The politics of climate change

How do we plan for a future that is inherently uncertain and in order to limit risks which, since we have no prior experience of them, cannot be assessed with complete precision? How can the mistakes made by the previous generation of planners be avoided? Planning in the old days was based on forecasting, but the limitations of this method are by now well known. It works best for short-term scenarios and also in cases where present-day trends are to some degree set in stone. In the case of energy forecasting in Britain, for instance, we know that the existing generation of power stations will need replacing within a certain timescale.

We often want to predict the future in order to change it and where our attempts to change it become part of that future. This situation holds in the case of climate change. One way of dealing with it is by backcasting: asking what changes have to be made in the present in order to arrive at alternative future states. A successful outcome is imagined in the future, and different scenarios are calculated as to how it might be reached. We are talking therefore of alternative and plural futures, where adjustments, even radical revisions, are made as time unfolds and then built into other scenarios. This approach is essentially the one used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The distinct advantage over traditional forecasting is that it allows much greater space for unforeseen contingencies that might dramatically alter predictions made at any specific date.

The point of backcasting is not to reveal what the future will be, but to weigh up future options and policy goals. Backcasting is especially relevant for environmental and energy planning issues, since they fit the circumstances to which the approach is most relevant. These are that the context is complex, a major reorientation of current trends is demanded and a timescale of several decades or more is involved. There are many examples across the world. A project was instituted in the Netherlands in the late 1990s, for example, to look for alternatives to meat production and consumption. Its key assumption was that by 2040 new protein foods should replace 40 per cent of current meat consumption. The foods would have to be at least as tasty as the most popular forms of meat, while having superior health value, among other qualities. The project considered how tastes might change to promote acceptance of such foods. It concluded that new protein foods could be produced 10-30 times more efficiently than meat, as measured in terms of reducing emissions, while at the same time producing a health bonus1.

Backcasting sounds technocratic. In fact, it almost always involves a visionary element, since, by definition, it projects a future that is different from that seen from the present. Of course, forecasting will not disappear and will continue to be part of government planning. It is obvious that backcasting and forecasting are often complementary. Take, as an example, planning for the future of the water industry in Australia, a country suffering from droughts that are probably influenced by global warming and where water is becoming an ever scarcer resource2. Cynthia Mitchell and Stuart White argue that forecasting can identify policies that will produce results in the short term – it can help pluck the low-lying fruit. Backcasting is needed to think more radically about future possibilities. Forecasts about security of water supply in urban areas in Australia indicate major problems in guaranteeing adequate supply within a few years. Several policies that could quickly make a difference within the existing water system were identified, such as installing water-efficient shower heads and tap regulators, dual flush toilets, waterless urinals, taps operated by sensors and local water collection and recycling. In Queensland, where there have been prolonged periods of drought, reductions in customer demand of up to 30 per cent have been attained using such measures.

Backcasting, however, has helped suggest more far-reaching innovations. At the moment it is commonly assumed that water, sewage and storm-water systems should be considered and planned for separately. Thinking ‘backwards’ from a hypothetical situation of a total water cycle has produced quite a different perspective…

In thinking about planning, especially over the longer term, we find ourselves back with risk and uncertainty. Planning sounds like a straightforward process, but this is far from the case: it is highly complex and contingent. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that predictions, forecasts and plans that are made become themselves part of the universe of events that they are about. In an important sense they have to, since the point is to shape the future. Yet, at the same time, an inherent element of unpredictability is introduced and has to be coped with. Trying to alter public attitudes towards risk is a key part of planning policy…

A return to planning
…For most of the time and for the majority of citizens, climate change is an issue at the back of the mind, even if it is a source of worry. It will stay that way unless its consequences become visible and immediate. In the meantime, no strategy is likely to work if it concentrates solely upon provoking fear and anxiety, or if it is based on instructing people to cut down on this or that, and also on expecting them to monitor that process on a continuous basis.

A different approach is needed from the one currently prevalent at the moment. It must place an emphasis on positives as much as on negatives, and on opportunities rather than on self-induced deprivations. I would set out its main principles as follows.

Incentives must take precedence over all other interventions, including those which are tax-based. ‘No punishment for punishment’s sake’: in other words, punitive measures should either supply revenue that is spent directly for environmental purposes, or be linked in a visible way with behaviour change – and preferably both. The drivers of petrol-guzzling vehicles, for example, should face heavy tax duties for the privilege, as heavy as is politically feasible, under ‘the polluter pays’ principle. Clear and self-evident options for behaviour management are available: switch to smaller cars or drive less.

The positives must dominate. This isn’t as difficult as it might sound. Take the issue of making homes more energy efficient. There are several countries in the world that have managed to make major progress in this respect. How have they done so? Not by trying to scare people, but by emphasising the advantages of having homes that are snug, protected against the elements and which also save money. An example comes from Sweden, which was achieved by placing a strong emphasis on what was called ‘community, style and comfort’.

Low-carbon practices or inventions that initially have only limited appeal can be fundamentally important if they set trends, or if they are seen as in some way iconic3. Most initiatives, whether social, economic or technological, are, in the early stages, open only to a small elite. In California, for example, there are long waiting lists for the hydrogen powered Lifecar, although the first models will be extremely expensive. However, investment in such a car will provide the opportunity to see whether the vehicle might have a wider market, and also gives it an avant-garde cachet. This is what happened with the Toyota Prius hybrid car, nearly a million of which have been sold worldwide. It was a vanguard model in the sense that it stimulated other manufacturers to start producing low-emission vehicles, whether hybrid or not.

Most initiatives that have successfully reduced emissions so far have been driven by the motivation to increase energy efficiency, rather than the desire to limit climate change. This observation applies to whole countries as well as to regions, cities and the actions of individuals. People are able to grasp and respond to this perspective more easily than they have done to climate change, with all its surrounding debates and complexities; it is not difficult to present energy efficiency in a positive light. What is at stake, as mentioned earlier, is energy efficiency in the economy as a whole, since efficiency gains in one context are of little or no value if savings made are spent on energy-consuming activities elsewhere. The fundamental problem at the moment is to make clean energy sources competitive with fossil fuel energy sources, whether through public provision of subsidies or through technological advance. Utility companies in the US have been offering electricity generated from wind or solar sources to consumers since the late 1990s. Initially, take-up was very small, since the prices were not competitive. In early 2006 Xcel Energy in Colorado and Austin Energy in Texas offered tariffs below those of the regular energy sources. Austin Energy encouraged its customers to sign up for ten-year energy contracts, and was able to prosper even when the price of electricity dropped.

The role of technology in promoting low-carbon lifestyles is bound to be considerable. Technological innovation rarely determines what people do, since we often react to it in ways in which its initiators did not suspect. Thus, when the telephone was invented in 1876 as a signalling device; no one imagined that it would become so intrinsic to our lives as a medium of talk and conversation4. Yet, at the same time, our lives can change dramatically through such interaction with technology. It is said that we are creatures of habit, and it is often true, especially if habits become addictive. Yet this is far from always the case – we can change our behaviour quite rapidly and dramatically, as has happened, and on a global level, with the arrival of the Internet.

Government should be actively encouraging the creative economy and the creative society, even when these don’t seem to have an immediate bearing upon climate change, since creativity has to be the order of the day. Richard Florida, who has written extensively on the subject, argues persuasively that the creative sectors of the economy – where innovation, lateral thinking and enterprise can flourish – are increasingly becoming the driving force of the economy as a whole. Florida rejects the idea that creativity – the capacity to innovate, to question conventional wisdom – is limited to the few. Creativity is a ‘limitless resource…. It’s a trait that can’t be handed down, and it can’t be owned in the traditional sense.’5 R&D investment is important, but in pioneering responses to climate change, we need to be bringing science, the universities and social entrepreneurs closer together.

Step changes or ‘tipping points’ aren’t confined to the field of climate change science. They apply to social and economic life too – that was the context, in fact, in which the author who popularised the term, Malcolm Gladwell, originally discussed it6. We should be looking to create tipping points when it comes to the transition to low-carbon lifestyles. From small beginnings, much larger changes can occur when a certain threshold is reached.

Governments have an important role in ‘editing choice’, and, in pursuing that aim, they shouldn’t be afraid to take on big business when it is necessary to do so. Corporations influence our choices in many direct and indirect ways – the state shouldn’t be reluctant to take a leaf out of their book. For instance, supermarkets usually place sweets and chocolates close to the exit, where customers line up to pay for their purchases. The reason is that at that point they are open to impulse buying, having relaxed after making their main purchases. Given the advance of obesity, I see no reason why such a practice shouldn’t be either prohibited or actively discouraged (although thus far it has not). How far we should go with choices that affect carbon consumption is a moot point. Some examples of choice editing appear to be completely unobjectionable. We could, for example, we could propose that heating and air conditioning should be organised in such a way that everyone knows immediately how much they are spending at any given time. The effect would be even more powerful if we knew how our expenditure rated compared to that of our neighbours. A study showed that heavy users made bigger cuts in consumption if a smiling face was inscribed on bills below the average, with a frowning face on the bills of those having higher than average expenditure. Other examples are more complicated. I see no civil liberties issue in cases where our behaviour is being significantly influenced, or manipulated, already by companies, and where the object of government policy is to counter that influence7.

Technologies and Climate Change
Ambitious attempts have been made to anticipate how the spread of renewable technologies will transform modern economies. Some speak of the coming of a new industrial revolution, which will be initiated by such technologies. The American political thinker Jeremy Rifkin argues that the great changes in world history have taken place when new sources of energy have emerged in tandem with developments in communications. The convergence of coal-based power and the printing press gave rise to the first industrial revolution. Previous forms of communication would not have been able to handle the social and economic complexities introduced by the new forms of technology. The ‘second industrial revolution’ started in the late nineteenth century. It was marked by the invention of electric communication, beginning with the telegraph and branching out into the telephone, radio and television. These developments converged with the emergence of oil as a major form of power generation and as the dominant source of energy for transport.

We now stand on the verge of a ‘third industrial revolution’, Rifkin says, which will have as its backdrop the development of networked communication, represented by personal computers and the Internet. The potential of these technologies lies in their convergence with renewable energy. We can envisage a global energy economy where millions of people produce renewable energy and share it with others through national and international power grids – as happens today with information. Just as personal computers have vastly more power than the early machines, which took up several rooms, so intelligent energy networks will become more powerful and ubiquitous than anything we know at the moment.

Rifkin has his favourite renewable energy source to help point the way ahead: hydrogen8. Hydrogen, he says, is the ‘forever fuel’, since it is the most ubiquitous element in the universe – and it produces no greenhouse gas emissions. Fuel cells using hydrogen are already being introduced into the market for home and industrial use. The top-down energy regime that exists today with the emphasis on oil and gas will be replaced by decentralised energy production and use. It will be ‘the first truly democratic energy regime in history’9.

Such ideas aren’t particularly compelling. In the first place, they reflect a view in which history is driven in large part by technology, a partial notion at best. The dating and nature of the supposed second industrial revolution are vague – as can be seen by the fact that other authors who propose similar ideas come up with quite different versions of when it happened and what its content was. Some, for example, date it 40 or 50 years later than Rifkin does. No one knows as yet what role a specific energy source such as hydrogen might play. Moreover, technologies never operate on their own – they are always embedded in wider political, economic and social frameworks, which are likely to govern both how they develop and what their consequences are.

In addition, the ‘next industrial revolution’ hasn’t as yet actually happened. The original industrial revolution did not occur in a conscious way. The next one, however, has to be created as a deliberate project to protect us against future dangers – a very different situation. We don’t know how things will turn out. It could be, as Rifkin hopes, that energy and politics will march in line – decentralised network systems, rooted in communities, will replace current forms of political and economic power. It is the vision that many in the green movement would like to see realised. I’m not sure such an outcome is either likely or desirable. Certainly, it is very possible that most households will help create energy, rather than just consume it – as is already the case, for example, with feed-in tariffs. However, we will also need coordinated energy management on a national as well as an international level.

Technological innovation has to be a core part of any successful climate change strategy and the same is true of energy policy. The state and government must have a significant role in making such innovation possible, since a regulatory framework, including incentives and other tax mechanisms, will be involved. What role should this be exactly? The issue overlaps with that of planning. For a while, it became conventional wisdom that markets cannot be second-guessed. Nor can we predict with any precision where innovation will happen. Today the pendulum is swinging back again. Various technologies or non-fossil-fuel energy sources are touted as the answer to our need to reduce emissions; large amounts of investment are flowing into them. People are again placing bets on the future.

This text consists of edited extracts from A. Giddens, Politics of Climate Change, Polity Press, 2009, reproduced with permission of the author and the publisher.


1 Jaco Quist and Philip Vergragt, ‘Backcasting for Industrial Transformations’, in Klaus Jacob et al. (eds), Governance for Insdustrial Transofrmation (Berlin: Environmental Policy Research Centre, 2003), pp. 423-5. Many other examples are discussed in this text.

2 Cynthia Mitchell and Stuart White, ‘Forecasting and Backcasting for Sustainable Urban Water Futures’, Water 30 (2003).

3 Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder, The Clean Tech Revolution (New York: Collins, 2007), pp. 263-73.

4 See Ithiel de Sola Pool, The Social Uses of the Telephone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977).

5 Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2004), pp. 34-5.

6 Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (London: Little, Brown, 2000).

7 For a discussion of some of these practices, see Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (yes, the self-same destroyer of the precautionary principle), Nudge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

8 Jeremy Rifkin, The Hydrogen Economy (New York: Tarcher, 2002).

9 Ibid., p. 9.