Heat, Greed and Human Need – Prof. Ian Gough

Yesterday as part of Maynooth University’s Social Justice week, Prof. Ian Gough from the London School of Economics spoke on his new book Heat, Greed and Human Need: Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing.  Prof. Gough has been working on climate change for the last 10 years, looking at the issue through the lens of capitalism and the welfare state, and drawing on his earlier work on the theory of human need.

He began by explaining that the book focuses on the following questions:

  • What are the social impacts of climate change?
  • How is capitalism driving climate change?
  • How can we improve wellbeing?

Prof. Gough suggested that climate change research is dominated by scientists and economists, and now it is time to bring in the social sciences. His book explores the intersections between economy (Greed), Society (Need) and Environment (Heat). He suggested that social policy and climate policy often ignore each other, and that we need to look at “eco-social policies”.

He contrasted between the “moral economy” and “political economy” perspectives (below), and used Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model to expand the “moral economy” model. He then outlined the main points of each section of the book.



Prof. Gough briefly outlined the science of climate change, identifying three climate policy agendas – Mitigation, Geo-engineering and Adaptation – explaining that he only focuses on mitigation.


He then discussed capitalism and the concept of “legitimate greed” as the driving force of the economic system, stressing that economic growth is the key driver of emissions. He noted that eco-efficiency has improved but has been outpaced by growing output. Prof. Gough also highlighted the difference between production-based and consumption-based emissions, explaining that richer countries consume far more emissions than they produce, while the opposite is true of countries such as China and India. He argued that it is consumption-based, not production-based emissions that matter, and explained that consumption emissions in the UK are increasing. He also introduced us to the concept of the “Plutocene”, the world’s richest 10% who are responsible for 50% of consumption emissions (below).

M4365-GOUGH_9781785365102_t (Colour).indd

Prof. Gough also argued that along with the double injustice that poorer countries suffer more from the negative impacts of climate change, there is a “triple injustice” – reducing emissions can also harm poorer groups i.e. climate policy can cause rising inequality. Rising inequality drives excessive consumption, longer working hours and more debt, which drives up emissions. It also hinders collective action to control emissions, eroding trust and solidarity. He suggested that we must move beyond “green growth” for two reasons:

  • Pragmatically – eco-efficiency will not be enough
  • Morally – issues of equity and justice are sidelined


Moving on to human needs, Prof. Gough returned to the Brundtland Report, explaining that the famous definition of sustainable development, which references the “needs” of future and present generations, contains two key concepts: Needs and Limitations, but needs are not referred to during the rest of the report. Drawing on his earlier work, he proposed that humans have three core universal basic needs in order to act and to flourish: social participation, health and autonomy. He referenced this Lancet study from 2017 on the impact of climate change on human health. Prof. Gough explained that human needs are central to sustainable wellbeing because they are:

  • Universal
  • Objective – unlike happiness
  • Plural and non-substitutable
  • Satiable and sufficient – unlike wants or preferences
  • Cross-generational

He stated that because of these qualities, needs provide a moral metric to move beyond green growth.

What can be done?

Prof. Gough explained that welfare states still perform crucial roles in meeting human needs e.g. social services, income security, which strengthen security and resilience in the face of climate change. He then outlined the various climate policy instruments e.g. carbon taxing, UK climate change act. His thesis is that we need to join up these two areas – social policy ignores climate sustainability and climate policies can be inequitable e.g. carbon pricing hurts lower income households and current UK policies to retrofit housing exacerbate fuel poverty (Hills report).

He identified three strategies towards a sustainable future, to be developed consecutively in this order:

1. Equitable green growth

  • Green new deal to retrofit the housing stock
  • Invest in low carbon public transport
  • Social tariffs for electricity, gas and water
  • Stronger policies to reduce inequality

But he cautioned that this calls for active state-steering of markets, incompatible with neo-liberal capitalism… what Naomi Klein calls the “tragedy of bad timing”

2. Recompose consumption in rich countries

  • Bring human needs and “need satisfiers” centre-stage
  • Interrogate consumer preferences and consumer sovereignty
  • Distinguish necessities and luxuries
    • Consumer demand is driven by wants and incomes
    • Bring together citizens and experts
    • Citizens’ forums that are inclusive and empowering
    • “public engagement through reasoned deliberation”
    • Must be a problem-solving process, not a way of aggregating people’s preferences
    • This happens already with the calculation of the UK Minimum Income Standards (MIS) at Loughborough University – emissions would be reduced by 37%

Eco-social policies:

  • Promote and invest in co-benefits – cycling and walking, eating less meat
  • Tax high-carbon luxuries – smart VAT, remove incentives for frequent flyers
  • Control advertising and product placement
  • Trial carbon rationing – introduce carbon cards?
  • Expand and strengthen social provision e.g. Universal Basic services – water, energy, transport, housing – improves equity and sustainability
  • Decarbonise welfare states – shrink carbon footprint of public services, upstream prevention throughout public services

3. Degrowth/post-growth – reduce total demand in rich countries

  • Can we envision a transitional strategy to such a radical future?
  • A starting point – reduce paid work time
    • Share work and reduce consumption
    • Move away from 40 hours to release time to live more sustainably

In conclusion, he called for a “new social settlement”, with sustainability goals as a central feature of eco-social policies. He closed with four imperatives:

  1. We must stay “within the lifebelt” of ecological boundaries
  2. Greening capitalism is essential but not enough
  3. It is vital to change consumption patterns in the rich world
  4. We need to find alternatives to growth itself