The Politics of Climate Change: 5 Questions for Giddens

October 27, 2011 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

Just back from RSA Thursday with Anthony Giddens speaking about a new edition of his book, The Politics of Climate Change. You’ll be able to listen to the podcast of the event very soon, and possibly watch the video, though I suspect they will edit out the bits of the speaker and the chair – Matthew Taylor – doing a kind of intellectual Punch and Judy cameo- they clearly go back a long way…

Alas, there was nothing very new in the talk, but I liked the link to the two worlds in the Matrix. Giddens suggested that international climate negotiations are a bit like that- a virtual pleasant world where we assume things are happening and a real world where promises are broken and discussions continue indefinitely as the planet steadily cooks itself beyond a habitable state.

Giddens is not the first to argue that the scale of the climate challenge challenge requires, inter-alia, a complete rethinking of how we structure our way of life, a shift in values, technological success stories, concerted policy action, behaviour change, a few miracles etc.

In this sense I felt a bit deflated. We are already knew that we are failing badly, and I wanted him to explain what we might do about it. So here is how I would have cross-examined him, given the chance.

1) Rethinking democracy: You say that we need a return to planning, and a ‘politics of the long term’, but two things militate against that: Firstly we know that human beings discount the value of the long-term compared to the present, and secondly most advanced economies (the worst carbon culprits) have democratic systems with electoral cycles that are built to reward short-term promises. Given that climate change is not just another policy issue, but as you say, ‘an existential threat’, how would you restructure the relationship between state and citizen to make long-term thinking and planning possible and rewarding?

2)Immunity to change: In response to Matthew’s question to the audience- asking us to choose between 1)International policy agreements, 2) lifestyle and value change, and 3)incentivising technological innovation you said we obviously need all three. This claim chimes with the pervasive wisdom on climate change that we just need to throw everything we can at the problem and hope that it will all add up to enough. But what about how these solutions interact? For instance, the Common Cause report suggests that appealing to financial incentives when advocating lower fuel consumption perpetuates the problem by activating the ‘me-first’, consumerist frame, rather than helping people see climate change as a ‘bigger than self’ problem. What about such unintended consequences? Is it at least possible that some of our solutions, when taken together, actually compound the problem?

When Australian Philosopher Clive Hamilton spoke at the RSA he argued that our only hope for addressing the climate challenge was a kind of collective grief, an emotional acceptance of all the wonderful things that we will now (almost) inevitably lose. Only then, when we are past denial, can we really act with conviction. 

3) Value Change: Your suggestion that we need value and lifestyle change is well taken, but feels facile unless it involves a strategy. Values are often incommensurate (e.g. how do you compare the relative value of freedom and security?) and the choice between them is agonistic, in the sense that we don’t always have a rational basis to choose. Moreover, experts in values surveys seem to argue that the idea of ‘changing values’ is in itself antithetical to many people’s values! What would a societal strategy to change values look like?

4) With respect… It is great that an eminent intellectual like yourself is devoting your energy to this problem, and your contribution in clarifying the nature of the challenge is helpful, important and appreciated. Yet you seem to approach the politics of climate change in a very conventional political way. What bothers me is this: given that you understand the problem so well, why does your contribution look so much like the kinds of contribution that don’t appear to really change anything? You write books, give speeches, and the content is a mixture of statistics, fear and informed imagination. David Attenborough does something similar, as do many leading thinkers. What if the medium is the message? Is it not incumbent on leaders like you to do something different? (I don’t know exactly what but I think I have a point here…)

5) Grief. As anybody who has grieved for a loved one will know, there is a huge difference between accepting something intellectually and accepting it emotionally- how do we get to that point? When Australian Philosopher Clive Hamilton spoke at the RSA he argued that our only hope for addressing the climate challenge was a kind of collective grief, an emotional acceptance of all the wonderful things that we will now (almost) inevitably lose. Only then, when we are past denial, can we really act with conviction. Personally I think this is the most profound insight into climate change I have heard and, with respect, gets much closer to the core of the problem than anything you said today. What do you think?


  • Steve Jordan

    Early in my career I worked for someone who used to say when I challenged them with a problem “ I’d like to believe this is going to work”.  My response was, so would I but it isn’t, needless to say this did not help my career  despite nearly always being proved right. 

    In most Western democratic societies there are always people who will say, and have the right to say, I’d like to believe this isn’t going to be a problem.  The question is, why do so many people happily believe them?  Is it because it is true to say in most cases they will either be dead or wealthy enough  (they think) to avoid problems.  Who is going to vote for a politician  who says the lifestyle that most people aspire to is not going to be attainable whilst another says yes it is. 

    I personally don’t think that we as a species are capable of evolving to a less selfish social mindset in time so lets carry on with the platitudes and the questions nobody has an answer to until… 

    • Jonathanrowson

      Hi Steve.

      I share your doubts, but not (yet) your sense of impending doom.

      Your comment made me think of Antonio Grasmsci’s point that we need pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will.


  • Pingback: “I Have a Planet” – Do We Need a Martin Luther King for Climate Change? – EoVadis Ltd

  • Pingback: Sociology’s contribution to saving the planet: the politics of climate change and Giddens’ missed opportunity | Jane Pilcher