Friday, October 28, 2011

The Politics of Climate Change / Anthony Giddens -- Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2009

The evidence is now quite clear: the global climate is changing rapidly and the consequences will be dire for vulnerable populations around the world. The younger members of our society may even live to see the complete collapse of civilization if the worst case scenarios pan out. In light of this, it is amazing that the political will to mitigate and/or adapt to climate change is so weak. According to Anthony Giddens, this is because the dangers of climate change remain a "back of the mind" issue, easily displaced by other more immediate concerns. Consequently, in The Politics of Climate Change, Giddens hopes to present a blueprint for creating "a politics of climate change" which will be capable of addressing the dangers we face.

Broadly speaking, Giddens's political programme relies on mobilizing existing social, political, and economic institutions. He is critical of the "Green movement" as exemplified by various Green Parties. Giddens complains that they have adopted an oppositional stance which will merely alienate the leaders of the institutions that need to be brought around to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This criticism makes the reasonable assumption that existing institutions will remain the governing force through the next century and will need to be brought into our efforts to address climate change.

Giddens's dismissal of the Green movement, however, gives too little weight to the view that the Green movement is the only social force that will consistently recognize the full dangers of climate change and keep the issue on the public agenda. This highlights the greatest weakness in The Politics of Climate Change: Giddens's politics of climate change are too divorced from a sociology of climate change which is the contribution that the Green movement makes to the discussion.

Giddens's work is nonetheless an important element in the discussion. Reading his work in conjunction with John Urry's Climate Change and Society and Pat Murphy's Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change provides a more holistic picture of how we might be able to address the dangers of climate change. Oppositional politics and the creation of low carbon alternative communities that model new, more benign institutions, have an important place in the politics of climate change; but Gidden's is correct that these new political and social institutions would do well not to completely alienate existing power structures. Opposition politics must still create ways that existing institutions can participate in the effort to move to a low carbon society.

Giddens's main prescription for building acceptance within existing institutions is to seek "political and economic convergence" between climate change mitigation and adaptation goals and other values held by the existing sources of political power. A prime example of this is energy independence. Giddens recognizes that it behooves the environmentalist movement to emphasize the importance of generating renewable (low carbon) domestic energy, not simple for the purpose of mitigating climate change, but to free the country from dependence of foreign oil. Institutions unconcerned about climate change can then be enlisted in the effort for reasons other than mitigating climate change.

The strongest element of Giddens's work is his treatment of economic strategies for reducing carbon emissions. Beginning with the principle that the polluter should pay for the costs of pollution, he makes a case for implementing a carbon tax. This is, according to Giddens, preferable to a cap and trade system or carbon rationing. These other methods are not without merit, but Giddens finds that cap and trade systems have not really achieved their purpose. A more rigorous system will be required to reduce emissions. Carbon rationing, while more rigorous, is, in Giddens's view, "impractical and unfeasible."

Giddens's attempt to directly address the requirements for creating a political consensus in favor of addressing climate change is most admirable and most of his observations and arguments are weighty and cogent. It is especially important that voices like his, which are firmly within the social and political establishment, be heard. He gives great legitimacy to positions and policies that otherwise would be dismissed as coming from the fringe. At the same time, his call to work with and from within existing institutions needlessly narrows the sphere of action. There will always be a tension between forces for change from within and from without existing institutions, but limiting the political programme to one or the other is not likely to yield the urgent and drastic change that is now required.

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