Can our Political Systems Deal with Climate Change?

Protestors outside the Copenhagen climate talks, December 2009 (Image: Bastien Vaucher
Protestors outside the Copenhagen climate talks, December 2009 (Image: Bastien Vaucher

So here’s the thing. Despite decades of debate and a scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is a real and present danger to not only our societies, but our future as a species – greenhouse gas emissions continue their inexorable rise. This year we passed the symbolic 400 ppm CO2 concentration levels (not seen on Earth for several million years) and we now appear destined to exceed the politically constructed fiction of a 2 degree limit on global warming. The house is on fire, the experts are screaming ‘do something!’, and yet we remain oblivious, addicted to the distractions of hyper-consumption and tech-toys. Which brings me to the topic of this post: can our political systems actually deal with the challenge of climate change?

This is a critical question in that while a massive effort has gone into the scientific analysis of climate change, and social scientists have stressed the need to better communicate the science, far less consideration has been directed towards the potential of climate change to fundamentally reshape existing political paradigms. For instance, much of the discussion of climate politics remains wedded to the analysis of multinational agreements and an assumption that climate change can be managed through conventional political negotiation and agreement. Indeed, much climate policy focuses on economic policies which are grounded in the prevailing ideology of neoliberalism, or at least ‘business as almost usual’. As Peter Newell and Matthew Paterson note in their study of policy responses to climate change, we now live in an era of ‘climate capitalism’Hence, the Stern Review in the UK, framed climate change as the ‘the biggest market failure the world has seen’, and the preferred policy response has been to ‘price carbon’ through market mechanisms (such as emissions trading systems), or indeed via a ‘carbon tax’ (which in Australia and British Columbia has been implemented with some success). 

However, even these limited policy responses have been met with significant resistance. In the United States, Canada, the UK and Australia, a cabal of conservative interest groups have successfully delayed and derailed climate policy. These include major actors within the global fossil fuel industry, established political groups such as the Republican Party in the United States, ‘free-market’ think-tanks such as the Heartland Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, industry funded ‘grassroots’ political movements such as the Tea Party, and conservative media outlets (e.g. Fox News). Such is the power of this neo-conservative response, that opinion polling indicates a significant disconnect between public awareness and concern about climate change and established science.

As I noted in an earlier post, major businesses as ‘corporate citizens’ are also reshaping civil society in the political battle over climate change. The growing corporate influence over the media for instance has been evident in moves by Koch Industries (a prominent funder of climate change denial in the US) to buy up major media outlets such as the Tribune Company’s eight regional newspapers. In Australia, mining heiress Gina Rinehart has also become a majority shareholder in major media companies, and coal magnate Clive Palmer has even established his own political party, opposed to government action on climate change. Paralleling the US, industry-funded, conservative think-tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs rail against any attempts to mitigate carbon emissionsThe key goal here appears to be to limit any government policies which might curtail the continued expansion of fossil fuel industries. 

Indeed, the neo-conservative fightback against climate science has been largely successful. There is no sign of any meaningful policy action along the lines of a carbon tax or emissions trading system in the US, the UK conservative government appears to have been captured by the fossil fuel industry in its retreat from renewables, and in Australia the conservative opposition (and likely future government) has pledged in ‘blood’ to repeal carbon pricing. Ironically then a market response to climate change appears unthinkable in the West, while the Chinese government are embracing such measures!

In essence, liberal democracies appear unable to deal with climate change as an urgent social issue. The global scale of the problem, partisan politics and a major financial recession have made it easy for naysayers to mobilise public doubt and apathy. Despite visible manifestations of the problem, such as the flooding of New York City in October last year by Superstorm Sandy, or the melting Arctic, denial continues unabated in the public and political realm.

This stands in stark contrast to what is actually required. Meaningfully responding to climate change will involve a fundamental redesign of not only our economies but our societies; a social mobilisation paralleling the sort of concerted effort we saw in World War II. For instance, to keep within 2 degrees of warming will require leaving the remaining 80 per cent of fossil fuel resources in the ground – something most governments appear unwilling to hear, let alone entertain.

Recently, Grist writer David Roberts (through reference to a study in the journal Energy Policy), outlined what such a climate mobilization might entail: the growth in centralized government control and oversight of economic and everyday activities; increases in government borrowing and taxation to fund the costs of adaptation; and the likely shift to a command and control economy. As Paul Gilding has argued in his book The Great Disruption, the size and scale of such a transformation appears almost beyond our current imaginings.

Not surprisingly, conservatives rail against this future vision. But the reality here is that because humanity has failed over the last three decades to respond even incrementally to climate change, we will soon be forced by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology to respond in more fundamental ways (e.g. rationing of resources, relocation of communities, responses to climate refugees). Indeed, as the physical manifestations of anthropogenic climate change become more severe, the social and political implications are likely to fundamentally challenge many of our assumptions about democratic society (witness for example the recent revelations that the US government’s high-tech surveillance program Prism has targeted environmental groups and foreseen security interventions during future environmental ’emergencies’).

As a result, it is not only our environment that is changing in the Anthropocene, but also our understanding of civil society and the roles of government, corporations and the media. The extent to which democracy can prevail in an era of climate crisis and resource scarcity remains to be seen.

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