Stirring Speeches Won't Tackle Climate Change

Overall There is Little Prospect of Action On the Scale Needed On Either Side of the Commons

If speeches by politicians and consultation documents could tackle climate change, we'd be home and dry by now. I should know. I used to write them. A passionate concern for climate change is the new must-have accessory in British politics. Yet once you strip away the rhetoric, it is painfully clear that we are still a very long way from action on the scale needed. The blame game is getting us nowhere. It is time to address the reasons why left and right will fail to deliver effective action. The blame game goes like this. Green groups blame the politicians. Politicians (quietly) blame the public for not being ready for the change needed. The public blame politicians, and often big businesses too. It is much more serious than that, however. This is a dramatic failure of the political system itself.

The current decision-making culture of both Britain's political system and the international community is incapable of delivering solutions. We haven't done this before. Globally diplomats have never agreed on dramatic collective action to prevent a crisis of this kind. We went through the Second World War before the creation of the United Nations.

In the UK, our politicians lack the mechanisms or public trust to take the radical action needed. How do they get the public to choose between new runways and our addiction to the car? Without a way to do this, we get away with demanding both and blaming them for the result.

But lets get the good news out of the way first. Blair's G8 initiative and Cameron's leadership have combined to push climate change up the political and public agenda. The astonishing grass roots support for Friends of the Earth's campaign has secured a government commitment to a new Climate Bill. This will provide a clear framework for future action, if not a guarantee of action itself.

The main parties are all slowly shifting. David Miliband has proven a powerful source of energy and urgency within government. The Chancellor is now focused on this challenge as never before. Yet he remains cautious, preferring to call for a new global world order than to rethink government policy on energy and transport.

The Conservatives have few commitments but are still making the political weather at home. Internationally though, Cameron's isolation in Europe would be a chronic handicap. But their recent proposals for aviation taxation broke the political logjam on a critical issue where I know, from bitter experience, that politicians have until now ignored the environmental implications.

But overall there is little prospect of action on the scale needed on either side of the Commons. Internationally the prospects are far worse. The political class seems frozen in the headlights. Why?

This is about much more than personalities. It is partly ideology. Tackling climate change requires a more interventionist state, with radical shifts in market signals and regulation to reshape markets. It runs against the grain of both Conservative and Labour thinking. Neither has yet performed the necessary ideological summersaults.

But above all, the politicians are waiting for you and me. We are slowly responding. Climate change and the environment is now one of the top five issues raised spontaneously by the public. But we won't act in isolation. This requires collective action, led by government. If and when we are ready, how on earth do we send them the necessary signals?

We cannot. So stirring speeches end with timid proposals and appeals for a new partnership between government and society. Their formula varies a little. Cameron calls for social responsibility. The Chancellor calls (again) for an initiative to match Make Poverty History. David Miliband calls for an environmental contract. But none offers a means for government and public to negotiate and agree on the action needed.

The Climate Bill is a potential turning point. But politicians must back ambitious targets with action, and make possible action on an even greater scale. The Bill provides the platform for a national conversation on the critical issues. How much are we prepared to pay for our energy? We need a series of regional and national events and referenda to discuss the choices that need to be made, informed by recommendations from citizens juries. This is not a uniquely British problem. Other countries also lack the means to do this. But the system's failure at international level is much more severe. Global negotiations remain painfully deadlocked. The UN process lacks ministers with the power to deliver. The G8 is an important new forum, but systematically excludes key countries, business and the public.

This is a profound challenge for this generation of politicians. We need leaders with the courage to take action today, and the humility to open up our politics to give us real choices on action tomorrow. But it's an even bigger challenge for people like me. The public may not opt for the radical action we believe is necessary. But let's expose the issues and the choices. If we fail, those who will suffer from the resulting climate chaos will be able to see which side their predecessors were on.

The writer is Director of Green Alliance. He was Special Adviser to ministers on the environment from 2002-06.

(c) 2007 The Independent

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