Tom Burke on the politics of climate change

The photo shows over 50,000 people marching in London, England to campaign for climate change ahead of COP21 in Paris, France.
Over 50,000 people marched in London, England to campaign for climate change ahead of COP21 in Paris, France. Photo by Matthew Kirby on flickr. 

Mr Tom Burke CBE, Chairman of E3G, gave a lecture on the politics of climate change at the British Embassy in Brussels on June 20th 2023. Please see the transcript of the lecture below.

I want to begin by thanking the Ambassador and staff of the UK Mission here in Brussels for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this evening. 

And to thank you all for coming. It is reassuring to know that, given the national self-injury of Brexit, there are still people here in Brussels interested to hear what we Brits have to say.

It is a particular pleasure for me to have a reason to come back to Brussels. It is now almost fifty years since I first came here as a young environmentalist to play a small part in the foundation of the European Environment Bureau (EEB).

The EEB is now one of the largest and most influential environmental bodies in the world. It has 180 member organisations from 40 countries. 

You may wonder how it is that the EEB has member organisations from more countries than there are member states in the EU. 

I think this says something important about both the environment and the EU. Environmental problems are intolerant of boundaries – whether they are boundaries between nations, between institutions or between disciplines.

They ignore them all.

As anyone familiar with policy making processes in Brussels knows, you get a lot of time to think as you tread the intricate path between problem and solution within the corridors of the Commission.

In the decade and half I spent walking that sometimes torturous path while leading British environmental organisations I learnt two very important lessons.

First, there are no hard power solutions to global environmental problems and to climate change in particular. 

No nation can compel another nation to do what is necessary to deal with the accelerating degradation of the environmental conditions that make prosperity possible – the climate in particular.

This means that they can only be solved if nations are willing to pool sovereignty. The EU remains the world’s only really sustained and successful experiment in how to pool sovereignty.

It was discussion of these lessons that led my colleagues and I to found E3G in 2004. Our foundational document is titled ‘Europe in the World’. 

This reflected our understanding that if the EU was to continue to succeed in the 21st Century, as memories of Europe’s mistakes in the 20th faded, it would need a compelling mission about the future. 

It seemed to us that the accelerating environmental crisis provided just that mission.

It also seemed to us that while a promising fountain of ideas for dealing with the environmental crisis was emerging, far too few of those ideas were being taken up by politicians.

This led to my second lesson that to bring about effective environmental change you needed to do both policy and politics.

We recognised the need not only to produce deliverable policy ideas but also to be able to create the political conditions for their adoption.

We needed to do the policy and politics together.

E3G now has a staff of about 150 people. Between them they speak some 20 languages. We quickly discovered that in many languages there are not different words for policy and politics.

This has taught us to be very clear about the differences between them. Put at its simplest, policy is a map; politics is the journey.

Getting people to agree on the best way to get from here to there – in this case to a decarbonised economy is one thing; persuading them to actually make the journey is entirely another.

Making a good map requires rather sophisticated tools; persuading people to go on a journey is often anything but sophisticated.

Having worked inside as well as outside government I have learnt that simply repeating your policy ideas in an ever louder voice rarely has much impact on the political conversation which determines whether or not they are adopted.

The EU has become perhaps the world’s most prolific fountain of policy ideas for tackling climate change. It is not quite as successful at putting them into practice.

So let me reassure you right away that I do not intend to entangle you this evening in the intricate detail of what is good or bad about the European Green Deal. 

I am sure you are already more than familiar enough with the whole array of policy issues of which it is comprised.

Instead, I want to stand back from climate policy issues and look more deeply into the political factors which determine whether or not those policies are put into practise. 

Experience has now validated the science of climate change in the public mind. A continuing sequence of unusual floods, droughts, storms and fires has left the public in no doubt that something bad is happening to their climate.

Climate change has thus become a mainstream political issue. It typically ranks in the top five issues of public concern in polling.

Two other things about climate change have also now become clear to me.

The first is that we already have available more than enough technology to build a carbon free energy system that is secure and affordable.

The second is that getting to net zero will not ruin our economy though it will change its structure very significantly.

These are, of course, very contested propositions. 

However, I think the primary source of the contest in both cases, is not whether we can design policy suites to achieve an affordable and secure decarbonised energy system in a thriving economy but whether those policy suites are politically available.

In the first case, the political problem is choosing between the abundance of technologies available, each with its own noisy lobby and client interests.

In the second case, the political problem is that you cannot make a technology transformation without an accompanying social transformation. This means changing who benefits from both public and private investment and who loses.

In both cases, politicians are discouraged from choosing the best suite of policies by the need not to alienate either powerful energy lobbies or voters in disrupted communities. 

What results is often both policy incoherence as governments adopt ‘all of the above’ policy suites to please all the lobbies and timetables for implementation that shift the social consequences into the future.

A commitment to ‘all of the above’ policies is a recipe for doing not enough of anything to ensure success.

Delaying implementation is a recipe for policy failure since the physics of carbon in the atmosphere is what determines the timetable for success.

In an argument between physics and politics, physics always wins.

While I think both public and most politicians have now become convinced of the reality of climate I do not think either has yet grasped the urgency of achieving climate policy success.

This is not for want of effort by climate scientists. Year by year they have given us a better understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change. 

They have relentlessly communicated what they know through every possible channel.

Year by year they have grown ever more anxious about the accelerating pace at which the climate is changing and the slow speed with which governments are responding.

So what is holding us up?

Put simply, I think neither the public nor politicians have yet grasped what is really at stake in the difference between climate policy success and climate policy failure.

If you like, we have our priorities wrong.

Let me explain.

The first imperative on any government is to maintain its territorial integrity. If it cannot do that, it is not a government in any meaningful sense of the word.

Syria comes immediately to mind as a place where a government has lost control of its territorial integrity.

The second imperative is to maintain internal stability. Without it a government cannot maintain territorial integrity. This is particularly true in the urban areas where more than half the world’s population now lives.

A picture of what a loss of internal stability looks like is all too readily visible this evening in Haiti or Sudan.

The third imperative is to maintain food, water and energy security without which internal stability becomes impossible. 

There are other forces that can destroy internal stability but the loss of food, water and energy security guarantees it. 

The fourth imperative is to maintain climate security since without climate security it becomes progressively more difficult to maintain food, water and energy security.

We can already see in many places around the world that the current level of climate change, loss of climate security if you like,  is already adding stress to food, water and energy security.

The fifth imperative for a government is to maintain access to markets and resources needed to enhance prosperity.

I do not think you need me to tell you that for most, if not all, governments, the fifth imperative is actually their first imperative.

Let me make this thought about political priorities live.

Even if current pledges are met – and that is by no means guaranteed even in the EU – then we will breach the Paris Agreement target. 

This might mean that by the middle of the next decade, say 2035, there could be extended periods of 40°C plus temperatures in the summer across the whole of the Northern Mediterranean littoral.

This would not be good for the European tourism industry.

There are now homes in the United States that already uninsurable because of wildfires. This is soon likely to be the case in Southern Europe.

Higher food prices this year in Britain have added to our cost of living crisis because of a bizarre combination of floods and drought in Spain. 

The European Green Deal is the world’s most ambitious and comprehensive package to tackle climate change. 

As I am sure you know, it comprises more than 50 measures covering the four main sectors of the energy transition: power, mobility, buildings and food and agriculture.

Yet even though it is neither big enough nor fast enough to keep the climate safe, it is running into increasingly strong headwinds as politicians across the EU worry more about the impact of climate policy on the fifth imperative.

These considerations lead me to the conclusion that the most difficult and often least systematically understood obstacle to climate policy success is politics rather than technology or economics.

There is an old saying in Britain, ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. Most often used to encourage reluctant children to do something they don’t want to do.

Politics is often described as the art of the possible. In E3G we sometimes define our climate mission as expanding the realm of the possible.

My view of what is politically possible is shaped by recalling that between December 1941 and December 1942 the whole of the United States economy was transformed from producing cars and white goods into producing tanks and ammunition.

That was over eighty years ago.

We can surely do better today.

Indeed Germany has just demonstrated this.

Few people would have believed in January last year that German could eliminate its dependence on Russian gas in twelve months without wrecking its economy.

Yet by using the political will generated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine it was able – to its own amazement – to do just that.

Political will is one of those amorphous concepts whose absence can be used as an excuse for a large array of failures. 

It is typically much easier to create the political will to address an imminent war than it is to find it in time to deal with the underlying causes of that war. 

But wars end eventually, peace is restored and life for most people goes on as before. 

The changes we are currently making to our climate are not reversible – at least not on any timescale that matters to human beings.

There is no return to a status quo ante if climate policy fails.

Life for most people will unimaginably and permanently different from what it was before.

Yet the road we are currently on leads to failure, not success.

How then do we build the political will we need to mobilise the abundance of technological and economic resources we already have to keep the climate safe?

And what’s more, how do we do so in time to beat the physics?

Time is actually the only really scarce resource in the pursuit of climate policy success.

In the absence of the immediate urgency to create the will needed to overcome the political obstacles to securing climate policy success we must create what President Carter, channelling William James, called the ‘moral equivalent of war’.

He was prompted by the need to reduce America’s dependence on oil after the 1973 oil price hike.

Our need is far greater than was his.

I wish I could offer you an answer to the question I have just posed but I really can’t. 

The best I can do is to offer some starting points for a more mature conversation about how we develop a better grip on the politics of climate change. 

Without it, I do not think we can achieve climate policy success despite all our technology and economic abundance.

The first starting point is about the voices that are shaping the global conversation on climate policy. The second is about the ideas that are shaping what those voices are saying.

There are two categories of voice shaping the climate policy conversation. Climate makers and climate takers. 

Climate makers are the voices of those governments and business who will win or lose if climate policy succeeds.

The fossil fuels industries and countries and those industries and countries with an economic stake in building a carbon-free future are the climate makers.

These are the voices that currently dominate the conversation about climate policy. They are the dominant influence on whether or not governments achieve net zero in time to keep the climate safe. 

As things stand, the voice of the fossil fuel interests is louder within governments than that of the decarbonisation interests. 

The voice of the climate takers – that is all those economic and other interests that must live with whatever climate results from the voice of the climate makers – is largely unheard in this conversation.

Climate takers are the non-energy businesses that drive most of the economy. They are the cities and farmers who must cope with whatever climate comes their way. They are the health, education, legal and other professions whose values and institutions will be overwhelmed by the consequences of climate policy failure.

For the most part, they are all doing what they can to reduce the burden of their activities on the climate as a positive response to current climate policies. But those policies will not protect them from a climate which continues to change.

What they are not doing, for the most part, is raising their voices in the conversation dominated by the climate makers. 

The result is an unbalanced global conversation in which, as I said above, the incumbent fossil fuels interests have more influence.

The climate takers urgently need to raise their voice if we are to get a better grip on the politics of climate change.

The second starting point is the ideas which shape what the voices are saying.

I do not believe that we can solve a problem of this magnitude and urgency without the state playing a larger role than at present in mobilising the human, technology and economic resources that we have.

This means that if your fundamental political ideas revolve around an effort to reduce the role of government in shaping the economy, eliminate as many regulations as possible and to trim taxation to the bare minimum, you are more likely to be part of the problem than the solution.

This is a long way from me believing that we can rely on the state to deliver climate policy success.

As we have discovered, markets play a central role in delivering prosperity. They are an effective tool for exploring the landscape of least cost opportunity. 

What is more, the competition that drives them is essential for innovation. The path to a safe climate requires a considerable amount of innovation – though technology innovation may actually be the least important part.

But markets have no purpose. Given enough time they might discover a pathway to a decarbonised economy.

But precisely what we do not have is that time.

Which is why we need the state to define a clear  purpose to which markets can contribute.

In setting the goal of reaching net zero by 2050 they have done this across much of the world.

But governments always have many purposes and are much less good than markets at defining priorities as I pointed out earlier.

Furthermore, governments are prone to capture by the incumbent lobbies which slows – and sometimes prevents – an effective response to the climate crisis.

Both governments and markets make mistakes – sometimes significant strategic mistakes. On the whole, markets are quicker to learn from their mistakes than governments who all too often are prone to hide errors first and correct them later.

This is why I think democracy – or the best approximation to it we can get – is an essential enabler of climate policy success.

This is not because I am blind to its many apparent faults – particularly its bias to the short term.

This leads some people to think that climate change is an issue that really needs autocrats who can act with scale and speed.

But to stay in power autocrats have to destroy all the machinery societies have ever managed to create to learn from their mistakes – independent judiciaries, a free press, fair elections and many more.

There are no mistake-free paths to a safe climate.

Which is why I think, for all its weaknesses, democracy is essential for climate policy success.

Furthermore, to succeed in tackling a problem of this magnitude and urgency our most vital asset is human creativity: our ability to visualise the world we want to live in and then make it real.

Human creativity, and the imagination that drives it, is an autocrat’s deadliest enemy. This is why they always suppress it.

Having worked on climate change for more than forty years I am often asked if I am optimistic about achieving climate policy success.

I reply that optimism is a function of your temperament not your analysis and that the better your analysis the more you can get done with your optimism.

I have no illusions about how hard it is going to be to build the politics of climate policy success but the sooner and better we understand the challenge the more likely our chance of succeeding.


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