Politics of Climate Change
Polity Press, Cambridge
I write this review having just jetted in from sprawling anti-nature LA, leaving with the renewed impression that there are a lot of people on the planet, many with cars and frequent flyer points. Anthony Giddens' latest work offers a timely overview of contemporary climate change debates and a masterful appraisal of existing measures to curb rapidly rising carbon emissions. Like his other public sociology works, 'The Politics of Climate Change' addresses a broad readership including policy makers, natural scientists, economists, sociologists and informed lay readers. Within university settings, this publication will be valuable to students and researchers whose interests lie at the economy-society-environment nexus.
The key strength of this book is that Giddens side steps reductionist debates to illustrate how the dialectic of anthropogenic global warming and future energy security demands concerted political action. His argument builds from 'Giddens's paradox' (pp. 2-3), where, due to the diffuse effects and distant time horizons of climate change, governments delay mitigation programs. Yet, when the full and unpredictable effects of global warming arrive it will be too late to adapt. Chapter Two evaluates the scientific debate grouped broadly as sceptic, moderate (such as the IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and catastrophic. Giddens accepts the catastrophic vision, but tempers this with optimism towards the human capacity for managing risk (p. 33). Bisecting this science is the matter of peak oil and gas (p. 38). Dependence on these energy sources is further complicated by the legacy of energy privatisation, which has extracted rents for shareholder value without commensurate investment (p. 44). This institutional feature renders forward planning and investment in alternative energy sources politically difficult. Although Giddens is appreciative of Green politics' interventions and concepts such as the precautionary principle, polluter pays, and overdevelopment (where growing GDP (Gross Domestic Product) figures have diverged from social wellbeing measures since the 1970s), he sees little practicality in an autarkic future due to global interconnectivity and population pressures. Current governments' inability to co-ordinate the reduction of carbon use are reviewed with Giddens noting problems in establishing the incentives necessary to develop new technologies (p. 140); how existing carbon markets are thin and ineffectual (p. 200); and the moral hazard inherent in insuring against extreme weather events (p. 172). Later chapters consider international dimensions. Here Giddens observes that the manoeuvring of China and Russia to secure remaining oil and gas reserves will compromise the West's relative economic and social wellbeing. Meanwhile, developing nations with mass coastal populations vulnerable to sea-level rise resist adaptation options, preferring the promise of modernisation. Future geo-politics, it is argued, will be shaped by resource wars.
For Giddens, state dirigisme will play a central role in averting future catastrophes (p. 91). This 'enabling state' is argued to be the only institution capable of re-shaping social behaviour, establishing and enforcing ecological sustainable policy settings, and establishing new energy investments, including nuclear. Giddens asserts this renewed state role is not a return to centralised planning, but a call for cross-party political consensus and greater state capacity to reduce carbon dependence both nationally and internationally.
Due to the book's normative approach it contains some sociological shortcomings. In certain respects these are not a weakness as the author's intention is to spark new political dialogue. Nevertheless, Giddens' faith in the state is under theorised and ignores, amongst other elements, the functioning of contemporary democracies and the interest group alliances that emerge. For example, Australia's proposed mining super-profits tax earmarked funds for adaptation and mitigation programs, but was subsequently diluted at the behest of mining groups' jeopardy campaigns, which in turn illustrates the bond between elites and factions of the working class. Simultaneously, Australia's booming GDP figures appear on the back of massive coal extraction destined to power China's satanic mills; the realpolitik of climate change is more complex than the account presented. As a result, 'The Politics of Climate Change' is a useful introduction to the key debates and possible futures while its greatest utility may be in teaching the political sociology of the environment.