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Climate Change and the Political Imagination

by Worldchanging Canada local blog editor, Mark Tovey:

I recently attended an event on the Carleton University campus in Ottowa called Climate Change: Today's Challenge. The posted advertising the event framed it as "a conversation" between three specialists on the politics of climate change: a journalist (Ehsan Masood), a geographer specializing in environmental security (Simon Dalby), and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office's special representative for climate change, John Ashton.

The moderator, Ken Rockburn of CPAC, in his introductory remarks, reminded us that the people in the world who will be most at risk for climate change will be those who are least able to deal with it, and least responsible. A theme running through most of the afternoon was developing climate resilience, and the kind of political imagination required to do this.

According to John Ashton, the message of the Stern Report, and the one that the British government is increasingly taking to heart (and on the road), is that the social contract made by a government to its citizens, to be able to provide security and prosperity, will be difficult to deliver except in the context of a transition to a low-carbon economy. And the politics and diplomacy of building an international consensus on this issue will have to be different from any we have tried before. The sorts of zero-sum games represented by trade negotiations cannot provide the models we need. New models of negotiation based on empathy will be required. Interdependence now being the "dominant characteristic" of international relationships, we need empathy "to understand people who we want to build shared solutions with." This will also require, according to Ashton, "constructing a politics that will allow us to make some very difficult distributional choices." This will have to include the distribution of opportunity, since "there are going to be fortunes made" out of the low-carbon economy, with Canada being "very well placed to take huge commercial advantage out of that shift."

Ashton talked about the lessons learned in Europe from the industrial revolution, especially that if you wanted to continue growing, you had to invest in maintaining the social conditions for growth. In this case, the problem is similar, but the question is how to maintain the environmental conditions for growth. The political problems of how to "build a realm of mutuality", a diplomacy of empathy, and the environmental conditions for continued growth, are general, and by no means solved. It will require a great deal of creativity from the political class if they want to continue to deliver the things that people expect of modern societies. "There is now a political consensus across Europe that if we want to be a competitive economy, then a low-carbon economy is the only way to go." In Europe, unlike in Canada, climate change is seen not just as an environmental problem, but an economic and security issue as well. We cannot look simply to technocratic or technological fixes—this is a challenge, Ashton emphasized, "of the political imagination."

One of the challenges to the political imagination will be climate refugees. According to Dalby, migration "is already in motion from the poorer parts of the world", mostly spurred by world-wide increases in urbanization. This migration will be perceived either as a security threat or a natural consequence of high mobility and globalization—the choice is ours. And there is "strong public opinion capital" to be made of 'the migration threat', according to Masood, through a politics of anxiety and extreme xenophobia. "What it doesn't do is ask people to imagine a world without walls."

Another challenge will be infrastructure development. "A country," said Masood, "that is resilient against the shocks of climate change, is resilient against other shocks." When it comes to being resilient to climate change, he said, "we are all developing countries." Rather than "putting endless scrubbers and filters at the end of emitting pipes", Dalby added, we need to "put a lot less stuff through our economies", and stop and think about what we do make: "really good environmental engineering is about making things in ways that don't need to be regulated."

The arena in which regulation will pay immediate dividends is in what we build. Dalby talked about the housing standards being devised in Germany for homes that don't need a furnace. It's not a question of having the technology, it's a question of creating the political machinery to allow it to be effectively deployed. "Our future security", he said to me afterwards, "depends on building codes."

"Resilience", "Shared interests", "a realm of mutuality", "difficult distributional choices", "less stuff", "empathy", "a world without walls". Ultimately, this was less a conversation about climate or security, and more a conversation about values—an invitation to re-examine our existing values, and craft new ones. An opportunity to create a political space in which enlightened choices are possible. "This is not a question of what should we do," Ashton said, "this is a question of who we are."

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The full broadcast of this event will be made available via CPAC's Talk Politics

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