The Politics of Climate Change: Is This Time Different?

August 29, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve had a couple of people asking why I haven’t been doing more on climate change on this blog. Be careful what you wish for……

I spent a lovely summer’s evening recently discussing the politics of climate change with Matthew Lockwood. Matthew is an old friend, who has just revived his must-read Political Climate blog.

Over the years, Matthew has had a big influence on my thinking. His 2005 book ‘The State They’re In’ was a brilliant critique of the Make Poverty History campaign and a call for northern activism to take more interest in politics, power, and the nature of the state, all of which made their way into the core arguments of From Poverty to Power (the book, not just this blog).

This time, I wanted to pick his brains on whether the climate movement has a similar blind spot on politics and power. Here’s some excerpts, if you don’t want to listen to the full interview (23 minutes). Extra points if you can hear the green woodpecker in the background.

Extinction Rebellion

About ten years ago we had a big wave of public concern about Climate Change around the world. We saw a lot of political responses – in the UK we got the Climate Change Act in 2008. 10/15 years on we now have another wave of concern, but there are some differences. Last time it was led from the top, by people like David King, the UK Government’s Chief Scientist. The Confederation of British Industry was involved. Even Tony Blair played a leading part. But this time, it is coming from below, from Greta Thunberg, the Climate School Strikes, Extinction Rebellion.

The key question is, ‘is it going to dissipate and disappear?’ The last time we had a big wave of what political scientists call an ‘issue attention cycle’ it started in early 2004, and by 2008/9 was on the way out. But that is still several years and this time round the evidence of change makes it much more convincing: the heatwaves; farmers are getting worried.

Duncan: So how does that concern turn into political action, and mass consumer action?

Matthew: I actually think the political response is easier than the social response, so let’s take that first. The Issue Attention Cycle concept comes from an American scholar called Anthony Downs, who was very prescient. He said what happens is that when you get a big upsurge in an issue as a public concern, politicians want to do something – already we’ve seen them declare a climate emergency – and you then get an institutionalization of that concern. Politicians bring in new policies, set up new bodies, and then partly because they are seen to be doing something, the public thinks they can stop worrying.

The problem is that sometimes what appears to be a response leads people into a false sense of security in this way, and that is what happened after that last moment in the mid 2000s.

Duncan: So let’s move on to the social part of this. You’re looking at a mass change of behaviours from corporates, in production, in consumption. Are there any historical precedents for that?

Matthew: The example that’s often used by campaigners is the Second World War, when there were mass changes of behaviour in response to the threat of war and the needs of the state.  I think that comparison makes sense for a few people, but for the mass of people it doesn’t work – people aren’t acting as though it really is an immediate threat.

There’s two routes ahead of us: the degrowth camp, where people say you have to value different things, stop consuming. But the big question is how are you going to get there? I see no sign that there is a viable political path to that.

The other camp is the ‘technology will save us’ camp. At the moment that seems more likely: it is already happening; governments and big companies are driving it. But the big question there is will it be big enough and fast enough?

Duncan: There’s another precedent, which is something like the Reformation. Something more normative, more profound. Alex Evans argues in The Myth Gap that only religious narratives can go deep enough, fast enough. Thoughts?

Matthew: It does speak to a more fundamental rethink of our relationship with the natural world, but in the UK that is likely to be more secular. The use of materials, the way we take in energy from the environment. Moving from control to accommodation with nature. 40 years ago that sounded very hippy, but now you hear it from companies, governments. The rewilding movement is a good example.

Duncan:  NGOs tend to see technology on climate change as letting governments and others off the hook. They want to go with degrowth or legislation instead. But if the answer is technological, as seems likely, we need to think about the power and politics of the tech response to climate change.

Matthew: The world seems split between degrowthers and techno-optimists, and all the distributional issues and politics falls in the middle. But control of technology is not always concentrated – you see different countries pursuing very different routes; there are always opportunities in areas like renewables, which have the potential to be decentralized.

In developing countries there’s also the whole energy access issue, which cuts across both climate change and development. Renewables, especially small scale distributed renewables, seem to be the solution there. We’re in a more optimistic position than we were 20 years ago, but as always, issues of who owns this technology, who controls it, will be central.

The world seems split between degrowthers and techno-optimists, and all the distributional issues and politics falls in the middle.

Duncan: Tell us your plans for the Political Climate blog and why we should all be signing up!

Matthew: The blog has always been about thinking about climate policy in a political way. I’ve spent time as an academic over the last 5/6 years, reading a lot of theories about climate policy. I see a big gap between that theory and people trying to make change on the ground in NGOs or Government. The theory is quite abstract and not very helpful for campaigners and policy makers, so I want to translate that academic work, but also test it out in practice.

Final (depressing) thought: One thing we haven’t covered is what’s going on at the moment. The next 5 years is critical for a global response to start reducing emissions. But we’re also in a pivotal moment where inequality and social changes have led to a turn towards populism. We’re trying to do the most difficult bit, at the most difficult political moment.

Tomorrow, I’ll be applying How Change Happens thinking to the climate crisis and looking for precedents