Shock: King Herod turns green

Michael Jacobs thinks that, before very long, we really will have an energy tax

Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge makes an unlikely green hero. Chairman of British Airways (one of the biggest companies in one of the world's most polluting sectors), former captain of the captains of industry at the CBI, he is a man who just eight months ago was not known to have any environmentalist sympathies whatsoever. Indeed, when he was asked by Gordon Brown in March to examine the potential role of an energy tax on industry, Friends of the Earth described this as "like putting Herod in charge of childcare".

Herod has obviously been to parenting classes. Marshall's report to the Chancellor, published with the pre-Budget statement last week but little noticed, not only recommends that an industrial energy tax be introduced, but in doing so accepts the central assumptions and claims of the environmental movement. It is not too much to say that the Marshall report marks a coming of age for the green movement.

The power of the report stems from its conclusion that industrial competitiveness, contrary to the CBI's view, need not be harmed by an energy tax.

First, Marshall insists the revenues from the tax should be recycled back to business: partly in the reduction of other business taxes, partly as assistance towards energy efficiency investment measures. This will ensure that the overall tax burden on industry is kept broadly neutral: there would simply be redistribution from extravagant to efficient energy users.

Indeed, Marshall argues that if the introduction of an energy tax allowed labour taxes (such as employers' national insurance contributions) to be reduced, the overall effect on the economy could be positive. This would be the so-called "double dividend", in which falling energy use is accompanied by rising employment. This claim has been widely modelled by environmental economists; it is the first time it has appeared in a Treasury document.

Second, Marshall shows how, throughout industry, improvements in energy efficiency would save firms money. A tax would help to get these implemented, but would leave firms no worse off overall. He argues that it is only in the energy-intensive sectors (such as iron and steel, cement and chemicals) that seriously higher costs would result. He recommends that energy-intensive firms should be given either lower tax rates in return for signing energy efficiency agreements with the government, or tax credits or reliefs for emission-reducing investments.

Third, the report points out that six European countries already have energy or carbon taxes. An energy tax package (with lower labour taxes) is a centrepiece of the new government programme in Germany, and the Italian government has proposed a carbon tax in its latest budget. The claim, therefore, that an energy tax would raise British industry's costs above those of its competitors does not stand up.

So the environmentalist baton has been passed to the Treasury. Will Gordon Brown run with it? Don't be fooled by his non-committal statement last week; the Treasury is definitely interested. This is not surprising: after a short while, an energy tax could bring in several billion pounds a year, and the Treasury does not turn up its nose at new revenue streams of this magnitude.

Just as importantly, Brown is well aware of the political opportunity. The transport white paper has proposed allowing local authorities to introduce road-congestion charges, and to use the money for public transport spending; it has also raised the prospect of a tax on office car parking. Other measures, including the reform of company car taxation, a pesticides tax and water pollution charges, are under review.

But the energy tax is the big one, and would firmly establish Brown as the first green Chancellor. The prospect of combining environmental virtue with reductions in other business taxes, including possibly the national insurance "tax on jobs", might well look enticing.

Peter Mandelson at the Department for Trade and Industry will be the principal focus for industry lobbying. The DTI has co-operated fully with the Marshall study, but its instincts are likely to be negative. Which way Mandelson will turn, however, is not clear. On the one hand, his agenda is pro-business and he will not want to damage the government's good relations with the CBI. But on the other, the energy tax can be seen as wholly in line with his vision of a highly efficient, high-technology future for British industry.

Current energy use patterns by British firms are wasteful and unproductive; investing in the latest energy-efficient technology should be a central part of any strategy of modernisation. As the Marshall report argues, there are potential export opportunities here, too. In these circumstances Mandelson might well find the environmental case as attractive as Brown.

All eyes will now be focused on the Budget next March. Clearly more work needs to be done on the precise design of any new tax. But the environmental lobby argues that this should not prevent the government announcing an intention to introduce it, just as it did with the windfall tax. A clear commitment would encourage firms to make adjustment plans well in advance of implementation.

Either way, the proposal for an industrial energy tax is now firmly on the agenda. At last, the environmental movement has entered the heart of government.

The writer, an environmental economist, is general secretary of the Fabian Society

Michael Jacobs is visiting professor in the Department of Political Science / School of Public Policy at UCL and at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. He is co-editor of the Political Quarterly

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.