‘We do all need to change our ways of living’: Interview with David Hall on climate change and democracy

Dr David Hall is a political theorist with a research focus on climate change, sustainable finance, and land use. He has a DPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford and currently is Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences and Public Policy, AUT University, and Chair of the Vice-Chancellor’s Sustainability Taskforce. He is also co-founder of Mōhio’s Climate Innovation Lab, a partnership with ANZ which designs novel financial instruments to enable climate action. His most recent book is A Careful Revolution: Towards a Low-Emissions Future (BWB Texts). He was interviewed by Robert McLachlan at the Auckland Art Gallery on 12 January 2022.

Robert McLachlan: Where do you see New Zealand’s climate response sitting right now?

David Hall: I see us still, in the international context, as a follower, and I think we’re in a phase of doing catch-up. The previous government dragged its heels more than the current government, which is now picking up on policies that other countries have implemented in the meantime. So there’s not much in the way of leadership, not much in the way of path-breaking, but there is policy transfer underway, with New Zealand adopting some of the trends from overseas, especially from Europe. This includes the Zero Carbon Act, which is one of many climate framework laws around the world, as well as the Clean Car Discount, the vehicle emissions standards, and so on.

Robert McLachlan: There are some new things emerging. There are youth climate activists and people interested in new urbanism. But there’s also a much bigger group of people who are happy with things the way they are, and may not realise the scale of the changes that need to be made. And the government has to thread their way through this.

David Hall: It is challenging. It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is for politicians to navigate that space. Because they are relying on being voted back in, they just can’t run too far ahead of the public. But the public is changing, and climate action is becoming more vigorous and urgent among some people. And there’s a latent impulse, a sort of weak desire for action amongst the majority of people. The people who are demotivated, or proactively against climate action, are a minority, but there’s a large swathe who are aware of climate change and have a general tilt towards doing something, but are easily displaced by concerns about cost and inconvenience and are reluctant to change their ways of doing things. That’s the challenge for politicians, how to bring that set of people along.

However, while I think that some people too easily criticise politicians for not running ahead of voters, our leaders can justifiably be criticised for not doing enough to persuade and convince that group of people that we do all need to change our ways of living. Someone like our current prime minister, who does have the gift of communication, hasn’t used her powers as much as she might have to bring people on board.

Some of the narratives in which we’ve understood climate action have been failed narratives. I suspect that most politicians haven’t had enough exposure to the more positive narratives around climate action. There’s been a prevailing narrative that climate action is largely a sacrifice; it’s been framed in terms of cost, of deadweight loss. But there is a growing appreciation amongst some economists that it’s an investment with tangible returns and a huge swathe of co-benefits, so that we can address a lot of other issues by moving to a low-emission economy. It shouldn’t all be framed in terms of losses and costs. It’s an investment in the future and an opening up of new pathways, of new ways of living on the planet.

There’s also a competition underway – this is perhaps more relevant for the bigger economies, like the US and China – that the fossil fuel-dependent economy is a sunset economy, whereas the renewable energy economy has a huge amount of growth ahead of it. New Zealand needs to orientate to that, especially around the supply of food, timber, and biomass. We face a major risk of falling behind and not embracing these opportunities. Other countries might start to dominate in sustainable food and sustainable timber.

Robert McLachlan: I suspect there are a lot of people who would be happy to see new electric buses, but not so happy if a bus lane appears where they used to drive. But if there are enough people on the buses, the balance could shift. Hopefully we will reach a social tipping point soon.

Do you see the New Zealand climate change community as mostly unified in terms of what we should be doing?

David Hall: Not at all! There’s a huge amount of disagreement, and I think that will only grow. But I see that as a positive thing. A decade ago, the focus of public debate was on whether climate change was an issue at all, whether it even existed. That debate is over, and we’ve moved on to the question of what we ought to do. That’s going to drive a lot more disagreement, because you’re connecting solutions to a wide range of political values and risk sensitivities. This depends on your political affiliation, your identity, your position in society, your class. All of these influence what you see as sensible solutions and what you see as urgent. Disagreement here is an inevitable part of trying to come to a solution in a democracy.

Robert McLachlan: Genevieve Guenther has commented that climate should be framed in terms of bad people trying to do bad things that damage everybody else. Who’s opposing climate action in New Zealand? Is that what we should be focusing on?

David Hall: I’m not sure I agree with that framing. I see the problem as lying in the systems we are operating in, not as the fault of the people operating in those systems. In the US context it’s more obvious who the enemies or adversaries are, there’s so much money going into lobbying from the fossil fuel industry, bad actors who are trying to prevent any sensible solution – although we do have a bit of that.

But Carl Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction – where you identify your allies and your enemies, and then you try to vanquish your enemies – that we see playing out here in agriculture is unhelpful. All it’s done is polarize the issue and make farmers feel they are being attacked and that positive developments in that sector are ignored. Even the recalcitrant farmers are part of an existing system. They’ve taken on mortgages where banks have pressed them to intensify, and some practices have been the subject of government incentives. Sometimes they’ve been manoeuvred into unsustainable practices by the system they’re operating in. Changing the system around them requires engaging with banks, policy makers, and so on. An adversarial approach doesn’t help. In fact sectors like agriculture and urban form are particular unsuited to an adversarial approach, or to emergency politics where some authority swoops in and makes decisions on everyone’s behalf. You have to work with communities to reshape the system. That requires coalition building and more democratic approaches.

Robert McLachlan: The global climate and ecological crisis is so vast – is it better to focus on one little question, which focuses your mind and the public’s mind on a specific issue and possible solutions, or to look at the big picture? I see a lot of people arguing that we need to overturn all of modern society.

David Hall: We should do what we think will have the most impact. Some people are better at specializing and some are better as generalists. I’m a generalist, I like to operate between a lot of different areas, perhaps because of my background in geography and politics. My focus is on how to change the politics of climate change. That requires understanding how our institutions create different forms of lock-in, how new institutions can drive human behaviour in different ways, to understand politics and power and the negotiation between governments and peoples.

Robert McLachlan: We’re trying to persuade the public to be more in favour of climate action, but even persuading our colleagues is difficult. The New Zealand universities haven’t really been leading on this issue.

David Hall: No, they’ve been a huge failure. But like the farmers, academics are trapped in a system with certain incentives that drive behaviour. Just look at aviation – international conferences, research collaborations, sabbaticals – these are all rewarded by the system, which drives academics to do as much flying as possible. Similarly, if research funding isn’t set up to channel research activity toward solving public problems, then we end up with this gulf between academic activity and real world challenges, like climate change. All that said, there are some academics who’ve used their academic role to advance climate action in the sciences, social sciences and humanities, and we should be grateful for those efforts.

Robert McLachlan: In countries where the government is hostile to climate action, it’s recommended to focus on grass-roots activism and coalition building. Are we in the same position here? Is the climate movement too small to push for the changes that we need?

David Hall. Yes. Everywhere suffers from this. The crucial thing is that that movement is happening in many different spaces. In climate governance, there is an idea of ‘polycentricity’, that leadership occurs not just in central government but across a whole range of spheres – local councils, business groups, local communities, indigenous groups, civil society. Under the previous government, when there was a conspicuous lack of progress or ambition, this prompted leadership from other parts of society. We saw the emergence of Generation Zero, the Climate Leaders Coalition, the Sustainable Business Council, Pure Advantage. Now that polycentric movement is maturing, which makes it safer for governments to take the plunge.

Robert McLachlan: I would like to see more local successes, though. Getting involved in a local battle over a cycleway or something can be discouraging.

David Hall: While the current government has been more proactive and has advanced a lot of policy, it’s tended to be at the institutional level of rules and standards. We don’t see the fruits of that yet, because the impacts will play out over years and decades. On the bright side, this reduces the likelihood of worst-case scenarios where New Zealand just drifts into massively missing its targets. But on the negative side, we’re still not seeing the decisive actions on the ground that show concrete results, like controlling imports of SUVs, for instance, or declaring phase-out deadlines or making big spending commitments on research, development and deployment. And the reason is, of course, that those are the actions that can trigger really fierce political fights because there are immediate winners and losers that politicians will have to answer to at the next election.

Robert McLachlan: Turning to the global picture, as well as the challenge of addressing climate change, there’s also a lot of other weird stuff going on. Dangerous situations are developing in the traditional democracies. Is it just a coincidence that these things are happening at the same time?

David Hall: No, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Representative democracy is losing its social licence, its own right to govern. In some places the social contract is dwindling to the extent that large swathes of people think their representatives have lost the right to make rules on their behalf. But climate action needs those rules. So on one hand it makes action difficult, but on the other hand it is an opportunity. Because there is a truthful critique here, that representatives have failed to defend the interests of “the people” in a number of different domains. It is more likely that issues like inequality and mortality are driving the revolts we’ve seen elsewhere, but I think climate change and protecting people from the growing dangers and risks of environmental degradation are part of that story as well, whether people explicitly think of that as a reason or whether they just respond to some of the negative effects like floods and droughts, the effects on their businesses and supply chains, and the indirect contribution to poverty and economic disruption.

Robert McLachlan: People are right to be worried.

David Hall: Right. But political representatives have clearly failed to respond to these challenges. So if some of this unrest and discontent forces representative democracy, or democracy in general, to try to better achieve its own objectives in representing the will of the people and protecting people from these risks, then perhaps that will help is to create new institutions that do respond better. That’s the opportunity.

We see that most visibly in the new ideas about forms of invigorating democracy such as through citizens’ assemblies. It’s not a coincidence that we see that conversation now. And indeed, some states like France are using citizens’ assemblies as a way of responding to that criticism, following the gilets jaunes protests. There is an opportunity there. It’s a race for us who believe that we can respond to climate change in a democratic way to design new mechanisms and to implement these new mechanisms before the authoritarians and the despots exploit this opportunity to implement top-down and arbitrary institutions that they prefer.

Some sad clowns contemplate climate change at the Auckland Art Gallery.

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