The new politics of climate change

27th November, 2008 by admin

It is high time we got serious, says Stephen Hale, about understanding why we are failing in the war against climate change – and how we can succeed.

Only governments can save us from catastrophic climate change. Only they have the power to tax, regulate and incentivise businesses and individuals to act. But only a dramatic surge in the demand for political change will persuade them to use their power to full effect.

Creating that demand is now the central task, for all of us committed to success in this struggle.

The debate over the science is over. But the more we learn, the worse it looks. It is now only too evident that climate change could have a multitude of catastrophic economic and social consequences. We need to achieve cuts of 25-40% in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, in the UK and other developed countries, to give ourselves a good chance of limiting average global temperature rise to two degrees.

Yet global emissions rose by 25% between 1990 and 2004. Even in countries such as the UK where there is relatively high awareness of what is at stake, progress has been limited. We are sleepwalking into disaster.

Meanwhile, politicians, businesses and public alike are locked into an approach that is not delivering – and are blaming one another for their collective failure. Pressure groups blame politicians for not providing leadership, or introducing the policies needed to reduce emissions. Politicians justify their inaction by citing the lack of public support for those policies. In the margins of this often-bitter exchange, most businesses quietly bemoan the inadequacy of both to justify their own timidity. We need to find the key that unlocks this collective failure. The current economic crisis makes this more urgent than ever.

Politicians have considerably more power than they choose to acknowledge. But I know from my own time in government that there are deep structural reasons why governments do not deliver. The leadership we need from our political leaders will not emerge spontaneously from within.

Committed leadership from the private sector could break the impasse. It would have a dramatic effect on the politics of climate change, and secure many of the policies needed to incentivise investments in low-carbon energy and transport solutions. And the business community now pretty much universally accepts the science of climate change, and the need to act. There are countless examples of low-carbon business innovation and leadership, as Forum for the Future’s work confirms.

“We need a new model for action – moving on from environmental advocacy to social mobilisation”

Yet, critically, most businesses continue to take a primarily short-term and defensive approach to engagement with government. There would be many winners from a low-carbon global economy. All businesses with long-term investment cycles have a powerful interest in a successful transition. But it is those who might lose out in the short-term that remain the loudest voices in the political process. Consistent support for government intervention by companies or trade associations is still too rare. This is particularly disappointing at EU level, where there is far less risk of the potential competitive effects that loom large in discussions at national level.

There are some signs that this is changing. The investment and insurance industries have been prominent in this shift. The Corporate Leaders Group in the UK has been an influential advocate of progressive policy positions. At the most recent global climate change talks, a range of business coalitions supported specific government action. Green Alliance works with a number of such companies.

But businesses respond above all to market signals. So ultimately the public holds the key to a long-term transformation of corporate footprints. Shifting public attitudes and behaviour create new market opportunities. A further step change in public concern over climate change is needed to create a new wave of such opportunities.

In my view, the third sector holds the key to achieving this, and to success in the war against climate change.

It is not something individuals can do alone; people are neither willing nor able to take decisive action alone on an issue of this scale and complexity. But they will very often do so if they have opportunities to act in concert with others. Community groups, national membership organisations, trade unions, faith communities, social enterprises and co-operatives can provide the collective spaces for this – creating the demand for political action, and ensuring that this is supported and reinforced by social change.

And there has been an explosion of concern and action over the past two years among faith leaders, development groups, and grassroots initiatives such as Transition Towns. Their concern is well founded, given the dramatic potential impacts of climate change on issues of international prosperity, security, and social justice. Important new initiatives are under way to articulate these links, and bring them to public attention.

For the new politics of climate change, we need a new model for securing action.

As I outline in Climate change: why we are failing and how we will succeed, the environmental movement cannot do this alone; we need to shift from a mode of primarily environmental advocacy to one of social mobilisation. The third sector can provide the surge of leadership we need to create a new politics of climate change, through action in four areas:

  • Leadership and commitment, from groups concerned with issues from development and security to housing and health, will deepen support for action;
  • Community, local and regional leadership will enable people to come together to change their lifestyles and demand political action, through a dramatic surge in initiatives like Transition Towns and low-carbon villages;
  • A movement of people living low-carbon lifestyles will set an example to others, brought together by a voluntary national personal carbon trading scheme; and
  • Mobilisation across borders will play an instrumental role in persuading individual countries to act consistently and ambitiously, as cities combine to drive down the cost of deploying low-carbon technologies, and pressure groups make consistent and compelling demands for national action.

Climate change is not a problem of science, technology, or economics. It is above all a problem of political imagination. Together, we can create the pressure needed to persuade governments to use their power to full effect.


Stephen Hale is the director of Green Alliance. From 2002-06 he was special adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Click here to read ‘The new politics of climate change: why we are failing and how we will succeed’.

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