If you're under 45, you'll see climate change's effects in person

We're still caught up in a 1980s mindset.

BusinessGreen's James Murray writes about "Clinging to a climate of optimism" when it comes to fighting climate change:

My point is this: if you are over 45, then you are on track to bequeath the rest of us a pretty scary inheritance. But if you are under 45, then you have a good chance of experiencing some of the more devastating results of our failure to leave fossil fuels in the ground for yourself. You will see first-hand whether we are capable of building a genuinely sustainable global economy by mid-century or not. You will find out if it is possible to support nine billion people in a warmer world. You have a direct stake in this game.

In a way, it comes back to the argument I made last week about the risks of imprecision: climate change has been mentally filed away in the "legacy to our grandchildren" box for the last forty years. But while it's painfully obvious that something happening "in 2080" is getting closer every year, it's not quite so easy to continually readjust your perceptions for something which you've estimated as "a long way in the future".

And so we end up in the trap Murray addresses, where even people who were born after climate change first hit the agenda have it wrongly pegged as something they won't be alive to see. There's a level of urgency which people understand on an intellectual level, but not on a practical one. That is, someone perfectly happy to talk about "two degrees warming by 2050" still blanches when discussing the Thames Barrier being breached in their lifetime.

What effects could that practical understanding have on our approach to the issue? Murray writes:

Too many environmental debates are akin to arguing in 1940 about whether the allies should build tanks or planes.

We are past the point where we have the luxury of working out what the "best" sort of investment is to fight climate change – and really, we should never have been having that argument in the first place. A carbon-free energy infrastructure would always have a mix of inputs, from wind and solar to nuclear and CCS-equipped gas generation, and while some mixes might work better than others, all of them are better than the status quo.

But you don't even need to decide which energy mix you want, because with an appropriate policy background you could leave providers to make their own choices. That could be a cap-and-trade system which actually caps, as opposed to just trading, or it could be a carbon tax levied at a high enough level to make a difference, but whatever it is, it needs to be passed sooner rather than later.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.