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TitleThe Politics of Climate Change Anthony Giddens(2)
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The politics of
climate change
National responses to the challenge of global warming

Anthony Giddens

Policy Network
Third floor
11 Tufton Street
London SW1P 3QB
United Kingdom

t: +44 (0)20 7340 2200
f: +44 (0)20 7340 2211
e: [email protected]

www.policy-network.net

EU “fit for purpose” in a global age

The politics of climate change

The future of social democracy

Immigration and integration

Globalisation and social justice

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Contents



1 Preface 3

2 Introduction 5

3 Climate change: the debate 6

4 The role of the state: a return to planning? 8

5 Towards a green policy framework 12

6 The case of the UK: innovation or contradiction? 16



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2 | The politics of climate change | Anthony Giddens | September 2008 www.policy-network.net

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www.policy-network.net� | The politics of climate change | Anthony Giddens | September 2008

the concept of the “ensuring state” to that of the “enabling state”. The idea of the enabling state

suggests that the role of the state is confined to stimulating others to action and then letting them

get on with it. The ensuring state is an enabling state, but one that is expected or obligated to make

sure such processes achieve certain defined outcomes—in the case of climate change the bottom

line is meeting set targets for emissions reductions.

In the context of climate change, what does “a return to planning” mean? It means taking a long-

term view of things, with a time horizon stretching over three decades and more into the future. If

climate change represents, as the Stern report says, “the biggest example of market failure ever”,

it is largely because markets have no such view or vision of the future. Market forces can certainly

be used to affect long-term processes—as happens in a routine way with pensions or insurance for

instance—but they always need a regulatory framework, usually provided by the state, to do so.

Planning also implies bringing environmental concerns into all branches of government—national,

regional and local; and ensuring that all departments of government register and react to these

concerns. In other words, responding to climate change is not just one task among others, which can

be left to a specialised department or agency: it has to be integrated into the activities of government

as a whole across the board.

In combination with others, the state will be

the key medium for the forging of international

agreements (including the setting up of trans-

national carbon markets) needed to combat

climate change, and also of enforcing them. With

the partial exception of the EU in relation to its member states, there is no other agency powerful

enough to do so. Since talk of planning in so many contexts could be misunderstood, let me reaffirm

that in none of them would the state act alone, and its role would normally be to stimulate others

to action and to help provide means for their actions to be effective so far as climate change goals

are concerned.

How do we plan for a future which is inherently uncertain? How do we limit risks which, since we

have no prior experience of them, we cannot assess with complete precision (or cannot do so until

it is too late and the anticipated dangers have materialised)? One thing we should not do, clearly,

is attempt to force the future into a straightjacket, as the Soviet planners sought to. That is why the

state has to act primarily as a catalysing force, to encourage innovation and experimentation in

mitigating climate change but with a responsibility to monitor and, where necessary, shape these

influences. We can (hopefully) anticipate a tremendous burst of innovation from businesses and

third sector groups.

Technology is bound to be of key importance in combating climate change. However, we have

learned that technological innovation is difficult to predict—many of the most important innova-

tions that have influenced our lives, such as the internet, came out of the side-field. A key question

that has to be faced is how can governments promote innovation without placing “failed bets” on

technologies that may turn out to be largely dead ends?

We will need a politics of adaptation, since the effects of climate change are already with us and

are likely to deepen even if emissions across the world decline, as greenhouse gases going into the

atmosphere mostly stay there for a long period. Every country should have a detailed assessment of

vulnerabilities, as well as disaster relief plans in place. However, one of the biggest issues is where


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The state has to act primarily as a catalysing force to
encourage innovation

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www.policy-network.net10 | The politics of climate change | Anthony Giddens | September 2008

insurance cover will come from. The state is already the insurer of last resort for some such forms of

damage. If that role perforce becomes extended, where will the revenue to fund it be found? One

of the most visible features of what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was that the

various levels of government involved in responding to the emergency each sought to load the

prime responsibility onto the others. The amount of money spent so far, including that forthcoming

from private insurance, is well below what is required to restore the city to what it was before.

The politics of a return to planning are likely to be very difficult. The planning bill currently going

through the British parliament, which is mainly about community planning, has sparked much resis-

tance. It is not clear how its terms relate to the commitment the government has to decentralisation

and local democracy. In the context of responding to climate change, however, its driving logic

seems correct—there simply will have to be ways found of speeding up planning applications and

of driving them through (a whole nest of problems are buried in this statement, though).

Forging and sustaining a cross-party consensus

on climate change policy would help a great deal

with being able to take a long-term view in policy

issues. The All-Party Climate Change Group in

parliament has commented very usefully on this

question, pointing to many of the dilemmas raised. An adversarial political system is difficult to rec-

oncile with long-term thinking, since where needed climate change policies are unpopular, a party

might simply surrender to populism in search of political advantage. Just as critics argue about the

IPCC, a consensus could become a form of conventional wisdom, perhaps inhibiting more radical

ideas. We have to try to decide what a consensus would actually be about. Colin Challen, the chair of

the all-party group, has put forward detailed suggestions about how to resolve these various issues.

He suggests setting up a permanent cross-party commission to agree a framework for policy-making,

with its discussions being held in public, coupled to a referendum at a certain point to give the whole

process legitimacy.

Finally, we will need some kind of overall perspective to integrate the above series of questions.

What would a political philosophy geared to combating global warming look like? At first blush

there seems to be a readily available one, coming from the environmental movement. “Going green”

is now the established term for measures that will help limit global warming. Terms from environ-

mental thinking like the precautionary principle enjoy wide currency. But in fact the relationship

between the environmental movement and the greening of orthodox politics is a problematic one.

Many green groups, for example, have seen themselves as contesting the field of mainstream politi-

cal activity. Thus the German greens for a long while squabbled about whether they should have

clear-cut leaders, whether they should be represented in parliament and so forth. The precautionary

principle has been largely dismembered by critics.

Some such groups have their origins in conservationism—in the idea that we have to protect nature

from the ravages of humankind. Yet there can be no question of a “return to nature” as the guiding

thread of environmental politics. We live in a world that in many respects is “on the other side of

nature”—where human intervention into what was the natural world is so profound that there can

be no way back. The political and philosophical implications of the retreat of nature are very con-

siderable. They stretch well beyond the area of thinking about climate change but refract back on

such thinking in a number of ways. Science is pushing back inner as well as outer nature. Some of

these intrusions have become fiercely resisted as they penetrate the body and human reproduc-

tion—consider, for example, the heated differences of opinion around embryology today.

Forging and sustaining a cross-party consensus on
climate change policy would help a great deal

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18 | The politics of climate change | Anthony Giddens | September 2008 www.policy-network.net

nuclear legacy has been calculated at £73bn, not a good augury for the future.

4. The main �green tax� set up by the government (well before the climate change bill was intro-

duced) was the �climate change levy��a tax on the use of energy in industry, commerce and the

public sector. But the e�ectiveness of the levy was undermined because the revenue was not ear-

marked for spending on environmental causes, but went straight into overall Treasury revenues.

The same problem occurs with fuel duty which, although it has green bene�ts, is not seen by the

public as a green tax at all, but simply as �just another tax� with which the government has chosen

to burden the public. In a recent poll, seven out of 10 voters said they believed fuel levies to be just

a smokescreen for raising taxes. In late May 2008 hundreds of truck drivers converged on London to

blockade roads as a protest against rising fuel prices. Partly as a result, the government at the point

of writing is considering whether to back down on further proposed increases in fuel duty. This is in

spite of the fact that the price of fuel is lower in real terms than it was �ve years ago. Similar protests

have been organised in a number of Continental countries by hauliers. Ports have also been block-

aded by �shermen protesting against high fuel prices.

5. It is not at all clear how the stated objectives of the climate change bill can be reconciled with other

aspects of government policy. The government has endorsed proposals to build a third runway at

Heathrow airport in London. An earlier commitment that �ights to and from the airport would be

capped at 480,000 a year has been discarded. With the building of a new runway, they are likely to

rise to 700,000 a year. The government anticipates that the number of passengers passing through

airports in Britain will go up from 230 million in 2006 to 465 million by 2030. It is argued that such

expansion is of key importance to the economy; and that if it is not catered for in Britain, it will simply

move elsewhere. A report published by the Sustainable Development Commission, set up a few

years before by the government, stated that the data used to justify expansion were so inadequate

and disputed that the airport strategy should be put on hold while a full-scale enquiry is carried out.

A spokesman rejected the report, saying that the government �fundamentally disagreed� with its

�ndings. Further deferral of a decision, he said, was not an option. But if the considered �ndings of a

government-supported agency are to be dismissed so lightly, what hope can there be for the in�u-

ence of the committee on climate change?

6. Little attempt has been made to expand the national railway network or to encourage electri�ca-

tion. 33% of the network runs o� electricity, one of the smallest proportions in the EU. Trains powered

in such a way emit substantially lower levels of CO2 than do diesel locomotives. A report published

by the government in July 2007 argued that the long-term bene�ts of systematic electri�cation are

�currently uncertain and � do not re�ect today�s priorities�.

7. Oil and gas prices may stay high inde�nitely, but even if they don�t, at some point they will inevi-

tably resume their rise. How far will such a likelihood compromise projections that the government

has made, which are based on the assumption that oil will not average more than $70 a barrel for the

period up to 2020? What implications are there, for example, for the possible growth of the airline

industry especially if the era of cheap �ights is drawing to a close?

8. Only marginal attention seems to have been given to how the proposals in the two bills will impact

upon issues of social justice. Rising carbon and fuel prices will have their greatest e�ects upon the

poor, other things being equal. Such e�ects are bound to happen as an intrinsic part of any scheme

to reduce emissions, but will be compounded by the elevated price of oil and gas. As of mid-2008,

average fuel bills in the UK have increased by some 40% over the previous year. The consequences are

likely to be particularly severe for over 65s living below the poverty line�some two million people

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1� | The politics of climate change | Anthony Giddens | September 2008 www.policy-network.net

in Britain. Specific redistributive measures will need to be introduced to counter such consequences,

larger than the minor ones currently in place.

�. It could be argued that the clauses in the energy bill fall well short of providing the stimulus that

will be needed for the UK to reach its climate change targets. The renewables obligation does not

look strong enough to lever the country away from its poor performance in terms of the percentage

of energy delivered by renewables. Critics have argued that feed-in tariffs, which support the micro-

production of renewables, should be introduced—as has been done with some measure of success

in Germany and other countries. Feed-in tariffs have the great advantage, moreover, that they can be

adjusted in terms of fluctuations in the price of oil and gas. The government also raised the hackles of

environmentalists when it announced a plan to build the first new coal-fired power station in Britain

for 35 years. It defended the decision by arguing that the energy bill includes some items designed

to stimulate the development of carbon capture and storage technology, but critics point out that

such technology is a long way from commercial deployment.

10. Conscious of these difficulties, the gov-

ernment has introduced a new and more far-

reaching blueprint for increased energy supply

from renewable sources. It depends upon a big

expansion of the use of wind-power, on-shore

and off-shore, bio-mass from wood and sewerage, bio-fuels, micro-generation from homes, plus a

rise in home insulation. There would be a contribution to the economy from the new technology

industries, plus the creation of “green-collar” jobs. Tax breaks, tax credits, grants and one-off sub-

sidies are among the ways in which it is proposed to stimulate the needed changes. However, the

government accepts that there will be a significant net cost to the country, put at £6bn a year by

2020, and that the policies will add further to energy prices. It is a bold programme, although still

only at the formative stage.

11. Britain’s level of emissions of greenhouse gases rose by 2.2% in 2007 as compared with the

previous year—well above the overall increase in the EU countries, which was .068%. Over the decade

from 1��7 to 2007, the number of cars owned by households rose by a net total of five million. The

mileage covered on average by cars rose by some 2% each year. Air passenger numbers increased

by 54 million over the five years from 2002 to 2007. It perhaps isn’t surprising that many critics argue

that the UK at present has only a low chance of getting close to the goals it has set itself.

The size of the task is indicated by the results of an opinion poll published on June 22nd of this year.

The influence of the climate change sceptics is very visible. The poll showed that 60% of people

agreed with the statement that “many scientific experts still question if humans are contributing

to climate change”; 40% agreed that the effects of climate change “might not be as bad as people

say”. Two-thirds say they are “concerned” about global warming, but only a minority were willing to

contemplate changing their lifestyles. About the same number say that the government uses green

issues as a way of raising taxes in general. Most of the issues noted above will be faced in one form

or another by every country that sets itself demanding climate change targets, although a few may

be in a better position than the UK in terms of their starting point. Mission impossible therefore? Not

inevitably, because one should not underestimate the capacity of social and economic institutions to

respond and to innovate. After all, the whole point of the term “mission impossible” in the TV series

of that name was that it turns out not to be impossible after all.

© Policy Network 2008

One should not underestimate the capacity of social
and economic insitutions to innovate

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