Climate change

The consensus among experts on climate science is that human activities are having an irreversible impact on the atmosphere, which will in turn increase the temperature of the planet. If these scientists are right, then the threat of climate change is one of the biggest problems in politics today.

It is a problem compounded by the fact that it is worldwide. No country can act to save itself from the harmful effects of climate change. Each country is dependent on the actions of others.

Secondly, it is a long-term problem. Estimates of the timescale in which the adverse effects might be felt and over which remedial actions might be taken vary, but it is likely to be the case that the benefits from any actions taken now will not be felt during the current electoral cycle. Democratic politics on its own under the current rules is not going to make finding solutions easier. Dealing with it is going to cost and so there is always an incentive to drop out.

Thirdly, the task of dealing with it will fall disproportionately more on some countries than others. Some countries emit more greenhouse gases than others, and some are more dependent economically on the production of fossil fuels than others. Furthermore, it is arguable that some countries might even benefit from climate change. For example, it is suggested in some quarters in Russia that higher global temperatures might make Siberian farmland more productive, and that therefore it is in the Russian interest that climate change should be allowed to proceed.

This combination of factors means that the traditional approach to solving political problems, namely electing a national government with the best policies, can never succeed.

Any solution needs to be based on the following:

1. It must be international and not merely national. The different countries must work together. The Kyoto agreement is the first expression of this, but more action is needed.

2. The states must make legal and not only political commitments to each other. There are going to be difficult choices to make if the relentless rise in the use of fossil fuels and the consequent emission of greenhouse gases is to be stopped and reversed, and there will always be the temptation for a country to take the easier short-term course. Only a legal system, where states agree to be held to their promises, will be effective.

3. It must engage citizens directly and not just governments. There are a lot of difficult decisions to come, and they must be seen to be legitimate. Furthermore, the method of taking those difficult decisions must be based on both democracy and efficiency. Intergovernmental summits are notoriously bad at both. Federalism, which recognises the role of democratic government at different levels, is clearly needed.

Richard Laming is a member of the committee of Federal Union, and may be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

More information

The EU should tax airline fuel – Richard Laming, on EUObserver.com at airlinefuel

Action for a Global Climate Community

The big ask – campaign by Friends of the Earth

“Climate Change: A crisis of collective denial?” by George Monbiot available at ClimateMonbiotElf

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