From the TUC

Climate Change and the US Presidential Election: is there a way forward?

02 Nov 2016, by in Environment

Martin Wolf is on fine form in today’s Financial Times (£), writing about the imperative of addressing climate change. Specifically, Wolf describes with frightening clarity the warming of the planet and asks, rhetorically, if this is such an important issue, why has it not featured in the debates surrounding the US Presidential election?

Wolf describes two types of climate denial. ‘Denial major’, a right wing phenomenon, takes as its premise that many of the people who take climate change seriously are suspicious of the market economy. Climate change also requires massive interference in the market and imposes large economic costs if it is to be mitigated. Wolf adds: “The natural conclusion is that the idea of man-made climate change has to be fraudulent because the possibility of its truth is too painful to contemplate”.

‘Denial minor’ recognises the dangers but argues that tackling climate change effectively is a relatively low-cost and simple challenge. Describing the Paris Agreement of December 2015 as “toothless”, Wolf argues that it is too easy to applaud gestures in the direction of tackling climate change, as if they are the real thing. ‘Denial major’, according to Wolf, would be practiced by President Trump; ‘Denial minor is a likely outcome under President Clinton.

I could conclude that Martin Wolf’s argument is a little too high-brow for a Presidential election campaign. It is fashionable to attack politicians, yet most politicians that I know (and I know quite a few) think deeply about complex political problems, such as climate change. Those problems are often nuanced and getting them heard through the white noise of an election campaign is difficult, perhaps impossible. The common mantra is that the electorate want to hear about how the policies of this or that prospective Prime Minister or President will affect their own standard of living. In the US, the focus is on the “middle class”. Discussion of an issue like climate change, in an election campaign, would simply not gain traction. I’ve never been convinced that that is true and I hope that Wolf is right, this issue could be debated during a campaign, in all its complexity. However, for the moment I cling to the famous words of Mario Cuomo: “we campaign in poetry but we govern in prose.” Politicians such as Al Gore, Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel are prepared to engage in climate change issues, even if they are not necessarily front and centre of their election campaigns.

More substantively, I wonder if the answer to Martin Wolf’s dilemma is to convince free marketeers that ‘Denial major’ does not involve massive interference in the market economy, in the sense that economic activity need be curtailed. On the contrary, mitigating climate change offers massive economic opportunities, as well as risks. Wolf ends his article by talking about the Stern Report of 2006. Nick Stern argued that the global market for clean technologies was worth $500bn per annum. The prize for the private companies in chasing a piece of that market is massive.

Germany is a world-leader in green technology, because it spotted the opportunities early (as Germany tends to do) of this market and it geared its industrial strategy to take advantage. Martin Wolf describes the US as the world’s second largest emitter; the largest is, of course, China, where green technology has formed an ever increasing part of that country’s Five Year Plans for some time and – as I have written before – is at the centre of thinking about future industrial development.

Of course, whilst mitigating climate change might offer opportunities to private companies, it cannot be done without the active involvement of the state. Both Germany and China have shown this to be true. Here in the UK, the influential economist Mariana Mazzucato has described the role of the ‘entrepreneurial state’ in developing green technology. The TUC report, ‘Powering Ahead: How the UK can match Europe’s environmental leaders’, sets out how the active power of government can bring green technology to the UK’s former industrial heartlands. Perhaps the bigger challenge in the US is not addressing climate scepticism but is convincing Americans of the role of government in addressing complex economic and societal problems.