Book Review: The Governance of Climate Change

The Governance of Climate Change – Science, Economics, Politics and Ethics
Edited by David Held, Angus Hervey, Marika Theros
Polity Press, 2011, 228 pp.
(see official page here)

We’ve so far gambled and lost on getting a universal treaty on climate change governance – but we can and have to work with what’s available. And what the climate crisis has given us is an opportunity to recognise and act on our common identity and interests in the face of the threat.

This collection of essays and lectures is not so much about what we’re going to do about climate change, as how we’re going to make decisions about what we do. The only non-academics contributing are perhaps the two most bookish of UK politicians: David and Ed Miliband. So ‘here be academics’ – covering the fields in the subtitle.

The book is in three parts: six pieces on the challenge of climate change; three on social justice and three on where to go next. That already suggests that the book is possibly better on stating the problem than on providing solutions; but, even so, it has opened my eyes and I’d recommend it. After all, aren’t most of us in danger of falling at the first fence because of the difficulty in getting our heads round all of the complex issues before we get some perspective on what to do next.

The book was finished just before the UN climate change conference in Cancun in December 2010, and just when many of “us” were feeling disappointed after the Copenhagen conference a year earlier. It asks: were we expecting too much from Copenhagen? If changing emissions is so urgent, where are the power and will to do it and how do the decisions get made?

These questions are easy to ask but complex to answer. We haven’t been here before. There are no maps, but maybe a few parallels we could learn from. The answers involve science, economics, ethics and politics, none of which is, as it were, an exact science.

Science though is perhaps the least of our problems. Yes, the sceptics are recalcitrant and getting their messages into the mainstream. But the science is well understood and we have developed very good international ways of sharing and verifying what’s happening and will happen. That’s a tribute to thousands of years of honing the scientific method. There are numerous areas where we can’t predict with accuracy what will happen in the longer-term, and the acceleration of change and innovation hampers forecasting; but we are developing more sophisticated models that give a better account of what is certain, probable and possible.

Economics is more difficult. Every nation state wants economic growth and aims to get it by attracting capital. The markets aren’t loyal to nation states. The world is one big investment opportunity: markets, resources. If one country has scruples about, say, workers’ rights or environmental impacts, then investors amorally put their money elsewhere, where they can exploit more efficiently. Economic power has gone global. But political power lags behind, shackled within national parochialism and short-termism, despite the growth in international agreements since 1945. We may not like global finance, but markets can give part of the answer: carbon trading and green innovations.

Science can play an important role in informing ethics to help us develop a global awareness of the effects of what we do, our obligations to act and how we exercise economic power. And all of these roads lead to politics – or governance. The nation state can’t fix it on its own. We’ve gambled and lost on getting a grand, binding, universal treaty on climate change governance (Copenhagen), though made some headway on international agreements. The book ends with an appeal for a “building blocks” approach: uni/bi/multi- lateral agreements where possible with a steady build up of power in international institutions.

There’s a slight whiff of the ivory tower about the whole book. Academics preaching gradualism can seem unsatisfactory. Some of us want to see off the nation state and capitalism before we build up more just means of exercising power. And yes, they’re to blame for much of where we are now. The best of this book proposes using what we’ve got (cos that’s all there is at the moment, and we need
to act now) and going beyond that: to a “vision of a marriage of reason between modernity and ecology”. It’s no accident that this book is probably greater than the sum of its parts: the contributors,
though from the relatively small world of academia, have different perspectives, different facets of the truth, probably disagree about quite a bit, but come together in a larger project: to move us on. It’s a lab demonstration of the “cosmopolitanism” some of them prescribe. The opportunity we have now is the common identity/ interest everyone on the planet has had foisted on them by the crisis.

Besides, I was afraid it would be turgid and technical; but it wasn’t. It was actually pretty inspiring.

Roger Bysouth

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About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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