Time for a radical new paradigm to help us address climate change

Tessa Coombes
Tessa Coombes

by Tessa Coombes

Lord Anthony Giddens presented the Policy and Politics Annual Lecture, in Bristol, on Tuesday 17th March. The theme of the lecture was to consider what recent progress has been made on climate change and what stops us doing more. Lord Giddens concluded his lecture with a proposal for the need for a new paradigm to provide the change needed to generate the radical solutions that are now necessary.

Lord Anthony Giddens first wrote “The Politics of Climate Change” in 2007/08, a time of optimism and hope, when change to reduce carbon emissions seemed top of the agenda both nationally and globally. It was a time of opportunity, seized by politicians like Al Gore who published his book and produced the film “An Inconvenient Truth” to great acclaim. It was also the time of the biggest United Nations meeting on climate change in Copenhagen where over 100 nations met to discuss measures to address the problems of climate change and reducing carbon emissions.

Lord Giddens moved us through this period of optimism to one of dashed hopes and increasing fears following the lack of agreement in Copenhagen. He talked about the difficulties of measuring climate change and the range of indicators needed to assess impacts. He argued that despite the advancements in science and knowledge, there are still many sceptics who refuse to acknowledge the very real changes we are experiencing. Indeed, one of the problems with climate change, he explained, lies in its irreversible nature, the fact that once greenhouse gases are in

our atmosphere they cannot be removed, there’s no way back. This issue in itself creates the very sense of urgency that should be surrounding the climate change debate but which is often sadly lacking. He outlined how public opinion on climate change has grown weaker despite stronger scientific evidence that the situation is worsening. He explained this and the failure of the Copenhagen summit to tackle the issues by reference to four key aspects:

  1. The powerful influences at work within the climate arena and the level of disinformation used to discredit science;
  2. The pivotal role of science in filtering findings, a political role not normally associated with the science arena;
  3. The ‘free rider’ problem, where it’s easy for individual nations to say their impact is limited so why accept responsibility for change; and
  4. The developed world versus developing world debate over economic growth.

There are some powerful factors in this list but, according to Lord Giddens, the prime reason that we don’t deal with climate change effectively is what he has termed “Giddens’ paradox”. He suggests that because no one has ever had to confront the problem of climate change it’s difficult to grasp the reality of it. We can’t be precise about the levels of risk and we don’t have past experience to draw on and in Lord Giddens words “we’ll only know when it’s too late”.

Lord Giddens with the Policy & Politics team
Lord Giddens with the Policy & Politics team

But does the future look just as bleak or is there still hope? Lord Giddens talked about the potential of the United Nations meeting in Paris at the end of 2015, but expressed an element of scepticism about the likelihood of reaching any binding agreements. The Paris meeting will be the 21st meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and according to Lord Giddens that’s 21 years in which very little has been achieved. His solution to this apparent stalemate and lack of action is the development of a new paradigm, which is based on the following four main elements.

Firstly, according to Lord Giddens, there is a need to accept that climate change is a here and now issue, rather than something where the risks are seen 10, 20, 30 years away. He also explained that it cannot be dealt with on its own. Climate change needs to be considered alongside other risks, such as world population growth, water and food scarcity and war. This cluster of new risks is with us now and the multiplier effect of considering them together elevates the level of overall risk to critical.

Secondly, Lord Giddens placed great emphasis on the importance of bilateral and regional agreements, with the explanation that what actually happens in the US, China, India and the European Union, will determine the fate of the world. To some degree the fragility of politics in these areas provides for increasing uncertainty over the prominence of climate change in national and international politics.

In the third element of the paradigm, Lord Giddens considered the need to challenge the power of fossil fuel companies as those responsible for increasing carbon emissions. He expressed his concern that renewables had made little overall impact on the spread of fossil fuels and highlighted the need for change. He could see a slight glimmer of hope as radical changes in technology provide the opportunity for more rapid change on a global scale.

Finally, he alluded to the role of local activism and the opportunity for global impact presented by digital technology. This transforms what is possible in a way we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago.

The presentation ended with a reminder that five minutes is the equivalent historical time left to make progress and as the current system isn’t working, radical change is needed. But will we see it happen? Only the future will tell.

3 thoughts on “Time for a radical new paradigm to help us address climate change

  1. Paul Collins March 20, 2015 / 3:55 pm


    Many thanks for your interesting article.

    I was at the talk and whilst Lord Giddens made some good points, there were moments when I thought he didn’t really have his finger on the pulse of the current politics of climate change or the global mood, which was surprising considering his background and experience. Lord Giddens’ hope for the digital revolution to deliver sustainable solutions wasn’t really expanded on, other than suggesting it gave people a means of keeping in touch. But for me, more worrying was his response to a question I raised with him. I asked whether he thought developed nations should apologise to the victims of climate change. His response was along the lines of ‘No. We didn’t mean it’. I was stunned by that response and, like I say, find it a worrying remark to have made.

    Paul Collins

    • Tessa Coombes March 26, 2015 / 3:17 pm

      Hi Paul, many thanks for your comments, and to a point I would agree with you about current issues in the climate change agenda. There are many different and challenging approaches which he didn’t really touch on but which help us to understand the stalemate experienced all to regularly at UN level. Also I think the point about the digital revolution is an interesting one – I worry sometimes that we put too much hope on technology solving the problem so we don’t have to do anything ourselves?

      I remember your question and felt that he focused more on the need for action and that apologies wouldn’t achieve anything. He went on to talk about the need to support and fund developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change, which is important but still ducks the issue about taking action.


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