As the public debate over high energy prices intensifies, we need strong leadership to build consensus for climate change action, says Mallen Baker
Whatever else it is, Facebook is a forum for the expression of opinions by whatever cross-section you’ve managed to gather as friends through your life. For some reason, I’ve managed quite a large-cross section. But I’m not sure it would end well if they all found themselves in the same room as each other.
There is one thing, though, that many of them seem firmly agreed upon right now. It’s that the energy companies – especially in the UK – are ripping us all off in the name of blatant greed. And the truth is that environmental charges have been widely accepted by many as the secondary villain of the piece.
The inherent contradiction in attitudes has always been there, of course. On the one hand we recognise that in order to waste less energy, it needs to cost more. And, whether we like it or not, the state of global energy supply can be expected to deliver more expensive energy in any case as we come towards the end of the fossil fuel era.
But at the same time, we have a widespread attitude of entitlement by the public to cheap energy, just as we do cheap food.
These were always in contradiction, but now we’re seeing that as the pressure increases – and we should expect to see pressures continue to increase – it will lead to the withdrawal of public support for green measures that are perceived to be to blame.
We have almost zero perception that there are big structural challenges in how energy is provided worldwide. We have no sense of outside events, some of which are outside our control and have major consequences on our choices.
Rather, if energy prices go up it’s because someone is to blame. Politicians are to blame for not building more power stations a few years ago. Energy company chiefs are to blame for being greedy. And environmentalists are to blame for persuading the government to levy green charges to put everyone’s bills up.
Unfortunately, the news media loves nothing better than to point the finger of blame at someone – and politicians and CEOs are top of the list because the majority of citizens will gratefully line up to demonise them.
But the more substantial point is that this climate of public consensus completely changes the parameters of what may be possible. In order to take the radical steps to combat climate change we need a consensus for action. We need the consent of citizens – and companies need the consent of customers – or else it just won’t work.
The energy blame game has blown that consent out of the water. Green policies have become labelled in the public mind as an expensive luxury. A nice-to-have that not only could but should be abandoned if times get tough.
In the absence of any clear analysis as to why the environmental situation is one of the causes for times getting tough – and likely to make those times tougher still in the future – it makes perfect sense.
The leadership of the energy companies hasn’t helped much by queuing up to point the finger at eco-charges in a desperate attempt to deflect criticism from themselves.
This approach fails to reframe the discussion as being one about necessary choices and consequences, and simply enters the blame game discussion on its own terms. And it’s doomed to failure. If playing the blame game, the chief executives of major utilities will never win the hearts and minds of the general population.
We need to see real leadership. As demonstrated by great historical leaders such as Gandhi and Mandela, real leadership steps outside the tribal logic of a specific position, and uses its authority to make the necessary changes informed by the bigger picture – taking its constituency to a place it wouldn’t naturally have gone on its own.
Energy company leaders should start by improving the transparency of their own processes to answer the charges of profiteering – and face down the investors that want to see above-average returns from every type of business everywhere. And they need to use that momentum then to pose a far-reaching challenge to our cosy consensus that business as usual equals cheap energy and if we don’t get it, then someone in power must be to blame.
I’m not holding my breath. But in the absence of that kind of leadership, I fear we’ll be reaping the consequences in the form of weak political will and token environmental measures for the next couple of decades.
Mallen Baker is a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation and managing director of Daisywheel Interactive.climate change energy Leadership Supply