The politics of climate change: a debate guide

Caspar Henderson
8 June 2005

In the end, it was really no contest.

On the one hand there were the seven academies of science from the world’s leading industrial powers plus those of Russia, India, China and Brazil – the full weight of world scientific opinion. They said that “the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action”.

On the other hand there was White House staffer Philip Cooney, a lawyer with a bachelor’s degree in economics but no scientific training. He altered documents from senior United States government science advisors to produce an air of doubt about findings that are scientifically robust.

But the staffer, a former employee of the American Petroleum Institute, had the ear of the most powerful man in the world, George W Bush. And the president, while voicing general expressions of concern, was not about to commit the US to specific actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Groundhog day

We have been here before. In some ways, the debate has advanced little since 1989 when British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev said that climate change posed a massive and serious threat to humanity. The world agreed a Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) and pledged to take action to avoid dangerous global warming. Meanwhile, emissions of greenhouse gases continued to skyrocket.

But the game is not over. The science of climate change has progressed hugely. Energy technology options have come on apace. Political and citizens’ groups have multiplied and increased in strength and organisation.

Meanwhile, the major oil and gas companies have continued to show the highest return on capital of any industrial sector, at some 12% on average (in 2001 ExxonMobil made a 17.8% return on capital).

It may look like we are going round in circles, but look a little closer and the situation is three-, not two-dimensional – more like a helix than a circle. So how do we tell if we are sliding up or down?

A way in

openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change is a good place to start. It comprises around fifty newly-commissioned articles by leading scientists, writers and others.

Together they address six major aspects of climate change:

And the debate featured a lively forum with over 300 posts so far by openDemocracy members, and a blog which probes the unfolding argument in the debate, and offers another easy way in.

Top tips

For a speed-read of some of the best of this debate, go to the overview page or dive into this quick eight:

Already many tens of thousands of people across the world have read these and other articles, and perhaps used them to sharpen their minds for the journey ahead. The debate continues, not least in the work of the British Council, which generously supported this openDemocracy endeavour and whose ZeroCarbonCity initiative – a two-year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change – continues. Join us!

This article appears as part of openDemocracy‘s online debate on the politics of climate change. The debate was developed in partnership with the British Council as part of their ZeroCarbonCity initiative – a two year global campaign to raise awareness and stimulate debate around the challenges of climate change.

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