>Liberal democracy: the heat is on

>A thought provoking article by Stephen King (the HSBC economist and columnist, not the horror writer) in a The Independent (6 November) about green taxation and the prospects of averting catastrophic climate change. Taking the liberal/economic view of climate changes as an externality that has be factored into individual economic decisions, he points out that taxation does work, but very slowly and not on the scale required for climate change to be addressed in time (as set out in the Stern Report). Smoking has been reduced by half over about 40 years as taxes have crept up, but there the individual has a direct personal interest in not becoming ill – whereas climate change really only bites 2-3 generations on – and the reduction achieved is still less than the 80% cut in global carbon emissions required.

The real issues, as the article, bleakly highlights, is that climate changes is a giant collective action problem – the tragedy of the commons writ very large indeed – which requires states and individual voters/consumers to subordinate their immediate interests to those of future generations and the global population as a whole. The chances of this happening, King convincing suggests, seem minimal, so we are likely to be heading for a bad global scenario in 50-100 years time. As in many collective action problems, some actors (US, China, India) count a whole lot more than others because they (will) emit more. US votes in elections – mainly in a few swing states and districts – have disproportionate weight in deciding about us all.

And the political consequences? Diminishing economic growth and social disruption implies conflict, radicalisation and perhaps resort to authoritarian solutions. Although Green politics in Europe is libertarian, anti-statist and generally politically right on, the political logic of coping with climate change (or its consequences) seems to imply a strengthening of political authority, growing inequality (green taxes on consumption are, after all, flat – hence regressive; development in poorer countries may add to climate change etc) and – as George Monbiot has spotted – the Wellsian prospect of a kind of world government, more likely perhaps to take the form of world governance, as bigger states imposing their will on smaller, taking action on climate change but at the price of entrenching their dominance and privilege.

The Pentagon, of course, got there before me in a widely publicized 2003 report focused on US security needs, but I guess the message is that eco-liberals might need to be as worried about the growth of state power and the future political environment as they do about the physical environment. On the other hand, Liberals from Mill to Hayek have cultivated a professional pessimism about global trends driving the rise of new forms of authoritarian and usually been only half right… Indeed, perhaps the late 21st century will just be the same as the late 19th or the late 20th – a few wealthy fortress like islands of political liberalism in an otherwise poor and illiberal world.

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