Robert Garner, Professor of Politics, University of Leicester:
In 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.
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