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Prevention: what can social policy learn from the climate change movement?

By Will Horwitz

Climate change is the environmental movement’s only successful prevention campaign, according to a former Downing Street adviser speaking at nef’s Wisdom of Prevention seminar last week. Is there anything we can learn for prevention in social policy?

Despite the prominence of preventive language within environmental campaigning (think ‘future generations’), Michael Jacobs argued that we almost always wait until the harm is actually being felt before taking substantive action – from ozone to clean water to deforestation. In contrast, the first climate change treaty in 1992 followed by the Kyoto protocol in 1997 were several years before the climate started changing. Even now, with action to reduce CO2 emissions going on around the world, including in the UK with our Climate Change Act and ambitious CO2 reduction targets, the harm caused by rising emissions is nothing compared to the devastation it could wreak in future.

Whether or not you agree that efforts have gone far enough (I know many don’t ) it’s highly impressive that such significant and genuinely preventative action is embedded so deeply in public policy, with the UK boasting a Climate Change Act with statutory emission reduction targets, a comprehensive implementation plan, and an independent Commission to scrutinise it. In a crisp and fascinating talk Michael gave a host of reasons why we’ve got this far:

  • Climate change is incredibly costly – a 5 degree rise in temperature would be catastrophic
  • The International Panel on Climate Change – a phenomenal number of scientists from around the world forged a global consensus on the evidence
  • The conversation broadened beyond an emphasis on the burden on future generations to encompass present costs and benefits vs the future. The Stern Review was v important to this.
  • There is now a business and economic interest in favour of action; companies developing wind farms, electric cars, insulating buildings, installing solar panels, and so on.
  • A global environmental movement focused on the morality of imposing costs on future generations, and on a critique of the entire economic system underpinning the problem, kept the pressure up.

So what can we learn?

Firstly let’s not forget that preventative action is already embedded in much social policy; a universal education system is a profoundly preventative concept, enjoying universal support (the squabbles, over different teaching methods for example, are minor in comparison). In public health (sewers, fluoride, health and safety) we have dramatically increased life expectancy over only a few decades, even if these increases are unevenly distributed and the health service still devotes most of its budget to acute care. Defending and extending these core preventative public services is just as vital as promoting new changes.

Second, the consequences of social problems are incredibly expensive too – perhaps not on the same scale as climate change, but certainly on a scale that could noticeably affect an economy (imagine a society with dramatically better literacy, reduced crime, better mental health).

Third, evidence is important but we haven’t developed nearly the same consensus on the problem or what do to about it as the IPCC. Nothing even comes close. Social science has a long way to go to catch up with the climate scientists, and while public opinion on the causes of climate change is pretty much in agreement with the science (in most countries) the same can’t be said for social policy.

Fourth, social movements work, but ours often push the wrong way: the campaign to save a local hospital which is draining resources and performing badly even at acute care; the outcry over a failure in acute children’s social care; or the ‘lock-em-up again’ approach to rehabilitation of offenders. For understandable reasons public pressures often acts against prevention, and in most fields early action’s advocates are in an (often unpopular) minority.

Fifth, statutory targets and a comprehensive plan, both included in the Climate Change Act, are powerful and can outlast an administration even if theoretically they can be repealed and wouldn’t stand up in court. Their equivalents are amongst the ideas we will be developing in our report due out later this month. The UK’s Independent Climate Change Commission is also a really useful check. We will be suggesting something similar.

Sixth, there are now plenty of businesses with a vested interest in maintaining the momentum towards a greener economy. These probably exist in the social sphere as well, specific to certain areas. Social care organisations perhaps, or companies delivering some of the early intervention payment-by-results contracts. But it’s an area that many find uncomfortably incompatible with the market, involving complex and often perverse incentives, and just as there are ‘brown’ companies who would lose from the transition to a green economy, some acute social provision is delivered privately.

Seventh, infrastructure plays an important role in the climate change story – you can ‘lock in’ low energy production by building a load of windfarms which will then last decades and be incredibly expensive to replace. (Of course this works the other way around, and existing power plants which haven’t yet reached the end of their life are a potential barrier to progress). I’m not sure there is any equivalent in social policy, at least not on the same scale. It’s about people not buildings or equipment, and even a programme as large as Sure Start can be dismantled pretty quickly if desired.

Eighth, some of the ideas in climate change raise money, for example carbon taxes, which is a great way of keeping the Treasury interested. Although we consistently argue that early action will save money in the long run, we don’t have quite the same direct income-generating potential in the social field, partly because we already tax several of the ‘social polluters’ – alcohol, cigarettes, gambling – fairly heavily. Could we go further, or widen the net? Responsibility charging would force companies or organisations to pay for the problems they cause, funding the remedy but also acting as incentive against doing it in future.

So the lessons: invest in evidence and be ambitious in seeking a consensus on it. Develop social movements for prevention to replace those currently acting against it. Pursue statutory targets, comprehensive plans and independent accountability. Explore how business, charity and government interests can align with early action. Consider how to ‘lock in’ gains so they can’t easily be reversed. And see if you can find a way to raise money off it, to keep the Treasury interested.

Some of these open up new avenues to explore but some (like harnessing business interests or locking in infrastructure) seem uncomfortable or irrelevant. Perhaps the fundamental difference between climate change and social policy is that amidst the complexity and clamour of both there is one clear point at which to intervene to prevent climate change – the release of CO2 into the atmosphere.

There is considerable intricacy either side of that point, in determining how human behaviour affects CO2 emissions and in calculating how these will affect the climate, but a whole range of often-complex solutions from business, government and citizens – carbon taxes, new forms of energy production, better insulation – are honing in on a simple goal, to reduce the amount of CO2 we release.

What’s the social policy equivalent? There is no universally-accepted point at which the complex causal factors affecting social wellbeing neatly congregate. A whole range of indicators provide clues (GCSE scores, or employment status, for example) but there is no simple metric intrinsically related to success that we can all focus on. In the early action Task Force’s first report we put forward the idea of ‘readiness’ as a goal for prevention, people being ready to both deal with challenges and setbacks but also grasp opportunities for success and advancement. It’s a powerful concept, as are similar ones like resilience, but doesn’t lend itself to a simple metric. The subjective well-being or ‘happiness’ indicator recently adopted by government is a simple metric but few believe it can be the only or ultimate goal of public policy.

A participant at the event last week argued that there were few parallels between climate change and social policy, because the barriers to prevention in social policy lay in the ‘nitty gritty’ of local authority commissioning practices, overcoming cultural barriers, and the like. It’s certainly true that substantial blocks exist at this level, but I think the climate change example also teaches us that despite the differences a commitment and direction set from the centre, driven by aligned incentives and vigorously prodded along by a broader movement, are important too. We do have something to learn.

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