A couple of weeks ago I read Will Hutton’s column in the Guardian announcing that sociologist Anthony Giddens’ new book The Politics of Climate Change was an attack on the “mystic, utopian views of the green movement” and its impossible demands that we give up our current standard of living. I had Gidden’s book on order and felt dismayed at the prospect of reading the accusations Hutton expatiated on in his column. I needn’t have worried. Hutton was using the book to launch his own, not Giddens’, diatribe. Giddens does say some rather facile things about the green movement, but not to the extreme that Hutton suggested.
Giddens takes climate change seriously though he insists, in passing, on a degree of respect for the ‘sceptics’ which suggests that he isn’t fully conversant with the science. He speaks of a crisis of epic proportions, and one of his opening sentences describes his book as “a prolonged enquiry 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.”
The scale of global warming and the fact that it is mainly about the future make it a unique problem, and paradoxically a difficult one for us to engage with, he says. We are dealing with dangers that seem abstract and elusive, however potentially devastating. What should be a front-of-mind issue becomes a back-of-mind one.
Giddens develops a number of concepts in the course of the book. Two of prominence 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. He somewhat qualifies this with the recognition that growth should not be treated as an unalloyed benefit, especially in the developed countries.
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. He includes New Zealand largely on the grounds of our ambitions which he thinks look unlikely to be realised. It’s not clear whether he’s caught up on the fact that NZ’s present government has disavowed any wish to show leadership in the matter. The case of the UK is examined in detail, some of which I’ll traverse here as an example of the kind of detailed useful information the book incorporates. 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. A progress report will be published every five years and reviewed by Parliament, along with the ongoing results of an adaptation programme. A carbon budget will be established to cover each five-year period. A Committee on Climate Change will advise the government on the level of carbon budgets and the optimal path towards emission reduction targets. 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. Although some sceptics used the opportunity to air their views the main clauses were strengthened rather than weakened. He goes on to discuss weaknesses and problems which remain, the following among them: the policies are more about ‘what to do’ than ‘how to do’; both Acts are organized mainly in terms of negatives and lack a positive vision; the Climate Change Committee is only advisory; the objectives of the Climate Change Act are not necessarily reconciled with other government policy – eg. Heathrow. The chapter concludes with the recognition that progress is relatively limited even among the best performing nations. There is a long way yet to go.
Giddens goes on to consider the role of the state in ensuring that a serious impact is made on global warming. While he agrees that international agreements will be essential and that many other agencies, including NGOs and businesses, will play a fundamental role, it is the state which retains many of the powers that will need to be invoked. A few examples follow.
The state must help us to think ahead. Political leaders must introduce policies for the long term. 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. So-called externalities must be brought into the marketplace. 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. Giddens discusses in some detail the function carbon taxes can play in stimulating innovation. He inclines towards carbon taxes over carbon emissions markets, though sees no reason why the two can’t co-exist.
Later in the book Giddens examines the function of international agreements. He expresses reservations about the effectiveness of the Kyoto-style approach in terms of the danger that an elaborate architecture may be created but no buildings actually get constructed. The national and local level are the places where binding targets are most likely to work. He does not suggest we turn our backs on international cooperation, but thinks 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, since where climate change and energy security are concerned they hold the future of the world in their hands. 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.
If Giddens stands with the optimists, it is not in the sense that the risks we face have been exaggerated. Doomsday is a possibility imminent in our society and economy. He is optimistic in the sense that he sees risk and opportunity belonging together and considers it possible that we can mobilise to meet the opportunities through appropriate new technologies.
The book occasionally irritated me in its attitude to the green groups which have for some time sounded the alarm on climate change and spoken of the need for changes in society’s direction. 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 of these sophisticates 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 not simply that they are unwilling to face the facts, but also that they have not yet 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. Nor does he evade the need for policy measures to be fully adequate to the challenge. 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.