I note the question is not about industrialised democracies although since most industrialised economies are democracies, I assume the distinction is not very important in this context. Democracy in industrialised economies is generally channelled towards consumer well-being, and that is the first, almost fatal obstacle. Without some kind of transformative perturbation in the system (probably external in nature since it is hard to see how it could be self-induced),low carbon policies which are sufficient to deal with the climate change challenge will not receive adequate priority. The last UK Budget, although slightly ramping up low carbon effort, nevertheless accords a return to business as usual as its top priority.
I agree with Tony Giddens that we do not have a politics of climate change. There is mainstream politics based on GDP growth, which is well understood and barely needs articulating – it is received wisdom. With the ‘end of (ideological) history’ in 1990, capitalistic growth coupled with globalisation has led to a triumphalist period which at a parochial level could permit phrases like ‘an end to boom and bust’ to be taken seriously. Alternative visions were seen as distractions. The sustainable development model would serve to improve human wellbeing. That sustainable development model permeates UK and EU approaches to climate change, and means for example that the remit of the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee includes a strong requirement to ensure that its recommendations are affordable in contemporary terms. That stands in stark contrast to the almost unprecedented levels of debt incurred to recapitalise banks and restore confidence in the current economic model. It is as if the political imagination is a prisoner of its past and cannot see – or does not want to see – the contradictions on which it is based.
An external perturbation could jolt a new politics into place, but it would be enormously risky to await upon that eventuality, since it may signify a loss of any pretence of human control over the climate change process. The question then becomes what possibility is there that we could self-induce a timely political transformation? Our system is predicated on the notion that elections can change things. Elections are the pre-programmed ‘transformative’ moments, although cynics of an anarchist bent will say ‘no matter who you vote for, the government always wins.’ The fact is, of course that elections have a lesser impact on our lives than politicians would like us to believe – the great, complex machinery of society does not change appearance all that much – although it would if we were to decarbonise at anything like the rate necessary to meet the IPCC’s suggested targets.
Ranged against democratic change we have societal inertia, sectoral influences, vested interest, reaction and received wisdom, external pressures and inherited obligations to name but a few. In the light of all these influences, it is curious that our attachment to one democratic model (periodic voting) has been allowed to become the greatest barrier to a rapid transition to a low carbon economy. This urgently needs more discussion.
Collin Challen is UK Labour MP for Morley and Rothwell