Climate change and the past

Are we hostage to the environmental crimes of our grandparents?

Finding your way into the ethics of climate change isn’t easy. Our values; human values, grew up in little, local, tribal worlds of plenty. But climate change requires thinking on a much different scale. It’s easy to see that someone shoplifting a bottle of tequila does wrong. There’s a thief, standing red-handed right in front of you. But who does wrong in the case of climate change? Is overfilling the kettle wrong? Is a long, hot shower a sin? Is a long-haul flight for a well-deserved weekend break a kind of evil? We can make a start by thinking about climate change and the past, present, and future. We’ll begin with historical thoughts on responsibility, with reflection on the history of emissions.

Sometimes the history of the present distribution of resources matters. Suppose each day we all take an equal share of the limited amount of water which bubbles up from a common well. It turns out that I’ve been sneaking a bit more for my Jacuzzi. You might reflect on compensatory or corrective justice issues, in the thought that I should now take less water, to make up for my past excesses. Think now about the developed world’s historical use of a scarce resource, namely the carbon-absorbing properties of our planet, the Earth’s carbon sinks. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization categorizes countries as developed or developing. If we follow these groupings, then since 1850 the developed world is responsible for 76 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. It has therefore used up a vastly disproportionate share of the planet’s carbon sinks. It doesn’t take much thinking about corrective justice to come to the conclusion that the developed world has a responsibility to take serious action on climate change. It was easy enough to see it in the case of the well.

Several thoughts get in the way of seeing this conclusion clearly. Maybe the most common one goes like this. Perhaps the past sometimes matters when we think about divvying up a scarce resource, but we are talking about the actions of people long dead. Maybe the activities of my parents and grandparents and so on conspired together to bring about climate change, but I didn’t do it. Saying now that I must tighten my belt because of a past injustice is nothing less than holding me responsible for the sins of my father.

We might be able to get away with that thought if it were true that our lives were entirely disconnected from the industrial activities of our forebears. However, as the philosopher Henry Shue points out, we owe the comfy lives we’ve got to all that past industrial activity. We in the west – with comparatively excellent health care and education, with nations bolstered by a sturdy infrastructure and healthy economies – are enjoying lives of plenty partly because of our histories. We’ve benefited from industrialization, and others will suffer for it as our climate changes. Do we not owe those who will suffer a few sea walls and the promise to reign in our emissions as quickly as we possibly can?

James Garvey has a PhD in philosophy from University College London and is Secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. He is author of some books and articles, most recently, The Ethics of Climate Change (Continuum 2008)
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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