The politics of climate change

About the author
Simon Maxwell is a senior research associate of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Britain's leading independent think-tank on international development and humanitarian policy. He is executive chair of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network

The rooted view that climate-change policy-making is inescapably political is usually connected to an understanding of politics that puts conflict at its heart. The idea is that this is an area where choices and trade-offs - between social groups, geographies, interests and generations - abound, and the potential for conflict lurks at every turn.

Simon Maxwell is senior research associate of the Overseas Development Institute

Also by Simon Maxwell in openDemocracy:

"Inside the palace of glass" (27 June 2001)

"Chemical warfare in the bathroom" (15 August 2001)

"The global development agenda in 2007" (21 December 2006)

"Rome's food summit: a torch passed" (6 June 2008)

"Development in a downturn" (4 July 2008)

"A new global order: Bretton Woods II...and San Francisco II" (11 November 2008) - with Dirk Messner

"Financing development: from Monterrey to Doha" (26 November 2008) - with Alison Evans

"Global development: Barack Obama's agenda" (20 January 2009)

Carbon-taxes which reduce emissions but which exacerbate the fuel-poverty of the poor; technology subsidies which support sunrise industries but harm older factories in the rust-belt; externalities imposed on poor countries by excessive consumption in rich ones, taking the form of less rainfall or more severe storms; costs passed from this generation to future ones, as "our" emissions cause change to "their" climate - these are just some of the dilemmas that shadow every policy choice. The implication is that the climate-change task is a form of political contest.

This view is reflected in a three-part appeal for action on climate change I published in January 2009. The third call was to values:

"Finally, action on climate change will be contested and highly political, at national level and internationally. There will be winners as well as losers, not least between the generations. Decision-making needs to be principled - and principled decision-making needs principles. What are they?

Environmental sustainability on its own is not sufficient. People's welfare is at stake and social justice is in play. Douglas Alexander, the UK's Secretary of State for International Development, has talked of global social justice, a useful paradigm for climate change.

Building on UK discourse, that could mean four things:

  • Equal citizenship and equal rights;
  • Equal opportunities;
  • A social minimum; and
  • Reasonable equity in outcomes.

This is a challenging agenda. It puts human rights and human development squarely at the centre of the discussion. It insists on legally binding frameworks and accountabilities. It imposes obligations to increase the level of social protection, especially in the face of climate-induced natural disasters. And it emphasises equity in outcomes, so that the historic polluters in rich nations do not bank all the gains and exclude poor people and poor states.

All these values are central to development, familiar from our work on poverty, human development and capabilities. They play well to current preoccupations with partnership, accountability and voice.

They provide a template within which the poor can exercise their voice. And within which we can exercise ours" (see Simon Maxwell, "A triple call on climate change", Overseas Development Institute [ODI], 21 January 2009).

The consensus road

Against this background, it is a surprise and challenge to encounter two new books on climate change that argue both the need for and the possibility of consensus across political boundaries. They are by, respectively, a sociological theorist with a strong practical bent, and a practising politician (a member of the British parliament, representing the Labour Party) with a strong interest in theory: Anthony Giddens's The Politics of Climate Change (Polity, 2009) and Colin Challen's Too Little, Too Late (Picnic, 2009; and, yes, subtitled the politics of climate change).

Anthony Giddens is well known as the inventor of the "third way", the accommodation between social democracy and market capitalism that underpinned  the political rise of "New Labour" in Britain. The starting-point of a book whose title alludes to the Stern review of the "economics of climate change" published in October 2006 is that "(we) have no politics of climate change", no "developed analysis of the political innovations that have to be made".

Giddens suggests many such innovations,  among them the idea of "political transcendence" in which "climate change...is not a left-right issue", but one for which "a cross-party framework of some kind has to be forged to develop a politics of the long-term". Giddens argues for a consensus-based "radicalism of the centre" involving a suspension of hostilities between rival parties, and for a "concordat" on climate.

Colin Challen, who founded the all-party parliamentary group on climate change (APPGCC) at Westminster, has been in the vanguard of climate campaigners. He is well aware of the pressures exerted by a competitive political system, and argues that "to break out of this padded cell requires courage. It may, indeed probably will, mean abandoning tribal loyalties, and risking the approbation of one's political kin...".

openDemocracy writers explore the politics of climate change, including the debate of that name (edited by Caspar Henderson) in 2004-05:

Stephan Harrison, "Kazakhstan: glaciers and geopolitics" (27 May 2005)

Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore" (27 July 2006)

Simon Retallack, "Climate change: the global test" (10 November 2006)

Tom Burke, "Climate change: choosing the tools" (21 December 2006)

Dougald Hine, "Climate change: a question of democracy" (2 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A politics of global warming: the social-science resource" (29 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A climate of crisis: towards the eco-state" (19 September 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate change: from issue to magnifier" (19 October 2007)

David Shearman, "Democracy and climate change: a story of failure" (7 November 2007)

Tom Burke, "The world and climate change: all together now" (7 December 2007)

Saleemul Huq, Oliver Tickell, David Steven, Camilla Toulmin, Andrew Dobson and Alun Anderson, "Was Bali a success?" (18 December 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate security: the new determinism" (20 December 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Amid the financial storm: redirecting climate change" (30 October 2008)

Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change futures: postcard from Poznan" (11 December 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Climate change: rock the state, save the planet" (21 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Climate change: a failure of leadership" (8 May 2009)

There are precedents, however. Among them, in Britain, are the second-world-war coalition government led by Winston Churchill, the cross-party consensus which helped secure agreement in Northern Ireland, and the post-devolution coalitions in Scotland and Wales. The United States congress's frequent bipartisan initiatives are another example. Challen, referring to the political strategy of "triangulation" espoused by Bill Clinton, argues that "true consensus should beat cynical triangulation any day."

These authors are not naive: both are well aware of the externalities and trade-offs which beset discussion of and efforts to achieve progress on climate change. They are also clear about the context: the moral imperative of tackling climate change, the needs of developing states and of the poor more generally (including those in rich states), and the power of interests and lobbies, such as oil companies and the nuclear industry (Challen writes with fury about the distortion of policy-making which can result from their activities). Both too are very concerned about the international geopolitics of climate change, especially the participation of China - even as it announces its own ambitious plans for emissions-reduction via a massive investment into renewable energy - in the post-Kyoto framework.

But if there are such problems, why then should an engaged theorist and a thoughtful politician each conclude that political consensus can be reached and become an instrument of progress on climate change? And how is such an outcome possible?

The why and the how

The answer to the "why" question is relatively straightforward. Climate change is a long-term issue, in which policy requires patience and consistency for its effects to emerge: a predictable price for carbon, whether achieved by taxation or emissions-trading; sustained and predictable subsidies for new technologies like solar- or wind-power; and enduring and guaranteed financial flows from rich to poor states. Anthony Giddens identifies the challenge as "one of the core problems that democratic countries face - how to construct plans that survive successive changes of government".

The answer to the "how" question is more difficult, in terms of policy - both within and between countries. If the work of consensus-building is central, it must also be part of a larger political strategy. Giddens has a great deal to say about how electors can be persuaded to be more enthusiastic than polls suggest they currently are about taking action on climate change. He talks about political and economic "convergence" (for example, promoting domestic energy-saving measures as cost-saving as well as - or instead of - climate-protecting).

More concretely, Giddens and Challen between them offer a series of options:

* Use all-party parliamentary groups to foster discussion and consensus-building. Examples include the APPGCC report entitled "Is a cross party consensus on climate change possible - or desirable?" and the later "joint statement" by opposition parties in the British parliament on a "cross-party approach to climate change"

* Aim for consensus on long-term objectives, without focusing at all on detail - as in Britain's Climate Change Act (2008), which mandates cuts in overall carbon-emissions without specifying how they are to be achieved

* Set up independent bodies - such as the committee on climate change, created by the Climate Change Act - to monitor progress in achieving targets and to advise on (but not yet mandate) the measures

* Require such bodies to help build consensus, for example by consulting all political parties

* Seek ways to increase the costs of "defection" from the consensus; or, as Challen says, "there has to be acknowledgment that for a consensus to work, there must be structures agreed which will cost any freeloader an immense amount of political capital"

* Encourage mass movements and civil-society action-groups to agitate for change (to this can be added the role of think-tanks in promoting the development of "epistemic communities" or "communities of practice" in helping to shape debate).

There are limits to these options, however. Challen tells some good stories about how electoral politics can be an obstacle to cross-party consensus. He observes that politicians favour coalitions if "they' will adopt "our" policies. He also suggests that "the calm pastures of cross-party consensus will be most thoroughly tested" when it comes to delivering results: "Just because we all agree climate change is happening and it's very nasty, does not automatically translate into ‘and here is our joint statement on carbon taxation policy'''. 

The limits seem particularly strict in relation to international agreements. Giddens is pessimistic about the potential for consensus being reached at the  Copenhagen conference on 7-18 December 2009, where the world's nation-states will seek to agree a replacement for the Kyoto protocol (which expires in 2012); he argues that "the splits between key players, the divergent interests and perceptions that exist between nations and blocs of nations, are all still there. Even if common and specific commitments could be forged, there are no effective mechanisms of enforcement." Further, "the great danger of the Kyoto-style approach to climate change is that an elaborate, detailed and nuanced architecture may be created, but no buildings actually get constructed".

This analysis draws on the approach of the Stanford University political scientist David G Victor, who says that a process with universal participation, binding emissions-targets, integrated emissions-trading and compensation to poorer countries is a guarantee of stalemate. Giddens concludes that binding targets are only ever likely to work at a national or local level - he recommends instead working for looser forms of collaboration, especially between the United States and China.

The collective-action model

The risk in this approach is a sort of collective evasion in which all involved focus on long-term objectives - for example, avoid detail at all costs; have little to say on implementation; remain sceptical about multilateralism; trust Barack Obama and Wen Jiabao to do a deal.

I hope we can do more, and on a foundation of principles and values. In the absence of a hegemonic political party that will hold power long enough to embed national climate-change policies in a wider process (and in this respect Giddens cites with approval experience from Scandinavia)  a more detailed conversation is needed - about deal-making and political compromise, about public pressure and political accountability.

The implications of Giddens's and Challen's ideas for developing countries must be central to this. Should the parliaments of middle-income states also pass a climate act, and set up their own committees on climate change? Could scenario-planning techniques, as successfully used to build consensus in (for example) South Africa, be generalised? Could a climate-change equivalent of a popular movement like Make Poverty History or the United Nations's Millennium Campaign make a real difference? What could more support for think-tanks and civil-society groups working on climate change achieve?

There is important research work on global deal-making, from (for example) the Centre for International Governance Innovation (Waterloo, Ontario) and the German Development Institute (Bonn). In an article on the future of global governance - reflecting on the United Nations report In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All (2005) - I outlined an eight-step programme for more effective collective action (see "How to help reform multilateral institutions: an eight-step program for more effective collective action", Global Governance, October-December 2005).

In brief the steps are:

* keep the core group small

* develop trust-building measures from the beginning

* use the same core group for as many issues as possible

* encourage network closure; make it awkward or embarrassing for those who refuse to cooperate

* choose the right issues - the ones from which all the players have something to gain and something to lose

* after that, start to think about positive incentives

* understand that collective action is often most successful when the costs of defection are high

* establish the institutions that will manage these interactions and relationships.

An example of a practical outcome of such an approach is Aid for Trade, a central plank of the Doha trade negotiations which was devised as an incentive to developing countries to sign a trade deal. Anthony Giddens suggests that Russia ratified Kyoto because the European Union in return promised its support for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organisation. Are there more such examples, and opportunities? What are the deal-makers for Copenhagen? Dirk Messner and I have written on openDemocracy about wider reform of global governance, advocating a kind of Brandt commission for the 21st century. Would that help to build consensus?

When I wrote my "triple call" in January 2009, I started by saying that nobody in the development field could stand aside from climate change: it requires the attention of every one of us - urban and rural, national and international, development and humanitarian. Climate change will be even faster and more severe than has until recently been thought. There is a need for radical new policies, shaped by a vision of global social justice. To succeed in this ambitious and essential task will require sophisticated political management. There is indeed no escape from "the politics of climate change".