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'Broader global perspective' needed to tackle climate emergency

Daniel Mansfield

23 March 2021

The climate emergency is a pervasive global issue that requires much broader input in order for effective solutions to be found at an international level.

That was the view taken by those at the first King’s Great Debate which put the focus on the climate crisis and asked whether there was a need for a whole new political economy in order for lasting progress to be made.

The debate, organised by the School of Politics and Economics (SPE), took place on 18 March and saw students, academics, and climate experts come together to consider the issue of climate change across three sessions.

Professor Peter John, head of SPE, said: “It was a wonderful occasion, we had great presentations and discussions and feedback. This was an enormous topic with which to start our series but our audience did a fantastic job of addressing the brief and really opened the door for further debate.”

In the opening session, the audience heard from three experts, who shared their view on what needed to change in order for progress to be made in tackling climate change.

Professor Rebecca Willis, from Lancaster University, started by asking: “can we put our faith in democracy or not?”. She said citizens had to find a way to “renew our social contract” and trust politicians to act in our best interests.

She added: “We should be thinking about how we can make climate meaningful to people’s lives. This is an agenda that we need to open out to everyone. We need an open and honest debate with people about the changes there will be to our economy and society.”

Climate laws have bent the growth curve. They make a difference but it doesn’t add up to climate protection– Professor Sam Fankhauser

Professor Neil Carter, from the University of York, spoke about the party politics of climate change in the UK. He said there had been a “passive consensus” among the big parties in the UK over the last 25 years as people had accepted the science but change had been “relatively limited” and incremental.

“We need to avoid polarisation,” he said and pointed towards a new competitive consensus which had emerged in politics post 2010, though tensions remained. Prof Carter then looked at the future and the impact of Brexit and the upcoming COP 26 forum, to be held in Glasgow later this year.

“There is evidence that when these big jamborees take place, there is a positive effect that follows,” he added.

Professor Sam Fankhauser, from the London School of Economics, spoke about the international picture and the economic policy of climate change action. He spoke about the growing incidence of government intervention around the world and highlighted the more than 2,000 climate change laws that had been passed around the world.

“Quite intensive law-making is going on, which is good news,” he said.

Prof Fankhauser said it was difficult to observe what impact these laws had made on carbon emissions, but said studies had shown they had “made a dent”. He added: “[climate laws] have bent the growth curve. They make a difference but it doesn’t add up to climate protection”.

Prof Fankhauser also touched on what was holding the laws back in terms of effectiveness and impact.

Participants joined breakout rooms in the second session of the event, which focussed on different aspects of the debate. The rooms looked at areas including technology and economy, justice, citizenship, radical politics and policy choices.

Among the issues highlighted, the breakout rooms considered the role of citizens’ forums and whether they could make use of technology to ensure people could be regularly consulted on the policy-making process.

Other groups also touched on creating spaces for citizens to engage in the process of climate policy and spoke about how they could encourage participation.

The technology and economy group considered the problems of new technologies like Bitcoin and its environmental impact but also of the possible solutions those technologies might present. The group also spoke about the evolution of cities in future and what needs to be done to make cities more sustainable.

A group looking at radical politics touched on the issue of economic growth and how it relates to climate change. The group asked who should foot the bill for climate change politics and asked whether we needed “a new vision of the good life, living in a simpler fashion, in order to help with climate policy”.

In the final session, the breakout rooms fed their conclusions into a summary session where Professor Frans Berkhout, dean of the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy, and Professor Sarah Birch responded to the points raised.

Prof Birch touched on the role of social science in considering the problems beyond those being looked at by science and whether closer collaboration between economists, political scientists and others would help mitigate and asses the unintended consequences of action to tackle climate change.

Prof Berkhout said: “We can all agree that climate change is a major challenge internationally.

“This is a pervasive challenge, a pervasive issue and yet it is still in research terms being dealt with a small and insular community. It involves thousands of people across the globe but it’s relatively narrow and self-referential. There’s still potential for this problem to be addressed by a broader set of communities.”

He spoke about the challenge of building lasting institutions that can focus the efforts of the climate change community but institutions that are resilient and will last long into the future.

In this story

Peter John

Peter John

Head of the School of Politics and Economics and Professor of Public Policy

Sarah  Birch

Sarah Birch

Professor of Political Science

Frans Berkhout

Frans Berkhout

Professor of Environment, Society, and Climate

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