Jürgen Krönig: Climate Change: The Challenge For Social Democracy

  • Date: 02/03/10

The Copenhagen fiasco combined with the crisis of credibility afflicting climate science offers progressives a vital opportunity to inject a much needed dose of realism into the politics of climate change. The adoption of a radical green agenda that will have large-scale detrimental effects on the poorer segments of our societies, while condemning millions in the developing world to economic hardship, does not sit comfortably with traditional centre-left principles of social justice and collective prosperity. It is time for national governments and politicians to deliver “no regrets solutions” to the climate change challenge.

The political response to climate change represents an increasingly perilous dilemma for the centre-left in Europe and beyond. Global warming and climate change policy are problems that now rank alongside the financial and economic crises – which did not, as expected, turn out to be politically advantageous for the left – and the challenge of immigration.

This quandary is made even more difficult because social democrats struggle to accept the legitimacy of self interest as a governing principle. Like multiculturalism, as prominent US progressive Michael Lind observes, “lifestyle environmentalism appeals to the better-off and educated social strata because it calls for altruism”, i.e. financial transfer to developing countries and self denial. “You are affluent, yet you volunteer to save the planet by voluntary, if usually symbolic and costless gestures,” while the less well off majority feel the pinch.

Many leading figures within the UK and the European centre-left came to believe – and may still do – that climate change and the response to it will be the decisive topic of our age, a topic which can mobilise the masses. Indeed, Sigmar Gabriel, the new leader of the social democrats in Germany, and David and Ed Miliband, ministers in Britain’s Labour government, are among those to have supposed that climate change represented an opportunity for their parties to revive flagging electoral fortunes.

Here was a challenge with dramatic and potentially catastrophic consequences that seemed to demand the sort of approach that centre-left parties instinctively favour: climate change demands an international framework, ideally provided by the UN, the willingness to accept legally binding solutions and far reaching international cooperation.

Furthermore, the state will be, as Anthony Giddens points out in “The politics of climate change”, an all-important actor, “since so many powers remain in its hands”, and is needed to reign in the short-termist tendencies of markets.

The people will realise the danger for humanity, so the thinking goes, and turn to the political parties that commit themselves to radical green climate politics. The logic seems convincing: not only will radical green climate policies, designed according to the warnings and recommendations of the science promoted by the IPCC, help to save the planet, but also set the stage for a centre-left revival.

One example of this thinking was a fascination, on the part of senior social democrats, with the concept of personalised carbon credits. Yet such a system would demand the control of all human activities, the collection of a huge amount of data and an Orwellian style bureaucracy.

The adoption of such radical green policies, including cap and trade and a rushed move to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions or impose carbon taxes, has always been questionable, even before the credibility of the IPCC was badly affected by revelations about data manipulation, attempts to censor other scientists and exaggerated or even simply false claims. The reality is it would drive away voters, fearful of losing their lifestyle of mobility, warmth and comfort. It would fly in the face of some of the corner stones of social and economic progress achieved over the last 60 or 70 years. Will this save the centre-left, or indeed will it help to save the planet?

After all, progressive politicians should naturally understand the reluctance of their supporters to join the journey into a world of higher taxes and dramatically rising energy bills – never mind in the midst of deep recession. Tough economic conditions and environmental ambitions have never gone hand in hand, and for the left they inevitably clash with the interests of a significant part of their traditional electorate.

Historically, the purpose of social democracy was to increase and improve the life chances of the many, to create a better life for the majority of people. Combined with this was the conviction that scientific and technological progress would help to achieve a better world. Until the sixties this conviction prevailed among progressives; they were even in favour of nuclear power, which was not seen as dangerous but one of the tools with which to create a better future. Yet, as James Lovelock observes, since then there has been a “systematic demonisation” of this technology – a phenomenon that social democratic parties across Europe embraced as they proceeded to lose confidence and belief in scientific and technological progress.

Thus, “greenish-leftish” ideas proved increasingly attractive, as alliances were formed with green parties across Europe. In the process, the centre-left started to accept their sceptical, if not outright hostile attitudes to technological progress. Out of this grew the conviction among centre-left politicians in Europe that green policies were the way forward. […]

What to do? The crisis of credibility in climate science

The crisis in credibility currently afflicting climate change science and the authority of the IPCC, coupled with the growing question marks behind even the widely assumed and accepted global warming of the next few decades, should be seen as a chance for a cool headed reassessment of the progressive approach to the politics of climate change.

The reputation of climate science has undoubtedly been damaged, its integrity is in doubt and many of its claims, outlined in the last IPCC Report from 2007 and which have hitherto been treated as scientific tablets of stone, now seem highly questionable.

Likewise, the hacked or leaked email controversy of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, reveals an astonishing amount of uncertainty surrounding the most basic and fundamental assumption that the world is warming due to man-made emissions. The emails further reveal the alarming unwillingness of scientists to let their assumptions and predictions, based on computer models, be tested and checked. This is clearly unacceptable. Politicians and governments should use this state of affairs to demand a return to an open and critical science.

Politicians have in fact gained a degree of breathing space in which to reflect before they need to commit to expensive decisions. The global warming trend has stopped, for the time being at least, as since 1998 global average temperatures have not risen, despite the fact that CO2 emissions have been rising relentlessly during this period. This places a significant question mark over the CO2 paradigm, a question mark of which even IPCC scientists, and the “CRU cartel” of alarmists whose computer models predict apocalyptical scenarios, as Professor Hans von Storch, a leading climate scientist, has named them, are painfully aware. Furthermore, it weakens the claim of these models not only to be able to accurately reflect what happened in the past, but even more importantly it undermines their claim to be able to predict the climate of the future.

Climate change scientists have been reluctant to admit to the recent halt in the global warming trend. Professor Mojib Latif, a leading IPCC climate scientist, had the honesty to admit last august at an IPCC conference in Geneva “the inconvenient truth” of stable temperatures, and he suggested that climate scientists should admit to this truth, because otherwise the sceptics would raise the issue. He expected “one or two decades more of cooling”, before global warming would start again.

Maybe, but neither he, nor we, can be sure. One thing is clear. Not only has the belief in the accuracy of computer models suffered, but, contrary to what the chairman of the IPCC and many climate researchers have claimed in the past few years, the science itself is far from settled. This claim not only goes against the essence of scientific principle and should never have been made in the first place, but alarmingly it hints at a darker, authoritarian side to the “mission” of climate scientists. Many believe that democratic societies are not conducive to dealing with urgent problems such as climate change; convinced that they are right and drastic action is needed, they openly demand a “transformation” of politics, one which will place decision-making powers in the hands of a small scientific political elite, more informed than the general population.

Some scientists and influential commentators praise the authoritarian Chinese model of governance, and some have gone still further. James Hansen, a well known NASA scientist, has openly stated that the “democratic process does not work” and, in his frustration over the failure of multilateral climate negotiations, now openly applauds extremist ideas of eco-terrorism as the only way to bring down the global economic system. While one should of course be aware of the shortcomings of the democratic process as regards decision-making, progressives should always seek to emphasise and re-emphasise that open democratic societies in combination with market economies are better equipped than any other political system to deal with such complex global problems. The poisoned environmental legacy of totalitarian communism should act as a permanent warning against the lure of an authoritarian system, one which elements of the left have historically found it all too easy to fall for.

We are faced with an awkward and uncertain situation: nobody knows what the future holds, and even if we are still prepared to follow the lead of the IPCC, we are faced with huge and quite often irreconcilable differences of opinion. One school of thought predicts catastrophe, if not apocalypse, another forecasts at the very least a fundamental challenge to our usual way of life, while other models suggest a manageable degree of warming. Some sceptics, among them an astonishingly high number of scientists, go as far as to suggest that, in a few years time, we will collectively wake up to the fact that global warming was just another of the many unfounded scares which modern mass media societies are prone to fall for.

No regrets solutions

The question thus remains: what to do? We need more energy efficiency; we need, in the long term, to decarbonise our industries; we need to diversify our sources of energy as much as possible – energy security remains an important concern; and we need new, clean technologies. We should not, however, rush headlong forward into large scale spending commitments based on uncertain science, but must instead concentrate on “no regrets solutions”. […]

It does not make sense to create economic misery and hardship for billions of people in the industrial and in the developing world. Climate policy and the speed of decarbonisation should not, and will not, be determined by scientists and their theories, but by governments and parliaments guided by what is in the interest of their nations. In the future political action to deal with climate change must and will take a more rational path, and proceed at a slower, more incremental pace.

Jürgen Krönig is a commentator for the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a freelance author for various publications in Germany, Switzerland and Britain.

© Policy Network

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