21 May 2012

The void at the heart of Anthony Giddens climate politics

by David Spratt.  This review first appeared in Social Alternatives

Anthony Giddens, 2011, The Politics of Climate Change. (2nd edn.): Cambridge: Polity, 264 pp, ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-4692-3 

Anthony Giddens, the architect of New Labour’s "Third Way" in the UK, turns his attention to “The Politics of Climate Change”, now in a new, post-Copenhagen edition of the book first published in 2009.
     Recognising that unchecked climate change “constitutes an existential threat to our civilisation”, Giddens poses two questions. Why do most people act as though this threat can be ignored?
     And what political innovations have to be made to limit global warming impacts? I found the answers to both questions unsatisfactory, because Giddens systematically underestimates the urgency of the problem, and the political challenges.

      Why do we ignore the threat? Giddens identifies the large scale of the problem, our obsession with the immediate, future discounting and the illusion that we can afford to wait (modestly named the “Giddens paradox”), the interconnected fossil-fuel and professional-denier industries, the role of the media, political partisanship, and so on. Little of this is new.
     But I wonder whether it is just about most electors not getting the urgency of the problem. The business and political elites, particularly in the developed world, have themselves chosen inaction, seemingly ignorant of the risks. My experience is that the paradigm-challenging evidence about climate change impacts and the speed and scale of the emissions reductions now required is not fully embraced outside a narrow band of scientists, and some very worried-looking others. Those who have half seen the challenge — such as Nicholas Stern and Ross Garnaut — have rejected safe-climate targets as being too economically disruptive, giving credence to George Monbiot’s observation that we may have the capacity to save the banks, but not our place on the planet.
     Giddens says that “politicians have woken up to the scale and urgency of the problem and many countries have introduced ambitious climate change policies”. Many? Really? Ambitious in relation to the science? Or ambitious compared to the general political timidity?
      Many specialists in the field view recent climate change policies as far from ambitious. Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute, who has been climate adviser to both Chancellor Merkel and the European Union, and has been engaged in international climate politics for many years, says that “we are on our way to a destabilisation of the world climate that has advanced much further than most people or their governments realise”. He observes that "if political reality (on climate) is not grounded in physical reality, it is useless”, as we mournfully witness.
      Last year, Schellnhuber told the “4 degrees or more: Australia in a hot world” conference in Melbourne that there were limits to what the policymakers could bear to hear. “If you speak the inconvenient truth, people will not listen”, said Schellnhuber, adding that if you are too frank, you “risk losing everything”.
     This is why climate politics is characterised by cognitive dissonance, a delusion about the scale and urgency of the problem that allows policymakers and advocates at both
a national and global level to continue to engage in the fantasy that they are working to contain global warming to a “reasonable” two degrees Celsius. In fact, the lack of action means we are now headed to around four degrees of warming this century (and a probable carrying capacity of the planet of under one billion people), whereas a safe target is under one degree. That the delusional character of climate policy-making makes no appearance in a title the publishers claim to be “the only book that looks at the political issues posed by global warming” is disturbing. At the heart of this work, I sense a void.
      NASA climate chief James Hansen convincingly argues that the goal of “limiting human-made warming to two degrees (is a) prescription for disaster” because today, at less than one degree of warming, we are “poised such that additional warming instigates large amplifying high-latitude feedbacks” will come into play in the next one degree of warming. These will make “ice sheet disintegration and large sea level rise inevitable”*.  amongst many devastating impacts. This is not part of the today’s climate policy frame.
      The problem, quite simply, is that what needs to be done cannot be achieved by contemporary politics in today’s deregulated capitalist economies, so the ruling elites have chosen to live a lie. They create the appearance of solving the problem, when they are not. Giddens says he accepts “up to a point” that “coping with climate change is too difficult a problem to be dealt with within the confines of orthodox politics”, but does not follow up on this observation.
      Take the emissions reductions necessary to keep warming in the long run to a safe level of under one degree. Hansen shows that fossil fuel emissions would need to be cut by six per cent a year beginning in 2012, plus 100 billion tonnes of carbon reforestation drawdown in the 2031-2080 period, if the world is to be back to the one-degree target by century’s end. If global emissions do not peak till 2020, then to limit warming to the (unsafe) two-degree range, the rate of emissions reduction hits nine-to-ten per cent a year, and requires total de-carbonisation by 2035-45.
      By comparison, emissions reductions of more than one percent a year have been pushed, in the words of the Stern Report, only by “recession or upheaval.” The commentator David Roberts notes: “The total collapse of the USSR knocked five percent off its emissions. So 10 percent a year is like … well, it’s not like anything in the history of human civilisation” (2011: online). This is the core driver of the climate policy delusion: those at the centre of the process believe they cannot do what is necessary, but (as yet) haven’t been game to admit it in public.
      The politics is this: we have to do something we have never done before and quickly create a decarbonised economy, a rapid whole-of-society transition. Not possible, say most of those in power. But there are examples of very quick social and economic change, both under the current (ostensibly) communist leadership in China, and in the evolution of the Asian “tiger” economies where a strong state and a capitalist elite transformed the character and economies of nations such as Singapore and South Korea in short periods. It can be done, by strong state intervention and planning, and constraining unnecessary consumption to free resources for investment. In the climate case, it would also require stranding a lot of capital embedded in obsolete, fossil-dependent technologies, and reshaping how and where we live, travel and maintain food and water security. But in the cases cited here, democracy hasn’t been a strong point.
      There is no political model of how this could be achieved in the advanced capitalist nations (except for the war economy of 1939-45), nor the timeframe to overturn capitalism en masse before starting the process. The plethora of rapid transition plans that have appeared in the last few years are strong on the technology and the financing, but weak on the politics, because none of us have found a practical way out of the political dead-end in which climate policy is trapped.
     Giddens observes that we need to “generate widespread political support from citizens”, but how is that to be done when that support must necessarily be for radical change and significant dislocation in peoples’ lives in the developed economies? In the 1939-45 war, stern measures including rationing were accepted by the population because they were seen to be fair and necessary. Perhaps we need to convince people once again that the path we must go down will be difficult but worthwhile (because the other option is ecocide), that strong, democratic state management in a rapid transition to a post-carbon future is “fair and necessary”.
     The choice is between some significant disruptions now while we make the transition quickly, or a state of permanent and escalating disruption as the planet’s climate heads into territory where most people and most species will not survive. Our task now is to chart the “least-worst” outcome; delaying action for three decades has now made climate, in bureaucratic terms, a “wicked problem”.
     This is where the “political innovations that have to be made to limit global warming impacts” that Giddens promises as his quest need urgent elaboration. But they aren’t to be found in this book.
     There are suggestions that Giddens sees the state as principally managing carbon markets and pricing externalities. But he emphasises the need for a “return to greater state interventionism”, the key role of industry policy, the state’s role in subsidising renewable technologies in their development and scaling-up phases, whilst “ensuring that markets work in favour of climate change policy”. This is a traditional social-democratic approach, which assumes that conventional politics is up to the job, and markets are the key to delivering change. Giddens identifies the need for climate to be sustained as a “front-of-the-mind” issue, to transcend the political polarisation, and to be normalised and integrated into all sectors of government and policy-making, not corralled as “that climate issue”. He notes the geo-political significance of the relationship between climate and energy security, but not for food and water security. He emphasises the need for a positive telling of the economic transition story, and the convergence of climate and economic goals as a ”win-win”. Whilst Gidden’s recognises that “difficult decisions have to be negotiated”, he underestimates the degree of difficulty.
     Giddens acknowledges that “strictly speaking… there is no green movement.. (but) a diverse range of positions….”, but then provides a jaundiced view, more in resignation than anger, of it. At moments he sounds like a “reds under the beds” conservative, worried that greens and others are using global warming as a means for “surreptitiously legitimating other concerns” and that some on the left use climate “as a means of renewing the critique of capitalism”. Just when neo-liberal capitalism is doing such a fine job!
      Giddens complains that “the word ‘green’ is in such widespread use that I have no hope of dislodging it… but it is now more of a problem rather than any help when it comes to developing policies to cope with climate change”. But his critique is not centred on why climate change should not be constructed as an environment issue, and he underplays the central role that green politics has played in getting any action at all on climate, from Germany to Australia. As the principal ideologue of Tony Blair’s Third Way, that is not surprising. In the end, Giddens recognises that, “Doomsday is no longer a religious concept, a day of spiritual reckoning, but a possibility imminent in our society and economy”, so that “something of a quantum leap… is needed over the situation as it now stands?” What the leap might be is not a question he answers.

* Hansen, J. and M. Sato. 2011. ‘Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change’ in ‘In Climate Change: Inferences from Paleoclimate and Regional Aspects’, A. Berger, F. Mesinger, and D. Šijački, Eds. Springer, in press. http://arxiv.org/abs/1105.0968