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Home Opinion Ideas & Debate Climate Change: The Challenge for Social Democracy

Climate change: the challenge for social democracy

The challenge for social democracy

Politically, the climate change agenda has so far been presented as a major opportunity for progressive policymakers. However, there are also those who have identified major obstacles that social democrats will encounter in overcoming climate change and orchestrating a low-carbon transition; obstacles which are both philosophical and practical in scope. For instance, the principles of localism and mutualism of the “green” movement do not always sit easily alongside those of positive freedom and collective prosperity in social democracy.

It is now widely accepted that low-carbon transition is essential for the progress and sustainability of our societies and our citizens’ heterogeneous lifestyles. Yet it seems increasingly likely that the cost of this overall progress will be the impact of regressive measures (if only initially) on the levels of choice and consumption accrued by the most disadvantaged in western societies and beyond. This is especially the case in the industrial heartlands of the developed world; the infrastructural change necessitated by a low-carbon transition will render some forms of industrial labour obsolete, while the creation of new technologies will require further re-training of workforces and see a diminished role for manual skills.

New growth models, taxation, energy prices, access to transport, global governance and the implications for social justice are only some of key issues at stake. In the wake of Copenhagen's failure and as public support for dramatic emissions cuts wanes, the progressive reaction must be to sharpen our policy and political arguments in order to create a new, legitimate climate politics.

This Policy Network essay series aims to shape this debate through informed critique and fresh thinking. Each piece provides a different perspective on how to overcome the present impasse and secure public support for equitable, just and effective climate change policies.



From shrillness to sobriety: pragmatism in climate politics
As apathy, disregard and fatigue towards combating climate change increase in the US, this paper puts forward some pragmatic steps for centre-left climate politics. In rethinking failed strategies, he argues that progressives would do well to fore-go jeremiads, define the problem in terms of technology and advocate large-scale direct government activism.
By Michael Lind


What's the story? Nation-building narratives and climate politics
Social democrats can learn from the Australian experience of climate change politics, which underlines the need to move away from cosmopolitan ethics and towards muscular nation-building.
By David Hetherington & Tim Soutphommasane


Regrets, they've had a few: where now for climate politics?
The Copenhagen fiasco combined with the crisis of credibility afflicting climate science offers progressives a vital opportunity to inject a much needed dose of realism into the politics of climate change.
By Jurgen Kronig


Needs must: should the environment trump prosperity?
The adoption of negative policies which impinge on individual choice and quality of life are counter-productive and electorally damaging. Using opposition to the third runway at Heathrow as a case-in-point, this paper argues that, to lead a low-carbon transition social democrats must facilitate technological innovation and encourage lifestyle changes through incentives and financial inducements, not suffering and sacrifice.
By Clive Soley


Rethinking climate change strategy for national governments
Social democrats can lead successful domestic transitions by articulating climate change policies that deliver on economic and social grounds as well as environmental ones, says Stephen Hale. Fostering public support is key: the opportunity to secure wealth creation and employment from the process of low-carbon transition is waiting to be grasped.
By Stephen Hale