Must-Read (or Watch): Former Top UK Climate Diplomat John Ashton on the Politics of Climate Change

Transcript and video link of Ashton’s speech are available here, but it’s rather long, below are my personal highlights.

Ashton posits that politics are dominated by a “cult” of “The market knows best. Business will always allocate resources more efficiently than those enemies of enterprise in Whitehall. Government must be shrunk.”

But the “problem” with solving the problem of climate change is that strong government policy is needed to redirect investments. So, “You can fix the climate problem. Or you can cling to a dogma about small government. But you can’t do both at the same time ‐ which may be why so many small government enthusiasts seem troubled by the idea that we should deal with climate change.”

Ashton also points out that we have a fundamental transformation ahead in either case. Either we deliberately transform our economies. Or we unleash the forces of runaway climate change, which “will not be under anyone’s control, and the country they leave behind will certainly not be a better place.” As a recent World Bank report argued, even a warming of “just” 4°C would already trigger “a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people”.

Ashton generally pulls no punches in his verdict on the political system and the politicians that run it. The public has turned its back, in particular youths, and understandably so in his view, as “They are the first modern generation who, as they look at the future, see a prospect that looks worse than the prospect their parents saw. They know something has gone wrong and needs fixing, but they see an elite too busy clinging to the old system, for comfort or profit, to start a conversation with them about how to build a new one.”

He concludes with a call to arms.

“The fact is, we can’t fix the climate problem, or any of the other problems on the agenda you have set, unless we can now fix politics itself.

Fill the gap that politics has vacated. Connect with the base of society. Mobilize coalitions to offer people solutions to problems that politics in its current form ignores. And do that on the basis of a more strategic assessment than I suspect you have of what is to be done and where you can change the game. (…)

What happens in any society is the result of an interplay of forces. (…)

We get the politics we deserve. If we turn our backs, we choose impotence. If we think that politics can’t give us what we need, we can engage with it and change it.”

Internationally, leadership by the UK (and other industrialised countries) will be crucial. “You cannot expect others to act as you ask, or even listen to what you say, if you are not doing yourself what you want them to do.”

As my favourite Mahatma Gandhi quote says, you need to be the change you want to see in the world.

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