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Climate change is a political issue as well as a scientific one

The way ahead is understanding that climate change is a political issue as well as a scientific one.

Dr Caroline Kuzemko & Prof Simon Caney, Politics & International Studies, Warwick

Climate change is often viewed as a scientific problem and an economic problem. However, it has, until recently, been less often recognised as a political problem.

Our research at the University of Warwick brings the vital issue of politics to the forefront of the climate discussion. It concerns how we might all live well together, in a fundamentally changing world, and how we might respond to the climate crisis in a fair and legitimate way.

We study the interactions between individuals and the governing structures that shape their experiences of the world, locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. It is always important to remember that our lives are lived within structures, be they political, ideological, economic, social, or cultural, and those structures both enable aspects of social sustainability whilst also sometimes entrenching climate injustice.

For example, some power relations and embedded norms and interests are a major obstacle to combating climate change, whilst many policies have already engendered sustainable forms of change. Understanding the politics of climate change is thus vital. Politics underpins the ability of countries to meet their targets, and is a precondition of a just transition to a sustainable world.

Since climate change crosses boundaries of time and space, addressing it requires us to understand our responsibilities to others, including future, as well as current, generations. Our research analyses how sustainability, fairness and justice might be delivered to everyone, wherever in the world or whenever they happen to be born, and what kind of politics is needed.

The central role of politics and the complex relationship between politics, technologies and emissions reduction is exemplified in the history of mobility. In the early years electric vehicles were more popular than petrol cars in the United States. But with the advent of Ford’s affordable Model-T, and the growing availability of domestic oil and associated interests, petrol cars became an economic and political priority reinforced by extensive road infrastructures.

In the 2010s, however, with emissions reduction as a core target, some national governments started to subsidise electric vehicle sales and set limits on the sale of petrol cars. By 2021, electric vehicles (EVs) were 8.3% of car sales globally, from 0.2% in 2012.

A political lens also helps us to understand that switching to EVs does not solve all transport problems. It tends to reinforce the culture of car dependence and associated investment in roads, inequalities in access to cars, whilst underplaying investment to facilitate alternative and more inclusive modes of transport – like cycling, walking and public transport.

It is crucial, therefore, that we understand and acknowledge the ways in which politics is involved in how different parts of the world, and different actors, seek to address climate change – whilst understanding how politics intertwines with this provides us with a framework for a just transition.

Just transitions are an integral part of sustainable change and encouraging global public support for climate change action. For example, decarbonising energy in line with the 1.5 degree Paris target will lead to stranded financial assets, job losses in some sectors, and to a loss of income for countries dependent on fossil fuels. On the other hand, it will help to avoid catastrophic climate change as well as open up significant investment and job opportunities in green energy sectors.

Many people underestimate these complexities of sustainably transforming economies around the world, which is a major reason why climate policy and political targets face stark opposition. However, it is possible to build knowledge that can underpin a more just transition into the future. Indeed, policies that recognise and address the socio-economic inequities tied up in decarbonisation can mitigate some of the negative impacts of sustainable change.

Our research at the University of Warwick promotes and informs this attitude. Through in-depth research on the politics of just and sustainable transitions we help to facilitate the knowledge required to drive change and pave the way ahead. Together we attempt to challenge those aspects of current structures that are impeding this and point towards more just political understandings and actions. This involves a just sharing of the costs involved in the transition – both within and between countries – and, in addition to this, just adaptation policies and loss and damage for those already harmed.

Using our research and findings we have been able to directly influence policymakers, governments, and many organisations across the globe. The world’s leading climate research body, the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is working hard to bring political and social insights into its analysis, and our research has contributed towards these efforts. In particular see Climate Change 2022 publications by Working Group II on adaptation and Working Group III on mitigation and the role of politics therein.

As we look to the future, we want to see continued change, one in the perception of politics as part of this challenge, and two, further climate change conversations that draw on this connection.

As we have those discussions, whether through our teaching and research, or directly communicating with local and national policymakers, we can positively influence the approach to combating climate change.

To learn more about how politics connects with climate change, please visit Simon Caney; Keith Hyams; Caroline Kuzemko; Morten Fibieger Byskov; and Ed Page’s web pages.


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