The Politics of Climate Change

book Anthony Giddens is a prominent British sociologist and a prolific author. His take on how climate change should be addressed is explained in his new book The Politics of Climate Change.  He sees global warming as a crisis of epic proportions, and one of his opening sentences describes his book as "a prolonged inquiry into a single question: why does anyone, anyone at all, for even a single day longer, continue to drive an SUV?"  The SUV is a metaphor - "we are all SUV drivers, because so few of us are geared up to the profundity of the threats we face."

Two prominent concepts he devlops are political and economic convergence. Political convergence occurs when policies relevant to mitigating climate change overlap positively with other areas of public policy and each can be used to gain traction over the other. Areas such as energy security and energy planning, technological innovation, lifestyle politics, the downside of affluence and the need for a sense of human welfare greater than mere GDP. This oblique approach avoids what he sees as the inadequacy of focusing on global warming alone, in view of the perceived inability of people to act on dangers which aren't immediate or visible. 

Economic convergence refers to situations where low-carbon technologies and lifestyles may overlap with economic competitiveness. In other words environmentally progressive policies may well coincide with what is good for the economy, and attention should be focused on this. 

Political transcendence, another of his concepts, means the question of climate change has to move beyond party divides and have an overall framework of agreement that will endure across changes of government.  Giddens notes that he has never agreed that the political centre is the antithesis of radicalism. Sometimes overall political agreement is the condition of radical policy-making, definitely so in the case of climate change.

In considering the track record of countries to date he does some thumbnail sketches of a few who have been the most successful in controlling carbon emissions - Sweden foremost, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Cost Rica, Denmark.  The case of the UK is examined in detail. The ambition of the 2008 Climate Change Act is recognised. It set a statutory target of an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 over a 1990 baseline, with five-yearly reviews of progress. The Energy Act of the same year recognised how closely climate change and energy change policy are intertwined. Giddens acknowledges the determination shown by these two pieces of legislation and notes the high degree of cross-party support in their passage through parliament. However he sees weaknesses and problems remaining, included among them the fact that the objectives of the Climate Change Act are not necessarily reconciled with other government policy - for example the third runway at Heathrow. There is a long way yet to go.

Giddens argues the state has an essential role in ensuring that a serious impact is made on global warming.

The state must help us to think ahead. This means a return to planning, in some guise or another. Targets may make government ministers feel good, but it is means which must be concentrated on in planning. Governments should also encourage other sectors of society and individuals to shift towards long-term thinking.

The state must intervene in markets to institutionalise ‘the polluter pays' principle, thereby ensuring that markets work in favour of climate change policy rather than against it. Environmental costs must not be permitted to remain outside the economic system.

The state must counter business interests which seek to block climate change initiatives. A tall order given the dominance of big business, Giddens agrees, but large-scale change must be achieved.  He believes governments acting together with enlightened corporate leaders could find a confluence of interests - an example of economic convergence.

The state must keep climate change at the top of the political agenda. Competing political parties must agree that climate change and energy policy will be sustained in spite of other differences and conflicts. Climate change should feature in the curriculum of all schools.

The state must provide subsidies to enable new technologies to thrive, since, in the beginning, they will be unable to compete with fossil fuels. 

Later in the book Giddens examines the function of international agreements and argues that along with international cooperation at the UN level, there is a role for agreements or partnerships between individual nations, groups of countries and regions which could act to strengthen more universal measures. The US and China surely need to get together. If the EU is treated as a single entity then just six countries have produced 70 percent of cumulative world emissions, twenty have been responsible for 88 percent. These groups should be meeting to contribute to collective efforts.

The book occasionally irritated me in its attitude to the green movement. I could sometimes detect a tone of "move over naïve ones, the sophisticates will take up the reins now".  I also wonder at the assertion that the public can't usefully be confronted head on with the realities of climate change.  I was, when I started to read in the area, and it has galvanised me far more than any oblique approach would have done.  I am inclined to think that the problem with public opinion and the politicians who fail to guide it is still partly that they have not in fact received a clear picture of climate change and the measures needed to abate it.  The organised denialist movement bears a heavy responsibility here. 

However I am no sociologist, and Giddens does not in any case exclude the more direct approach. I thought his book a useful, often engaging discussion of the political options and an informative account of what is under way in many parts of the world.

Related stories on Celsias:

Malaysian Government Now Trashing Rainforests...In the Amazon
Winds of Change in the US Auto Industry

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  • Posted on May 27, 2009. Listed in:

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