I’ve got a rather provocatively titled piece coming out in the next issue of Political Quarterly, about two different ways of approaching climate change politics put forward by the two Miliband brothers, currently locked in a struggle for the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party.
One is promoting the idea of an ‘environmental contract’ between citizens and the state, which David Miliband developed back in 2006 when he was Secretary of State for the Environment. The other approach is to develop a ‘politics of the common good’, put forward in a speech last year by younger brother Ed Miliband.
The core of my argument in the paper is that the environmental contract/citizenship argument won’t work, for two reasons. The first is that history shows that the major evolutions in citizenship in Britain – first civil in the 18th century, then political in the 19th century and finally social citizenship in the second half of the 20th century – have all been driven by powerful groups who will gain directly and substantially by such extensions of the citizenship concept. This is not the case for environmental citizenship.
The second reason, which kind of reinforces the first, is that there is still a lot of uncertainty about how exactly climate change will affect the lives of individuals in Britain, which again undermines the idea of the emergence of an organised group pushing for an environmental contract. Maybe a relatively small number of people living in Norfolk facing the loss of their homes to coastal erosion can identify themselves as having a clear interest, but they don’t constitute a major social movement.
What is useful about the environmental citizenship debate is that it clarifies the essential nature of climate change as a global public bad, and our actions to mitigate it as a global public good.
This makes Ed’s alternative – a ‘politics of the common good’ – potentially a better bet, because it identifies the essential nature of the political problem correctly. He takes the phrase from Michael Sandel, who we blogged on earlier this summer. The basic approach is to confront the public with the toughness of the problem and an appeal to people’s sense of collective responsibility and fairness, especially to future generations.
It may be that such a politics has a better chance of creating greater political space for radical climate policies, but it will have to take on the two great legacies of the Thatcher era – populism and materialism – which are both strongly weaved into British (and American) society. Many people don’t trust the government and no longer believe anything it tells them. Many people have bought into material consumption as a route to psychological security and social status. A politics of the common good is unlikely to get too far without some major changes in these powerful undercurrents.