Lord Giddens: Hope must trump fear in climate debate

Former advisor to UK prime minister Tony Blair lays out four ways to quash the despair of climate change

Pic: Minnesota Historical Society/Flickr

Pic: Minnesota Historical Society/Flickr

By Sophie Yeo

Lord Anthony Giddens mused on whether there is any hope left in the fight against climate change.

“Martin Luther King would not have had such an impact if he said ‘I have a nightmare,’” he said.

In a sprightly speech delivered last night at the London School of Economics, the New Labour architect and sociologist said that it was possible to have a clean energy revolution, just as mobile phones burst onto the scene in Africa earlier this decade.

So what’s stopping it? Corporations. Sceptics. Public apathy. The current socio-economic paradigm. CO2 “free riders” who would like to scrap the UK’s climate law.

It’s a dismally long list for a lecture about hope—but then Giddens, an advisor to Tony Blair during his tenure as prime minister, describes himself as an “irrational optimist” when it comes to climate change.

He seemed rather pleased when a member of the audience heckled him: “Your fingers are so tightly crossed you’ll get arthritis.”

Hope vs fear

The prompt for the lecture is that he is planning to write the third edition of his 2009 book, The Politics of Climate Change.

The first edition was born into a period of great hope, he said; Al Gore’s  film An Inconvenient Truth had made waves around the world, and he had won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the UN’s climate science panel, the IPCC.

After Copenhagen the situation changed, he said. Emissions have continued to rise, putting the world on course for a climate catastrophe that is even worse than the problem of global poverty because it will be “irrevocable”.

In his new edition, he will spell out what needs to be done (“if I ever write the bloody thing,” he adds—potentially a case of art imitating life when it comes to climate change). He has four ideas.

Idea #1: “We have to pull out all the stops to bring climate change closer to the public and the public closer to climate change.”

This means making films, getting business on board—anything that will reverse the “yawning gap” between the urgency of the issue and the public interest in it. Years of Living Dangerously, the recent US series aired on Showtime, is the perfect example of how this challenge needs to be approached, he said.

Idea #2: “Rather than depend on the United Nations, I think we are going to have to give a lot of prominence to regional partnerships.”

Essentially, he said, unless the US, India and China decide they want to confront their enormous emissions, nothing that the rest of the world does will stop the great beast of nature rearing its head—a possibility he describes as “eerie”.

Idea #3: “We must provide for hope along with fear.”

Spelling out the consequences of not acting, in all their excruciating detail, has not been enough, he said. And people respond better to hope. The New Climate Economy report, which was worked on by LSE’s own Lord Stern, proved that climate action does not mean sacrificing the economy.

Idea #4: “We need a new model of socio-economic development.”

Just don’t make it Naomi Klein’s, he said. While he rejects the author’s anti-capitalist thesis set out in her latest book This Changes Everything, he says it is clear that the current system isn’t working. “Climate change is a negative expression of globalisation,” he said.

The four ideas are probably not enough to lift climate worriers out of their despair—and the soft glow of hope was somewhat extinguished when he niftily sidestepped a question on whether he would support the divestment movement if he were head of LSE once again, a position he held from 1997 to 2003.

It may simply be a manifestation of the British love of queues—but if anything was a sign of hope, it was the line of young economy students voluntarily lining up around the block on a gloomy Tuesday evening to hear a 76-year-old sociologist deliver a lecture on climate change.

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