‘The Politics of Climate Change’ Verdict on Anthony Giddens’ new book? Please try harder….

June 16, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

This is definitely the right subject – enough of ‘if I ruled the world’ policy solutions by environmental snake-oil salesmen, what are the politics of getting a breakthrough on climate change in time to stop the earth frying? Giddens’ new book even gets in a dig at his fellow LSE peer Nicholas Stern, saying ‘”Extraordinarily, there is no mention of politics in Stern’s discussion, no analysis of power. It is as if the ‘global deal’ will be reached as soon as the nations of the world see reason.” Although there is a lot of good stuff in here, sadly, Giddens fails to deliver on the title’s promise – lots of policy wonkery and techno-whizzery, but the politics is actually rather thin. Very frustrating.

Here are some of the main arguments:
– he starts off with a sideswipe at the Greens, claiming that their origin as a reaction to industrialization and modernity and insistence on participatory approaches to everything ‘is now more of a problem rather than any help’. He is particularly critical of the ‘precautionary principle’, aka ‘better safe than sorry’, arguing that when it comes to climate change, its opposite ‘he who hesitates is lost’ is more relevant – hare argues that we must be prepared to take at least some technological risks in battling climate change.
– Similarly, he is critical of the hairshirtists: ‘most prescriptions are about saving, cutting back, retreating. Many are important, but no approach based mainly upon deprivation is going to work. We must create a positive model of a low carbon future. There is no such model at the moment.’
– He reckons the shock tactics and ‘politics of fear’ practiced by some climate change activists undermines the chance of building a broad coalition, pointing out that Martin Luther King didn’t stir people to action by declaring ‘I have a nightmare.’
– He’s big on the state, bigger in fact than when he was when promoting the ‘Third Way’ that so captivated Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. He believes ‘it will be national policy-making which will in the end determine how much progress really is made.’ Climate change, he argues, requires an ‘ensuring state’ not just an enabling one – there are now absolute carbon reduction targets that the state has to meet. However, he defaults to Blairite market-friendly approaches when he criticises the thinking behind the Green New Deal as being too much about governments picking winners.
– He’s been listening to yet another LSE peer, Richard Layard: ‘We can no longer equate progress with economic growth. Above a certain level of affluence, growth no longer correlates highly with wider criteria of welfare. Placing the notion of welfare at the forefront might mesh very closely with climate change goals. Economic growth elevates emissions: what is the point of making a fetish of growth if in some large part it diminishes rather than promotes welfare?’ He calls it ‘over-development’ – nice.
– He insists on the need to reunite the debates on climate change and energy security. This is where he sees the real politics at work, (for good or ill) and this is where the solutions to climate change must lie.

Overall, he’s much clearer on what he thinks won’t work, than what will: he’s critical of carbon markets (he prefers carbon taxes, provided their impact on inequality is taken into account). He thinks the Kyoto negotiators are largely wasting their breath, arguing that the process is like the WTO – a few systemically significant ‘major emitters’ being held back from reaching agreement by the need for cat-herding universalism. Instead he thinks progress on reducing emissions (mitigation) will come through the climate equivalent of regional trade agreements between the big emitters, while the UN system channels finance to the poor countries to help them cope with the impacts (adaptation).
So what’s missing? There are tantalising glimpses of history, but nowhere near enough substance – what have been the domestic and international conditions that allowed Sweden, Germany and others to get their emissions down in recent decades? Are they replicable or were they driven by specific events, national institutions, traditions etc? What magnitude of shock might shift governments sufficiently (The Great Depression? World War Two?), and where might it come from? What analogous international or national processes can be identified, like arms control, nuclear weapons reductions, bans on chemical warfare etc?

At its heart this shares the same weaknesses as Stern’s work – a technocrat’s view of climate change, with little emphasis on power or how change actually happens. It’s much more about policies, planning and wise governments busily seeking win wins, along with the ‘peacetime politics’ of diplomacy, agenda setting and shaping public opinion. He calls for consensus and urges politicians not to make climate change a party political issue, but has few ideas (beyond standing committees) about how to achieve this. This is exhortation not politics. None of it approaches the kind of radical political and institutional step change that is required to keep emissions within the planet’s atmospheric limits.

‘We have no politics of climate change’ laments the introduction. After Lord Giddens’ efforts, we still don’t. And it’s not as if the NGOs or anyone else really has a convincing answer, so the disappointment really matters. Anyone else want to give it a go?

June 16, 2009
Duncan Green