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

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?

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8 Responses to “‘The Politics of Climate Change’ Verdict on Anthony Giddens’ new book? Please try harder….”
  1. Ines

    Duncan, thanks for the great summary of Giddens’ book.
    You ask, what is missing? Have not read the book but I can hazard a guess at what is missing:

    “Although there are numerous mandates that demand the gender approach be integrated in all spheres of development, human rights and the environment, the approach is still absent from international climate change policies. Nevertheless, the UNFCCC is determined by the United Nations framework; therefore, decisions taken by the General Assembly and conventions or treaties concerning gender are binding. If responses to climate change are to consider the vulnerabilities and capacities of men and women, the debate about climate change should consider development and human rights. At present, global negotiations on climate change are mainly focused on reducing GHGs by means of the UNFCCC, the IPCC, the Kyoto Protocol, and other related mechanisms. The gender dimension has not been significantly broached in considering adaptation and mitigation, and therefore they provide neither a legal framework nor a rights-based approach needed to implement responses to climate change that are equitable for both men and women. (UNDP 2009 Resource guide on gender and Climate change , 51)”

  2. J

    In saying “We must create a positive model of a low carbon future. There is no such model at the moment” the author misses out at least one possible model for a low carbon future – that of “transition towns” (eg: http://transitiontowns.org). There may still be a lot of work to go in embedding the concept into our national psyche, but there is a huge excitement at the moment around what it could do.

  3. Ken Smith

    Isn’t one of the things missing in the NGO debate about how change happens – the role of faith organisations ? Maybe if American evangelicals had a different view of the world , maybe if faiths had a more gender inclusive attitude ? People of faith have been at the centre of great changes like Martin Luther King , are there any other current postive examples out there?

  4. Duncan

    Well, the news on the US evangelical front is not great. Have a look at this recent Guardian article. A recent poll shows that “white evangelical Protestants” were the group with the lowest level – 34% of those surveyed – of acceptance that there is solid evidence that global warming is real and that it is attributable to humans. This compares with 47% of the total US population (still startlingly low), and 58% of those surveyed who “had faith” but who were unaffiliated to any particular religious tradition.

    Which is a shame, because some evangelical groups in the US have been pushing what seems a more logical message, that the biblical notion of ‘stewardship’ should make Christians disposed to combat climate change, rather than deny its existence. See for example this 2006 piece from NPR. Pity they aren’t having more success.

  5. Matt

    Duncan – hang on you missed the most important part of this book, indeed probably the most important recent contribution to the climate change debate, in the much vaunted “Giddens Paradox”(tm) which Anthony puts great stress on.

    It’s such an original and intellectual brilliant idea, that I’m having trouble remembering exactly what it is.

    Was something like “if the political power of an idea rest upon the size of the ego proposing it, how can brilliant ideas by modest people not be overwhelmed in public discourse by drivel from aging egoists?”

    Is that about right?

  6. Duncan

    errm, I decided to try and overlook Lord Giddens’ unfortunate lapse, Matt. But since you raise it, what he determinedly (desperately?) tries to label as the ‘Giddens’ Paradox’ (and I quote), ‘states that, since the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life, however awesome they appear, many will sit on their hands and do nothing of a concrete nature about them. yet waiting until they become visible and acute before being stirred to serious action will, by definition, be too late.’A decidely unoriginal ‘paradox’ known to the rest of us as ‘giving up smoking’…..

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