22 May 2009 – Anthony Giddens on the Politics of Climate Change – Hay on Wye Festival 2009

Hay on Wye Festival – 22-23 May 2009

Anthony Giddens, 22nd May 2009

Anthony Giddens is a former director of the London School of Economics. He is a sociologist, known for his interdisciplinary thinking. He is known for being one of the architects of the “Third Way”, the recent politics of the centre left epitomised by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Giddens recently published a book called “The politics of climate change”. There is a quote from Clinton on the front cover of the book; “A landmark study in the struggle to contain climate change, the greatest challenge of our era. I urge everyone to read it.”

Giddens began by showing a print of the famous picture by Edward Munch, “The Scream”. He explained the provenance of this painting. The sky is blood red. The inspiration for the painting came from seeing a blood red sky for real. It was painted just after the eruption of Krakatoa. This was a huge eruption that threw up a large amount of dust into the atmosphere, causing spectacular sunsets. The dust blocked out the sun so that in the year after the eruption, the Earth’s global average temperature temporarily fell by 1°C. This is an extremely large change in just one year and it shows how the Earth’s climate can respond very rapidly on occasion.

Giddens divided up people into 3 categories:

  • Climate sceptics. A few years ago these people denied that the climate was changing. Now, the evidence is unequivocal, so they have switched tack. They now generally agree that the climate is changing but will not concede that the primary cause of the change is mankind. For these people, the Earth climate system is robust. They do not believe that what mankind does has any significant effect on the climate system.
  • The mainstream. This group is represented by the IPCC. They believe that the Earth is fragile. What we do might cause catastrophe to the Earth.
  • The radicals. These are represented by scientists such as James Hansen and James Lovelock. They think that the Earth’s climate system is robust, like the sceptics. However, they think that it is not unchangeable. We could provoke it and it has the character of a ferocious wild animal that will attack us
    vulnerable humans.

Giddens thinks that it is a mistake to wait for an agreement in Copenhagen to save us. He thinks that any agreement made is unlikely to be adequate to solve the problem. Learning from Kyoto, the deal itself is likely to be an inadequate compromise and the enforcement mechanisms will not be sufficient to make countries comply.

Climate change is an extremely difficult policy problem to solve. Because the dangers are so far abstract, they are uncovered by science, but we cannot yet see them. If we wait until the dangers are real, it is too late. How do we mobilise people? Giddens thinks it is a mistake to try to scare people into action – we need to give them positive reasons to act.

Giddens looked at the change in political thinking between the 1950’s and 1960’s when central planning was in vogue, to the last 20 years during which time central planning has been scrapped, in favour of free markets. He argues that we now need a return to planning.

He thinks that we need a return to quasi-utopian politics, another thing that has fallen out of favour in the last few decades. He thinks that we are on the verge of a new society. This is a big period for intellectuals to imagine what kind of future do we want to have. For example, can we imagine a future without cars, or a future where no-one owns their own vehicle, all vehicles are rented. He also mentioned the research that has shown that economic growth above a certain level does not make people any happier (in his book he refers to this in more detail, and he refers to the 1972 “Limits to Growth” book).

Giddens mentioned Francis Fukayama’s “The end of history”. What Fukayama meant was that alternative systems of government had failed, leaving only liberal democracy and free markets. Fukayama believed that there was no alternative to this system.
What we now know is that our system cannot continue, because it is unsustainable. Therefore there must be an alternative, we must transform our society. He called this the end of the end of history (!).

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