Anthony Giddens on the Politics of Climate Change

I have been trying to work out quite why I found Dame Ellen MacArthur’s vision of a circular economy so compelling.

I think it is at least in part due to some recent visits to a council tip. I had been helping a friend clear his late mother’s flat; my job was to drive the car, full of unwanted things, to the tip. The feeling of waste was palpable: huge mounds of waste and junk, most of it destined for landfill. We recycled what we could, separating paper, wood, metals, glass and paper, but we could see council workers laying into the piles with forklift trucks. Perhaps some of the disused (and for all I know unusable) electrical goods would be stripped down and the metals and rare elements they contain recycled, but it seemed unlikely. (Interestingly, the council’s rules forbid anyone removing items from the tip – so even if I saw something I might have had a use for, I couldn’t have taken it. That said, it looked like a few people were on the look out for something the might scavenge.)

This came to mind when, again at the RSA, I saw Anthony Giddens talk about the politics of climate change. Where MacArthur was upbeat, Giddens felt very downbeat; indeed, with politicians so unable to cope with climate change, civilisation felt beaten down.

Giddens identified many difficulties for politicians in dealing with climate change. Solving the issues with ameliorating or even reversing climate change requires long term action across national boundaries, when politicians are elected (or appointed) with local or national responsibility over a short time span: ours have four or five years between elections, so getting them to worry about expensive action to be taken over twenty to fifty years which may not benefit their electorate (since many of us will be dead by then) seems an impossibility.

Giddens made two powerful points which felt prescient. The first was his strong view that we shouldn’t assume technological solutions will come to our rescue. The belief that it might may act as a counter to more concrete action – we might just shit around waiting for technology to save us until it is too late for anything else. (That said, recent developments in carbon capture and storage may give us hope, and Giddens said that we must search for ground breaking technological initiatives which may help.)

The second was that many believe we are past the tipping point – a long way past.

The political will to solve these problems seems lacking. Obama has been disappointing, failing to take radical action, in part since his hands are tied by a Republican congress – Giddens was critical how the debate on climate change is largely polarised along political lines when it is such a big issue that it should be beyond politics. In the UK, David Cameron’s desire for this government to be the greenest ever seems empty rhetoric.

Giddens identified four areas that needed progress if we are to avoid the worst ravages of climate change:

  • bilateral and regional agreements in place of “legally binding” worldwide agreements which have failed to deliver
  • searching for ground breaking technological, social and political initiatives
  • in-depth intellectual and policy work to underpin our understanding of the impact of climate change – what will climate change and its amelioration mean for us in terms of employment, prosperity, growth and so on; this is needed he said at a very basic level – how will we need to change the way we think about our lives in a truly sustainable environment?
  • transforming the way we live our lives: actually putting these things in to action – for instance, if industrial society has run its course, how can we live our lives at a very basic level

Giddens said that this was a message of hope, not despair; I’m not sure the audience agreed with him.

After the talk, Matthew Taylor asked for a show of hands: who in the audience felt the solution to the problem of climate change lay in the hands of either governments and politicians, individuals changing their lifestyles, or market forces. Hardly anyone believed the answer lay with governments, with lifestyles and markets split roughly equally.

Clearly, these aren’t either/or questions: the answer must be “yes” to all three mechanisms of change: governments must develop policies to motivate markets and individuals to do what they can.

But looking at the mountains of waste at the council tip which our lifestyles contribute to, throwing things out rather than fixing and reusing, I don’t feel hopeful.

2 thoughts on “Anthony Giddens on the Politics of Climate Change

  1. Dan Sutton

    Have you read this?

    The first basic premise is that we ought to change the way we account for natural resources switching from viewing them as a revenue resource to viewing them as a capital resource.

    The second is that businesses that focus on using natural capital wisely, the circular economy and cradle to cradle production will make money even without any incentives to behave more environmetally.


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