Thursday, January 3, 2008

Climate Change Politics: Brit Style

Remember, politics is, in all places and at all times, about making other people do what you want.

From The Guardian:

This time it's personal
The climate change bill is currently going through parliament and thankfully it has a wide measure of cross-party support. Britain will be the first country in the world to set itself legally binding targets for step-by-step reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Setting targets, however, is one thing - achieving them will be a truly formidable task, whose implications run through almost all of our institutions. There will have to be a return to some form of economic planning, given the timescales involved; technological innovation will be crucial, but so also will lifestyle change. Unless people alter some core aspects of their daily habits, we have no hope of reaching the climate change goals.

Lifestyle change and how to achieve it, it could be argued, are now the name of the game in key areas of politics. The range of issues involved is very wide. Climate change is the big daddy of them all, but others include the obesity epidemic, lifestyle related diseases - including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and cancer - excessive drinking, drug dependence, antisocial behaviour and other areas besides. In many respects it is a new agenda, at least in terms of policy thinking. The traditional welfare state was very much based on dealing with the fallout from problems once they had happened - if you lose your job, the state will provide benefits until you get another one; if you have a child, support will be provided if you need it; if you get ill, there is a healthcare system to treat you.

Today we have to be more interventionist. Rising levels of obesity alone - now something of a worldwide trend, found even in Japan - could swamp the health system 10 to 20 years down the line. In the case of climate change, unless we take action, the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit will be miserable indeed.

An initial and obvious question that arises is that of freedom. What rights have governments to interfere with the lifestyles of their citizens at all? Shouldn't everyone be able to go to hell as they see fit? There certainly are major and difficult issues here, but some overall principles can be stated. First of all, children are in a different position from adults. It is quite legitimate, for instance, to insist that children have the option of healthy food in school; that machines containing junk food be banned from school premises; or that advertising aimed at children should be regulated. In the case of adults the boundaries are not so clear, but at a minimum we can say that intervention can be justified where the freedoms of some limit those of others. For example, if we are profligate with the earth's resources now, we affect the life chances of future generations. Finally, some types of self-destructive behaviour could be said to limit freedom rather than be an expression of it....MORE