Climate Change: politics v reality

Brian Davey
30 April 2009

There's a lot of material in Anthony Giddens "The Politics of Climate Change". (Polity Press, Cambridge) Rather than attempting to cover it all, comprehensively, I take up just a few key points.

First of all the overall project is obviously to do a hatchet job on the Green movement. For years green thinkers have been banging on about the limits to growth, about resource depletion, about pumping toxicity into the earth's sinks, about the patent inadequacy and absurdity of GNP as an indicator of welfare, particularly in developed countries. Now, with the rocketing oil and gas prices, at least when the economy is going up, as well as the climate crisis, the world is looking increasingly like the greens said it would.

This creates something of a legitimacy crisis for establishment politicians and compels them to think about what they are going to do about these issues. Enter Lord Giddens.

With breathtaking insouciance Giddens comes along, co-opts great swathes of Green ideas, declares that the study "Limits to Growth" has an "overall emphasis that is now widely accepted", endorses "polluter pay" as a principle while, at the very same time, having the bare-faced cheek to declare the Green movement and its ideas to be quite inadequate to the task of coping with the climate change crisis.

In this regard what he does not like are risk management approaches which concentrate on worst case scenarios; green emphases on localism, de-centralisation and participatory democracy and, of course, he doesn't like a typically green distrust of corporate interests - though he is obliged to acknowledge the existence of greenwash.

Just as his book "The Third Way" provided the ideological clothing for what would otherwise have been a naked New Labour emperor, now Giddens provides a list of new "ideas" for an establishment realpolitik approach to climate change. On the book cover Bill Clinton hails the book as a "landmark".

If you look closely however the "ideas" are either pretty shallow or have already been around a long time. For example, the idea of convergence (hitching action on climate change to energy security, to improving economic competitiveness, to actions to improve social relations in other respects) has been around for ages.

But let's have a look at one or two ideas in particular. Giddens huffs and puffs about risk management. He is right, of course, that the precautionary principle, as a generalisation, does not provide a detailed way of assessing each individual case of potential environmental danger. You have to look at the detail.

But he wants to go further than this. For him there is public policy problem of how to deal with people who say that climate change might be advancing faster than the scientists think. (Or rather the scientists that he prefers to listen to).

In the politics of climate change according to Anthony Giddens there is a Goldilocks path which is neither too alarmist and nor too reassuring which one needs to walk along, inducing the public and business to change its ways, seducing them with the offer of "convergent benefits" that they will also reap if they adopt a lower carbon way of doing thing. This will allow an "ensuring state" to go a little further along a path to achieve that middle range "just right" targets are met.

Now, of course, there is a danger to this complacent vision - this is that the alarmist scenarios requiring tougher targets prove to be closer to the unfolding reality in the climate science. The cosy viewpoint leaves unexplored what happens if the climate science shows a need for more radical measures than what the politicians feel they can deliver with public opinion as it is.

In this circumstance the inclination of Giddens is to attack the messengers bringing the bad climate news rather than squaring up to the scale of the challenge and asking the question: how is the political system going to rise to the challenge?  You can see this clearly in the way that Giddens reacts to authors like Fred Pearce of the New Scientist.

In some of his writings Pearce focuses on more alarming scenarios which will "very probably" take place, where he uses the metaphor of Nature taking revenge, of violent and sudden changes.

This causes Giddens to ask what should be the response of public policy "to those who claim that climate change is advancing more quickly than the majority of scientists think. How does Pearce know that 'nature will take revenge' for our influence? What is the force of 'very probably'? Concentrating on worse-case scenarios is rarely, if ever, the best way, to deal with risks. On the contrary, it will provoke exaggerated reactions which paralyse policy rather than furthering it." (p34)

There are three issues here.

Firstly is it, or is it not, true that the latest climate science corresponds to Pearce's metaphors? This is a question about the recent trend in the climate science to emphasise reinforcing feedbacks in the climate system and hence runaway processes.  If the science is finding evidence for this then Pearce's metaphors are fully justified. So what is the situation? Certainly some very high profile and well respected climate scientists fully endorse the Pearce viewpoint. Take James Hansen for example:

"The earth's climate is very sensitive to global forcings. Positive feedbacks predominate. This allows the entire planet to be whipsawed between climate states ... Recent greenhouse gas emissions place the earth perilously close to dramatic climate change that could run out of our control with great dangers for humans and other animals" (18th Feb 2007)

It is important to note that when Hansen writes on these topics he does so as part of a group and gets his ideas peer reviewed. It is more than just journalistic rhetoric. Indeed, at the recent science conference at Copenhagen the overall message was that climate has been changing faster than the previous model estimates - in other words that "those who claim that climate change is advancing more quickly than the majority of scientists think" have been right and the scientists are adjusting their thinking accordingly. In a recent New Scientist James Lovelock forsaw a century in which population collapsed to 1 billion people. Inconveniently for Giddens the worst case  scenarios are becoming mainstream science.

Second is it true that concentrating on worst case scenarios is "not the best way to deal with climate risks"? A common way of assessing potential dangers if to multiply the probability of something happening, if known, by some measure of the scale of the impact (be it general ‘disutility' or a more specific measure such as potential fatalities). Thus if there is a 50% chance of at least two fatalities (0.5 x 2 = 1) and a 1% chance of 100,000 fatalities (0.01 x 100,000 = 1,000) one definitely would have to look at the worst case scenario. Climate impacts have these enormous magnitudes. The last time the worlds temperature rose by six degrees Celsius 95% of all species became extinct.

There are passages in his book where Giddens writes about "Doomsaying". He describes how people typically overestimate the chance of very low probability events happening - like being the victim of murder. Are these parts of his book, we wonder, intended to leave us with the feeling that worst case scenarios in the climate science may also be very tiny probabilities? If that is Gidden's intention then he is misconceived. In a lecture a year ago Nicolas Stern quoted estimates that there is a 7% probability of temperatures rising more than five degrees Celsius at his chosen stabilisation level for CO2eq of 550ppm, and this is a conservative estimate by more recent standards. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Germany's leading climate scientist was recently reported as saying that nothing currently on the political agenda for the Copenhagen climate summit provides more than a 50% chance of even stabilising the climate.

An Australian ecologist called Philip Sutton has expressed these issues more succinctly like this: would we get on a plane which we knew has a 1% chance of crashing? If not then should we not at least be as careful with the planet? All the above is a convoluted way of saying that worst case  scenarios should be taken seriously and justify very costly abatement strategies.

But how costly? Giddens warns us against "exaggerated reactions" - presumably meaning policy reactions which would involve risk abatement costs greater than those he assumes that the public (and vested commercial interests?) would be prepared to accept. However, discourses involving the real possibility of extinction are outside of the range of normal political discourse and it would be better to look for the nearest comparable situations to see what societies are prepared to put up when they have to face the truth about desperate survival situations:

Resources allocated to war effort (% of GDP)

  1939 1940 1941 1942 1943 UK 8% 31% 41% 43% 47% Soviet Union 20% 66%      


Part of the problem for Giddens appears to be that he does not think it is possible to organise really strong initiatives involving very big costs. In turn this is because he does not believe that any element of compulsion is possible (other than of the sort that we already have, like taxes). Because climate change occurs with a time lag and the public do not experience it fully in the here and now,  this make it difficult to motivate them to do enough about it in sufficient time. This idea he baptizes "The Giddens Paradox" after a great man with a seat in the House of Lords.

Unfortunately, "the Giddens Paradox" has the potential to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If politicians believe it then they will do nothing to challenge public opinion with the climate science. Whether or not it is true can only be tested by a real political experiment in which a responsible political leadership tries to explain the long term nature of this problem to the public and then sees what the public is prepared to put up with by going for policies on the scale and in the time frame necessary, resigning if it cannot push through what is necessary. If the government could face down hostile public opinion to go to war in Iraq, why can they not face down hostile public opinion to "go to war" against climate change?

Without the necessary political will and resolution it seems clear that one of the key "new ideas" invented by Giddens, "the ensuring state", is empty. If Giddens is to be our climate policy adviser we will either get targets that are easy to achieve but which do not really address the gravest dangers, or we will get targets which the state will not actually "ensure" at all. (For example by promising changes in 2050 and meanwhile doing nothing now - so that it will then become impossible to achieve these targets later.)

In fact there are ways that compulsion could be made palatable - it is just that Giddens appears to be too ignorant to know about them. It is, for example, noteworthy that for all his advocacy of "polluter pays" in half a chapter discussing the European Unions Emissions Trading System, Giddens does not notice that the EU ETS is not based on a "polluter pay" principle. The EU ETS is based on a "pay the polluter" system. It was set up that way as a result of regulatory capture - carbon interests took over the system designed to regulate them. Their opposition was bought off. As permits are given out for free to the main polluters the scarcity value of carbon accrues to the polluters. If, however, the carbon revenue were to go directly to the population then we would have an entirely different political dynamic.

Actually an ensuring state would operate like this. It would declare all fossil fuels to be climate-toxic and not to be sold without a permit. It would declare that it was going to phase out their sale as soon as possible. Permits to sell fossil fuels would be denominated in the greenhouse gas content of the fuel when burned. The permits would be limited and subjected to a rapidly declining cap. The permits would have to be purchased. And the revenue from the sales of the permits would go back to the electorate per capita.

Of course, there would still need to be a host of policies to help people cope with and adapt to a rapidly reducing cap - which needs to go rapidly to zero and into measures to take CO2 out of the atmosphere. The policy needs to be supplemented by policies for land use and deforestation - a field which Giddens has absolutely nothing to say about. It needs to be supplemented by policies to withdraw CO2 from the atmosphere. But the cap and share approach here would get the process started - to lock in the gains made in the other policies. It would give teeth to the ideas of an "ensuring state", at least at the start of the process.

However, it requires political will to rise to the challenge posed by the climate science. It is this political will, to push for whatever is necessary, in the time scale that is required, that is just what we don't get from Giddens. For him "climate politics" is a bag of not terribly original ideas with which he walks away from what the climate science seems to be saying, towards what he thinks is achievable. In the space that opens up he suggests that we must simply hope that things turn out for the best. Yet if this uninspiring realpolitik becomes mainstream climate politics, hope is just what it kills.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData