Reflections on climate politics across the English-speaking world

Lord Giddens’s think tank, Policy Network, has just published two new papers examining changes in climate politics in the US and Australia.

As green issues today moved up the election agenda, Lord Giddens’s think tank, Policy Network, has just published two new papers examining changes in climate politics in the US and Australia. This follows their seminar on climate scepticism that we reported a few weeks ago. In one of the new papers, “Climate change: the challenge for the Australian social democracy,” David Hetherington and Tim Soutphommasane of the think tank Per Capita describe how:

“Although a majority of Australians believe in anthropogenic climate change, some of the language of climate change scepticism has been expressed in the familiar cadences of right-wing populism.”

It is well known that in America the climate debate has been in that partisan arena of the “culture wars” for some time, and increasingly this trend can be found here too. As I wrote in The Times last year:

“Nasa, the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences — once we would have allowed these authoritative, trustworthy, dependable voices to shape those parameters. Instead, the scientists we rely upon have become a target for hackers and death threats… these establishment institutions have been cast in the role of radicals.”

Left Foot Forward’s own Will Straw in my view correctly identified:

“Copenhagen could have eased the work of Ed Miliband and his successors. But in the public debate, the environmental movement is losing to a sophisticated network of sceptics and deniers, many with an axe to grind.”

In his paper, Michael Lind argues progressive need to “rethink their strategy” to respond to this. He summarises:

“The conventional centre-left approach to climate change would have been doomed in American politics because of three design defects: apocalyptic rhetoric, a confusion of objectives, and unworkable neoliberal methods.”

Lind argues instead that appeals to patriotism – “America must lead the world toward clean energy” – are more likely to be effective, but in particular says the problem should be defined as one of technology and a need for greater government intervention, in the form of greenhouse gas emission standards for utilities and fuel efficiency mandates for cars.

Whilst this is all okay as far as it goes, Lind’s arguments are just not particularly original – perhaps because the climate debate in the UK is so much more advanced than it is across the pond. His outdated generalisation of the green movement as being rooted in a “distrust of technological, urban civilisation and idealisation of agrarian and hunter-gatherer existence” is just not reflective of the modern climate movement, and his argument struck me as an unhelpful straw man that conveniently allows him to over-egg tensions between social democrats and environmentalists.

Most frustratingly about his piece, Lind doesn’t address the biggest challenge to progressives, which is how to marry up the abandonment of the most unsustainable, polluting industries with a just transition for their workforce into the clean industries of the decades ahead.

In contrast, in their article on Australia’s situation, Soutphommasane and Hetherington do pick up on this:

“Historically speaking, the broad left in Australia has stood relatively unified on environmental questions. The working-class left and middle-class inner-city professionals have enjoyed aligned interests. Such unity has been broken as it becomes apparent that the costs of climate change adjustment fall disproportionately on low-wage industrial workers.

“Sections of the union movement have either resisted the introduction of an ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme), or withheld their full-blooded support, on the grounds that it would cost Australian jobs.”

These Australian writers present the climate issue, like Stern, as a cost-benefit analysis, saying:

“Ultimately the climate change predicament boils down to a question of costs – the costs of action versus the costs of inaction… If one accepts that man-made climate change is a reality, and not fiction, the equation is a no-brainer.

Certainly, they do seem to be onto something when they write:

“It should be clear that resorting to the moral case for action isn’t enough… any compelling argument for climate change mitigation must be integrated into a national story and reformist agenda. The failure of Copenhagen – to a large extent reflecting an unwillingness of the large polluting countries to subordinate short-term national interest to global responsibility – has only underlined the need for progressives to reframe climate debates in more nationally focused terms.

“There are grave problems with resting the climate change argument on appeals to cosmopolitan ethics.”

But this does seem to take you in a different direction from where Tim Soutphommasane pointed us in his book, ‘Reclaiming Patriotism,’ last year:

“While the moral and environmental imperatives are clear, the problem of climate change does not lend itself to an elegant political solution…

“The best economic and scientific modelling may tell us that we must cut our greenhouse gas emissions now, and sharply, but it would be grossly irresponsible for an Australian government to act alone when there is not certainty of international cooperation.

Apart from anything else, this misses the fact that Australia would only ever be in a game of catch up in taking climate action, not leadership, since they have been one of the most regressive countries in the world on climate and energy policy. But in any case, perhaps the Copenhagen meltdown forced a change of strategy for him – as it should for us, because essentially the thrust of his argument, that “Progress on climate change policy in Australia now depends on a new approach to coalition building underpinned by a positive, pragmatic argument about the benefits of reform”, surely applies here every bit as much as it does in Australia.

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