 72% therefore said that the government had to take a lead, and use the law if necessary to bring about changes in behaviour.

People are right, of course, to conclude that each of us can make only a tiny difference; and that even the total elimination of emissions by the UK would make but a very small difference to the total world situation. Some of the most vociferous opponents of renewable energy projects use precisely that line of argument to justify their stance; but carried to its logical conclusion, no-one would do anything, and we'd all lose out in the end. It's a version of the 'tragedy of the commons'.

There's also a danger, which may be part of what is behind the responses obtained, that when some people are altruistic in their use of resources, then others will merely take their opportunity to help themselves to a greater share; on that basis, only decisions made at a collective level will ensure that altruism is not taken advantage of.

One of the reasons why governments - and politicians more generally - have been afraid to legislate has been a fear of consequent electoral unpopularity. And the question which appears not to have been answered by the poll is whether people would still be as happy to see the law used to implement changes if they as individuals ended up worse off as a result.

It's disappointing that people feel so unempowered; but the fact that so many people feel that government should be willing to legislate should encourage all of those of us involved in political activity to be prepared to be more creative - and, dare I say it, a little braver - when it comes to proposing actions. For instance, offering people carrots for 'good' behaviour, rather than threatening them with sticks for 'bad' behaviour may make politicans less unpopular - but is it really honest in a time when public spending will be coming under pressure?

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