Entering the fray

Market environmentalists want to change the narrative on climate change. Huw Morris reports on an emerging voice

For some, it was a car crash interview that achieved the opposite of its intention. Speaking to the BBC’s HARDtalk programme last year, Extinction Rebellion co-founder Roger Hallam claimed that six billion people will die this century from climate change. Claims like these are inspiring a new breed of campaigner – but not the one Hallam envisaged. Its mantra is market environmentalism.


A different approach

The British Conservation Alliance (BCA) is spearheading the call for a ‘green market revolution’. Launched by a group in September 2019, the non-profit’s mission is to promote free enterprise as the solution to the planet’s challenges. 
It has published a 174-page manifesto (www.greenmarketrevolution.eco) calling for a green market revolution; 15 organisations from the free market and conservative lobby contributed to it.

“Very often, the debate around climate change is about political revolution,” says BCA founder and director Christopher Barnard, currently policy director of sister organisation the American Conservation Coalition. “The founders of Extinction Rebellion are all about dissolving capitalism. This is not an environmental platform but a left-wing wishlist that uses climate change as a Trojan horse. “

Blocking roads and gluing yourself to transportation just makes it difficult for people to move around or get to work, and it turns them off. If this is what the environmental movement looks like, they don’t want to be a part of it.”


Green growth

The concept of market environmentalism has been around for more than 30 years. The modern reboot sees environmental debates as “dominated by heavy-handed, top-down solutions”, according to the BCA. Besides taking offence at calls to overthrow capitalism to curb global warming, market environmentalists dispute that ‘green new deals’ are the only way to save the planet.

“It is possible to harness both the power of the free market and the beauty of our environment to the benefit of everyone”

“Economic growth and environmental progress are not mutually exclusive,” says Barnard. “It is possible to harness both the power of the free market and the beauty of our environment to the benefit of everyone. Whereas environmental activism has historically shunned anyone on the pro-market side of the political spectrum, we want to champion market-based solutions to environmental problems, and to empower people to live more green-conscious lives.

“The problem with seeing a green new deal as a panacea is that it could create gridlock and stop other things happening. We need reforms, but should not lose sight of low-hanging fruit. The worry with a big programme 
is that it ignores the small things that could be done in the meantime.”

The concept is gaining momentum among free market organisations, including the Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies. Politicians are seeking briefings, and the manifesto has been downloaded in 91 countries.

“A lot of the environmental movement is instinctively in opposition to people who want to use markets to solve problems,” says Matthew Lesh, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute. “They see markets as the root cause of all evil, rather than 
seeing them as a mechanism for tackling environmental challenges.”


Human ingenuity

Market environmentalists also believe in innovation, property rights and local solutions. Barnard cites the work of psychologist Professor Steven Pinker, who says people are more likely to accept climate change when they are told it can be solved by innovation, rather than when they are given dire warnings.

Their shibboleths include carbon capture and storage, genetically modified food, lab-grown meat, electric cars, dissolving plastic and terraforming. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Norman Borlaug, who saved more than a billion people from starvation by developing technologies to increase agricultural yields, is a hero to many.

They are also unashamed supporters of nuclear energy. “More people have died in the US falling off the roof while installing a solar panel than from nuclear power in 60 years,” says Barnard. “We need nuclear – you can’t keep homes warm and hospitals running without it.”

Market environmentalism accepts state involvement, but believes it should be kept to a minimum and confined to allocating and safeguarding property rights. This lowers transaction costs to enable markets to work efficiently, they argue.

“Too often, environmentalism has deteriorated into apocalyptic warnings that don’t offer solutions,” says Lesh. “A lack of trust in humanity’s ingenuity has led to a consensus that these environmental emergencies can only be solved through top-down government mandates and powerful central authorities.”


Time to speak up

The right’s absence from the debate has left a legacy. “In the past, a lot of people on the free market side rejected the existence of environmental challenges because they did not like many of the solutions offered, or they saw them as overthrowing capitalism,” says Lesh. “They now accept that there are environmental challenges and you can solve them with market-based tools, rather than by changing the system.”

The BCA says it will only work with organisations that support its mission of promoting market-based solutions to climate change. If a climate-sceptic organisation asks to work with the BCA on a project that involves climate denialism, it will “categorically decline”. “We seek to educate and inspire sceptical individuals and organisations that climate change is real and we must all work together to tackle it,” it states. 

Similarly, Barnard is outraged by government fossil fuel subsidies. In a working paper published last year, the International Monetary Fund found that the fossil fuel industry received $5.2trn in subsidies in 2017. “The way governments have propped up fossil fuels is crony capitalism,” Barnard says. “The true market way has not been tried; this is a question of setting the record straight.”

Do you agree with the BCA’s market-based approach to tackling environmental issues, or do we need wholesale change?

Case study: Fishing for solutions

A key concept in market environmentalism is property rights. The classic case study in this area is New Zealand’s fisheries, which suffered depleted stocks in the absence of constraints on the amount of fish trawlers could catch. In 1986, New Zealand introduced a system that set a limit for each fish stock and allocated individual transferable quotas (ITQs), which can be bought, sold or leased, to fishermen. This helped rebuild depleted stocks and ensure catches were limited to sustainable levels.

Market environmentalists cite a comprehensive study of 11,135 fisheries between 1950 to 2003, published in Science, which found that quasi-property rights or ‘catch-share’ programmes had reduced the fall in fish stocks by half – and reversed it in some places. If such a system had been in place globally since 1970, the fisheries collapse would have been cut by two-thirds, the study concluded.

Although they restrict fishing in the short-term, limited property rights systems ensure fishing stocks are not depleted, protect the environment, and make a long-term contribution to the economy, market environmentalists argue. There are now nearly 200 catch-share programmes worldwide. 

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist.

Image Credit | Getty Images
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