The science of climate change is unequivocal: in order to respond to the climate challenge, we need to make our energy systems carbon-neutral. Yet we have been reluctant to face up with this reality, although the technologies for the transformation already exist. A transformation of the energy system could provide Europe with several opportunities. It would help us in creating a new growth model in the face of returning geopolitics, in rebuilding the European project as a whole, as well as in opening a political conversation with the currently alienated young generation.
John Ashton, Adviser on the Politics of Climate Change
John Ashton is an independent commentator and adviser on the politics of climate change, well known for the role he has played in climate diplomacy. From 2006-2012 he served as Special Representative for Climate Change for three successive UK Foreign Secretaries, spanning the current Coalition and the previous Labour Governments. He was a cofounder and, in 2004-2006, the first Chief Executive of the think tank E3G. From 1978 to 2002, after a brief period as a research astronomer, he was a career diplomat, with a particular focus on China.
Mika Aaltola, Programme Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Summary of the seminar:
The seminar dealt with the connection between climate change, the international perception of growth and their implications for the political debate about the rebuilding of the European project. In his opening remarks Dr. Mika Aaltola pointed out that the long-lasting debate about multiple scientific interpretations of the climate change is becoming increasingly unambiguous: There is an urgent need to decarbonize our energy systems in order to save the future of our planet. The problem in these regards is not a lack of the therefore necessary technology, but rather the reluctance to use it. A prime example in this regard is the recent debate in Finland, which might unilaterally benefit from the climate change, however suffer from its global implications.
John Ashton opened his speech with an anecdote about his recent encounter with no till farming, and thus showed that even though new techniques might be more beneficial and environmental friendly, different forces like for instance the diverging interests of other industry sectors collaborate with one another to protect the status quo. Keeping this general constraint in mind, Mr Ashton turned his attention to the current global model of growth and its implications for climate policies. The understanding that economies are able to grow constantly and thus produce more prosperity was for quite a long time persistent and credible. However, the recent experiences of the crisis on a European and a global scale challenged this previously dominant narrative and led to a debate about the origins of employment and growth in many countries. These discussions spread out to a wider political dimension: Not only the growth discourse is in doubt nowadays but also the capacity of the political elite to make strategic decisions which are beneficial for everybody. This counts also for climate policies which can be seen as state interventions in the national economy of a country. Mr Ashton referred in these terms to Henry Kissinger who demanded in January 2013 a new global political debate about identity and economic values, even though this process will not necessarily lead to a worldwide alignment in the end. However, since the actions of individuals on different sides of the world are nowadays increasingly interconnected, the construction of divergent identities in these regards would cause an ungovernable international system. Therefore it is a vocal task of diplomats to avoid this by shaping these debates in particular and politics in general in an outward looking way.
An interrelated problem in this sense are the barely promising prospects for people aged younger than 30 who cannot take for granted anymore that their living standard will rise the older they get. Insecure careers and increasing constraints to start a family are more and more common for the young generation. These rather pessimistic expectations for the future make their claim to fix the climate challenge rather sooner than later more than reasonable. This is why the missing action of the political elite in this regard leads to a further decrease of the young generation’s confidence in them.
For Mr Ashton, this becomes even more tragic considering the fact that the climate change challenge is actually an overcomplicated problem. The easiest strategy to solve it is decarbonizing our electricity, heating and transport systems as well other carbon-dependent economy sectors, which demand in general also a more efficient use of energy. However, the necessary technology and capital to realize this transformation is actually already available. Thus, it becomes obvious, that tackling the climate change is foremost a political and not an economic or technical problem. With reference to Karl Marx, the problem lies not in the foundation – the available energy – but rather in the required redistribution of power relations, which means for instance diminishing the influence of companies benefitting from the status quo. Even though this seems like a very difficult task at first glance, Mr Ashton furnished the example of establishing the European integration process after the experience of the Second World War to show that far-reaching structural transformations are indeed possible. It is in this sense inevitable though that the political elite can retrieve the trust and support of the public.
Closely connected to this and the reluctance of the politicians to get active in terms of the climate change challenge are the ongoing problems of and in the European Union. From Mr Ashton’s perspective most obvious is the British debate about a withdrawal from the Union, which even though it would be tragic becomes more and more a possible perspective. It is therefore important to point out the EU’s benefits and draw a new vision of a shared identity while upholding the principle of diversity. Another dimension of the European set of problems is the Euro zone crisis, whose management on the one side keeps the attention of the European elites and prevents the implementation of visionary policies. On the other side, it also leads to a loss of trust and support for the EU from its citizen and thus opens the door for oversimplified populist claims. Therefore the main question is how to rebuild the rationale of the European integration process and how to provide prosperity, equality and security for its citizen. This becomes even more important with the current worrying developments in Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood in mind. Despite all these problems, the EU is overall the appropriate framework to establish a common climate policy in order to face this challenge in a credible way.
Mr Ashton’s speech was followed by a question from Juha Käpylä, research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, about how the EU should relate to the Arctic region, which is seen on the one side as an opportunity in terms of hydrocarbon resources and on the other side as a thread in terms of global warming. Mr Ashton declared in this context the high importance of European cooperation to protect this particularly endangered region from self-interests and short-term gainless exploitation.
A second question came from Anna Kronlund, senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. It was related to the European perspective on the US climate action plan launched by President Obama in 2013 and its relation to European efforts. In this regard Mr Ashton referred to the deep cleavages in US politics which make President Obama’s in fact laudable personal engagement less plausible with respect to its realization. It is therefore Europe’s task to claim credible international leadership in climate concerns and also to look out for new partners such as China for instance.
At the end of the seminar the floor was opened for questions and comments from the audience. These were dealing for instance with the prospects for the use of nuclear power, the future of the European emission trade system and expectations for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015.