On Friday 1st August 1834 the Slavery Abolition Act, which had been passed the previous year in Parliament, came into force.  The gradual freeing of slaves throughout the British Empire began and was complete by 1838 (except in India which was a few years later).   The Act was principally passed not for economic or political reasons, but because the majority of the British electorate came to conclude that the facts and ethics of slavery made the case for Abolition compelling.

There are parallels here with global campaigns to cease high carbon emissions to our atmosphere.  Certainly, action equivalently drastic to Abolition is required because emissions are still rising despite decades of international agreements and targets.  The graph below shows how energy use is still rising and is dominated by fossil fuels.  Brutal action is required, not more of the same.  We can celebrate achievements so far, as the abolitionists could celebrate the 1807 Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, but we know that the big step is still ahead.

A simple parallel are the Deniers: people who cannot accept the evidence.  In the case of slavery, they maintained that slaves were not fully human or that they benefited from slavery or that slavery was sanctioned by God.  With hindsight we now know that such views can be overcome.  A yet more encouraging parallel, I trust, is success after perseverance; the Abolitionists must have overcome much disheartenment.  While the campaign started with the Quakers centuries before 1833, the active movement that eventually saw Abolition began with Clarkson & Wilberforce in about 1787.  The Abolition Act received its third reading just three days before Wilberforce died.  All the many supporters made longstanding efforts as well, one example was denying themselves sugar, which was a principal product of the Caribbean slave estates.   Campaigning lasted nearly 50 years.

Artwork from the famous campaigning medallion manufactured by Abolition supporter Josiah Wedgwood at his own expense

Artwork from the famous campaigning medallion manufactured by Abolition supporter Josiah Wedgwood at his own expense

It seems that gradually the case was won, and what appeared like something that would never happen suddenly became reality.  The turnaround seemed to be prompted by two events – the Christmas 1831 slave revolt in Jamaica, with subsequent Parliament inquiries, and the Reform Act of 1832, which widened the electorate and so brought more abolitionists into Parliament.  All those feelings of hopelessness, after nearly 50 years of campaigning without the main prize, were blown away.  I imagine that the strong measures required to address global warming comprehensively will be implemented suddenly, prompted by the hard work of long term campaigning together with events that change circumstances quickly and unexpectedly.  A policy such as the CCL one, which can attract cross-party and popular support, is ideal for this circumstance.

Another parallel is the need for imagination to understand and have empathy over the harm we are producing.  There were no BBC reports from the slave plantations, even photography was not yet invented.  The public just had drawings, lithographs and reports to help them imagine the harm.  For us we also have to trust those giving us the information on the harms that global warming will produce for people, especially in less economically developed countries, and for the environment.   If Michael Buerk could report from a famine in 2084 clearly caused by our carbon emissions, as he did report from the 1984 Ethiopian famine, then action would be immediate and robust.

We can again be encouraged by a further parallel, the massive vested interests, especially for those in power.  The British upper class were those benefiting from exploiting the misery of slaves and were also those able to exercise power in Parliament.  In fact, as we will see, this extended down to many in the middle class as well.  In order to introduce robust action to address climate change, we must overcome the vested interests of the fossil fuel multinationals, the lobbyists, even the SUV owners and the frequent flyers.  1833 informs us that this can be done.  Again the CCL policy of Fee and Dividend is well suited because it does not outlaw the SUV owner or oil boss in the same way that slave investors were treated sensitively in the 1830s.

The abolitionists must have needed to overcome the fears for the economy, which may have been seen as depended on slavery.  A notable example is the Lancashire cotton industry dependent on slave-produced cotton from the American deep south.  Of course, that was no longer a part of the British empire in 1833, but the fears would still need to be addressed.  The Director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College London, Dr Nicholas Draper, claims that as many as one fifth of wealthy Victorian Britons derived all or part of their fortunes from the slave economy and that up to 10 per cent of Britons who died in the 18th century had benefited.   A sufficiently robust policy to address climate change that can be shown not to adversely impact the economy is required.  The CCL policy of a Carbon Fee and a Dividend to households has been shown to prompt healthy growth in the economy and to produce the massive reductions in carbon emissions we require.

My final parallel is one I find most interesting.  In 1834 there was a need to compensate slave owners and this was implemented.  In fact the compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners was apparently the largest ‘bailout’ in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009.  A total of £20million was passed on as compensation, which was 5% of the British GDP at that time.  Interestingly, records show that many normal middle class people living in Britain, not in the slave colonies, were included as they had invested in plantations holding slaves, or had inherited them.  This total compensation was vast and itself a potential threat to government finances.  £15million had to be borrowed from banks, and amazingly, it was only finally paid back fully in 2015.  Today the fossil fuel companies hold assets fully declared in their accounts: the value of the reserves of oil, gas and coal that they hold.  Many of our pension funds have investments tied to those assets.  But if we are to limit global warming, those reserves must largely stay unused in the ground.  They are estimated to be worth about $20 trillion which is about 25% of the global economy of $80 trillion p.a.   It is a vast sum, that could be addressed over time rather than the sudden need for compensation after Abolition.

The example of Abolition, shows that this can be accommodated.  An analysis has concluded “The amount of money available to the compensation fund reflects how much influence elite Victorians had on the UK government of the day. The fiscal injection of cash into the economy had textbook consequences including an increase in GDP, high inflation and rising asset prices. It is an interesting economic event from Great Britain’s distant past, albeit one generated from the horrors of slavery.”

Once the will is there and a policy fair to all is on offer, then change can occur amazingly rapidly.  We have that policy, let’s make sure people know about it when the time arrives.


  1. Clive Williams

    The great benefactors’ names are known but the real work had to be done on West Indian ground by West Indians victimised by the horror, I have learned in Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Guyana and many others, as working with West Indian people in the ‘sixties.