The Political Character of Climate Change

Robert Garner, Professor of Politics, University of Leicester:

Robert GarnerIn his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 2007, Al Gore made the claim that “The climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity.” The reason why Al Gore does not see climate change as a political issue is because he thinks it is a ‘no-brainer’. In other words, he thinks that climate change will damage everyone’s interests because it will destroy the planet. It is therefore in everyone’s interests to do something about it and fast. In other words, there is no political decision to be made.

Clearly, if Gore is right – that climate change effects everyone equally and will ultimately result in catastrophic effects for us all – then he may have a case that there is not a politics of climate change in the sense that the existence of an objective environmental problem leads directly to action to resolve it. Of course, this has not been the case because climate change, as with other environmental issues, is as much concerned with competing values, ethics and interests as it is with objective facts.  Gore’s assumption, that everyone now living is affected equally by climate change, is incorrect. The impact of climate change has differed, and will continue to differ, from state to state, and from community to community, and the costs of dealing with it are going to be similarly diverse. It is for this reason, of course, that climate change is a political issue.

Climate change is not now really a technical issue. Most, albeit not all, have accepted that the build up of CO2 – the main greenhouse gas – in the atmosphere is largely man made, and the solutions to this are well known. Either cut down on the amount of CO2 emitted, adapt to the consequences of allowing it to continue, or find an effective way of capturing it. The reason why these solutions have not, so far, been implemented effectively is almost entirely down to the political character of the issue. To be more precise, it is because the effects of climate change impact upon people, groups, classes, nations, and regions very differently. Some countries, regions and localities will be hit harder by the impact of climate change, some groups and classes are more able to deal with the consequences of climate change than others, and some will have to make greater sacrifices to act on climate change than others.

This goes to the heart of what politics is about. For politics is associated with adversarial behaviour precisely because it reflects the conflictual nature of society, or, to use a less value-laden term, the fact that all societies of any complexity contain a range of different interests and values.  There are two assumptions here.  The first is that all societies of any complexity must contain diversity, that humans will always have different interests and values, and therefore there will always be a need for a mechanism whereby these different interests and values are reconciled.  The second assumption is that scarcity is also an inevitable characteristic of all societies.  Since there is not enough of the goods that people want to go around, there needs to be some mechanism whereby these goods can be distributed.

A resolution of the climate crisis will, then, depend ultimately upon finding political solutions, and these will determine which technical solutions are likely to succeed. Most importantly, a policy based on cutting CO2 emissions is less likely to be acceptable than one based on adaptation or carbon capture.

Robert Garner is Professor of Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. He is currently conducting a research project on the politics of climate change, investigating: the nature of the political character of climate change; the identification of the political interests present in the climate change debate; and the degree to which these conflicts of interests are intractable.


  1. 25thDerivative
    Posted 12/04/2011 at 10:05 | Permalink

    Greed! Tere is one word that sums up the mess we are in, and the word is…. greed. Everybody and his brother are out to get the highest paid job they can get, and the political miotivation is there to encourage this behaviour, by endorsing the pursuit of capitalism, and rewarding the achievement of monitery gain, as the be all and end all of success. The vast majority want to own and drive the best internal comustion engine they can, believeing they have a right to pollute the air we all breath from the exhusts of their very own, paid for, personal, well taxed, internal combustion air poisoner. Try suggesting anybody gets paid too much, surprisingly, the accused point to the unemployed and blame them for the mess we are in. Get real! We, in the Western world, live off the predictable suffering of future generations.


  2. Dr. Erik Blakeley
    Posted 08/03/2011 at 09:46 | Permalink

    The biggest political/religeous challenge is accepting that overpopulation is both the root cause of at least some of the developing climate change and the major factor limiting our ability to cope with it. To what precise extent a changing climate is directly due to human action is largely irrelevant. It is increasingly clear that climate change is happening and that many currently heavily populated areas are going to become unfit for human habitation. Climate change migration would be possible but for the fact that everywhere else is also heavily populated. We are not in a position to reverse climate change and clearly it has quite a way to run. We must face the need to adapt and the first priority in adapting must be to reduce the birth rate, halt population expansion and reduce the global population. Reproduction is no longer, if it ever was, a right but a privaledge and possibly the single most environmentally damaging lifestyle choice that any human being can make.


  3. Chris Williams
    Posted 05/03/2011 at 14:01 | Permalink

    “Most importantly, a policy based on cutting CO2 emissions is less likely to be acceptable than one based on adaptation or carbon capture.” Adaptation maye but there is no sign of political interest in carbon capture.


  4. malcolm whitmore
    Posted 27/02/2011 at 12:02 | Permalink

    Gore is wrong to think that all people are affected equally because the effects of global warming are ditributed unevenly across geographic regions and will also leave many sectors unaffected for years to come while others are droning.
    The essence of the debate hinges on the application of justice to the problem. This has to be the fundamental core of how and why politics is applied. In the face of global warming
    I don’t see how the power of national politics to attend such matters can be supported,we need to tackle global warming by a policy of moving to global politics.


  5. simon board
    Posted 26/02/2011 at 18:41 | Permalink

    The issue is inherently political because it requires government action. But if such action is seen as a threat to current business profitability, vested interests will legitimately lobby against. They may also try to influence public opinion. In this case, even though detailed investigations into scientists emails found nothing substantive, a campaign of little more than smear and innuendo was amplifed out of all proportion by the media, and public perception has been substantially distorted.
    Perhaps this was because the media didn’t understand the weight of the science, or because controversy and opinion are always more profitable than balance or evidence.
    Either way, it seems to me that the political system in our capitalist democracy does not function well enough to deal with long term threats where they clash with short term profit.


  6. Jonny A
    Posted 10/02/2011 at 16:16 | Permalink

    “Most, albeit not all, have accepted that the build up of CO2 – the main greenhouse gas – in the atmosphere is largely man made” – interesting link here giving a more balanced view of the causes of the current change in climate:

    And lest we not forget, the title of the debate is “Climate Change – deny, prevent or prepare?” – which is a wider issue. Perhaps Dr Jago Cooper has something to say, away from the CO2 debate:


  7. Archibald Leach
    Posted 03/02/2011 at 11:55 | Permalink

    Surely it is the response to climate change which is political, not climate change itself. And Gore’s point was that treating it as a political matter diverts attention and effort away from the looming crisis. It’s a bit like if the Allies had spent months debating who should have which beach on D-Day instead of actually planning the invasion.

    And it’s all very well to say “Most, albeit not all, have accepted that the build up of CO2…” but among those ‘not all’ are some politically powerful individuals. And as soon as you start categorising climate change as a political issue you’re playing into the hands of the climate sceptics: “Aha!” They will cry “We TOLD you it was all about politics and not saving the environment!”


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