November 25, 2010: Anthony Giddens on the threat of climate change

November 26th, 2010 by

During this engaging 1-hour talk at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, UK Anthony Giddens spoke about the threat “like no other” that climate change poses to security.

In the first part of his speech, Giddens outlined the 3 main positions (which have many interstitial positions) he believes exist on climate change and its threats. Namely:

1) Climate change skeptics who deny climate change and claim instead that it is simply caused by natural events and the influence of the sun. These skeptics are mostly not scientists. Nigel Lawson is a famous advocate of this position, the influence of which is huge in politics. The blogosphere also carries this view with huge effect, often claiming to represent scientific expertise and even issues threats.

2) The IPCC of the UN. This effectively summarises scientific views and promotes the view that climate change is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation and that action is necessary within a 20/30 year timespan before serious, limiting effects are felt.

3) Climate change radicals (Giddens’ own term) such as James Hansen (NASA) and James Lovelock who use the same evidence as the climate change skeptics but for divergent ends. While climate change skeptics say that the IPCC is caremongering, climate change radicals are also critical of the IPCC but say the latter is essentially conservative, given that it merely summarises scientific data on climate change and converges towards the mean.

Of these 3 positions, Giddens feels we have to take the radicals seriously rather than the IPCC which is prone to understating the risks.

Climate change, he says, is dangerous because it is the source of changes which are essentially irrevocable and time is limited. People are also relatively indifferent. The problem he feels is that climate change is about abstract future risk, meaning that citizens can’t relate and politicians simply postpone action. We also can’t say for sure that climate change influences extreme weather events.

In the second part of his talk, Giddens went on to talk about the failure of the Copenhagen summit, what we might expect from the Cancun summit and made some interesting suggestions for a possible future approach.

He feels that the weakness of the UN (being so globally interdependent); the dominance of domestic over international politics in the USA; the paralysis of the EU (it lacking an essential decision-making centre); the ambiguous role of China with its “traditional notions of sovereignty” leading to immense hesitation; and divisions within the approach of developing nations are the reason for the failure of the Copenhagen summit.

The Cancun meetings are beginning now and effectively, the Kyoto approach is dead. What we now have are the climate change plans that each nation will be submitting as part of the Copenhagen accord. This accord in Giddens’ opinion will be led by the developing (rather than industrialised) states of China, Brazil and India. While the Kyoto agreement was about agreeing targets, the Copenhagen accord is about how to achieve them. The Cancun meetings are likely then, to shore up and amplify commitment but unfortunately will not be able to make them obligatory in international law (as with the Kyoto agreement).

Giddens feels that overall, the Latin American nations could assume more prominence. A national climate change policy is needed where clusters and regions might work together with target-specific interest groups. This would resemble a patchwork approach. And the UK bears a special responsibility: it is the highest Carbon-emitter per person in the world and of course, was the starting point of the industrial revolution.

Overall he says, a massive social and economic transformation in politics is demanded of industrialisation. We are in the closing years of the non-sustainable industrial model typified by the USA. We now need a politics of the long-term; a 20/30-year cycle of investment; a new relationship between the state and long-term innovative, flexible markets to release their power. And we must avoid Left-Right political division, embarking instead on cross-party agreements.

Giddens commented that the new coalition government in the UK is sustaining and radicalising the formal structure put in place by Labour. The Liberal Conservatives are investing in renewable energy and the recently announced wellbeing index are encouraging signs. However the USA remains a rogue outsider: only 11% of Republicans even believe in climate change (in comparison to 60% of Democrats).

Finally, he called on India and China to pioneer a new path of development which exemplifies positive models of low-Carbon economies. These would be more harnessed to self-interest rather than just altruism (e.g. energy security, competitive advantage) and be founded in a retrieval of utopian political thinking, which is real and grounded, and looks 10-15 years down the line.

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