The democracy trap?

3 June 2005
Is the UK government's stance on climate change all wind and no substance? Sometimes it helps to step back a little to appreciate just where one stands.

What has changed, for example, since Michael Byers made these observations in an article six months ago?

"Tony Blair promised to make climate change the central thrust of his chairmanship of the G8... and raised the possibility of a government-encouraged but market-led retooling of British industry that will make the UK the leading instigator and prime beneficiary of alternative energy technologies. 'We need,' he said, 'to develop the new green industrial revolution that develops the new technologies that can confront and overcome the challenge of climate change' and 'combine reducing emissions with economic growth'.

There are at least two problems with Blair's...intentions. First, alternative energy sources can provide only a partial solution. Much more dramatic changes in consumption are needed if catastrophe is to be avoided. In Britain, a starting point would be to introduce steeply graduated transportation taxes - as the French government did earlier this year - to get people out of their petrol-guzzling vehicles and into trains, buses and hybrid-fuel cars. An environmentally directed landing fee at airports is also necessary...

The second problem with Blair's policy is that focusing on a market-based approach to climate change is like betting your house on a racehorse. There's no room for such risk-taking. As well as arguing that alternative energy makes sense in a modern economy, Blair needs to tame energy-extravagant consumerism...

I asked Michael Byers, who is Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, if he would like to comment further for this debate. He said he thought his comments first published in January were still applicable. Has so little changed?

The political recipe for change that Byers outlines looks highly indigestible. Can politicians in a democracy behave differently and survive?

Tom Bentley, the director of Demos think tank and openDemocracy contributor, warns in an essay to be published today that democracy is in crisis ("Everyday democracy"). He suggests that the real task of modern leaders will - should? - be to tell voters that they have to change their own behaviour if issues such as climate change are to be solved. But, he thinks, we have made genuine political leadership which tackles the big issues faced by society almost impossible.

Calls for leadership need to be carefully crafted - honestly grounded - at a time when the French and - it looks - the Dutch people reject the recommendations of the political class.


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