Sunday, 17 May 2009

May 2009 - Outbreak of public anger and scrutiny helpful for Fair approach to Climate Change?

“Our politics is on the edge of a cliff”

So said Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, and I think: does he really mean his career is on the edge of a cliff teetering with the weight of his second home allowance? Clegg is of course reacting to the surge of public scrutiny of MPs expenses which has dominated the media this month. People throughout the UK have been angry at a select group of individuals claiming for themselves money and goods that the system let them have, but they weren’t morally entitled to.

two angry members of the public: more angry member of the public:

It would appear that the idea of fairness and having more than your fair share is very much in the public consciousness at the moment. Comparisons between MP’s and people affected by the recession have been often heard this month and the notion that everyone should make sacrifices in the face of a common challenge is aprevalent narrative in the media. It has got to be said this sounds like just the kind of debate that we need to have in the UK in order to front up to climate change.

But hang on, politicians and journalists are saying that the MPs expenses scandal has been very damaging to politics and the democratic process. This is what Party Leaders have each said this week:

David Cameron: "I understand how deep the damage goes. Our politics are reviled. Our parliament is held in scorn. Our people have had enough"

Gordon Brown: “We must show that we have the highest standards for our profession.”

Nick Clegg: “It already feels like both a cliché and an understatement to say that this has been a bad week for politics”

So they sound gravely concerned about the political process but it is hard not to feel that they are primarily gravely concerned about their own careers. There is no doubt that this scandal is hugely damaging for this particular crowd of politicians but does it automatically follow that the democratic process is damaged and that people are ‘switching off’ politics because of it? Some probably are, but some (angry people for the most part) are ‘switching on’. Right through until the end of this week the political panel show Question Time was the second most popular programme after Eastenders on the BBC iPlayer (in the programme people get very angry!) To say this scandal is good for politics might seem a contrary argument to make, but I would say it is good for public scrutiny of politics and avoid the assumption, around and about, that this is automatically damaging to public political engagement. Two thirds of people in a BBC poll this week wanted a General Election - that isn’t an apathetic response.

If there are currently the conditions for discussion of ideas like transparency and fairness, the debate on climate change can surely benefit from this, if it doesn’t carry on getting overshadowed by it (you might say). There are many people and campaigns making the argument for a fair and transparent transition to lower carbon living, like the Fair Shares, Fair Choice scheme based in Bristol

This month - amongst the heat of the expenses row - the leading Climate Change Scientist James Hanson again voiced his fears that the Cap-and-Trade approach (held to be the solution for distributing carbon rights by many politicians coming together for Copenhagen) isn’t a fair system:

“Cap-and-trade is fraught with opportunities for special interests, political trading, obfuscation from public scrutiny, accounting errors, and outright fraud.”
Oops this looks like he is writing about MP’s expenses! Hanson offers an alternative; a flat transparent tax on carbon use:
“A carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account.”
And this seems like a good system for what the MP’s will get in future, a flat accountable rate, for attending the House of Commons!

If people in the UK have remembered (when MPs didn’t) that Politics is, as the maxim goes, about “who gets what, when, where and how” then there is hope that the theme’s of fairness and transparency can be translated into the debate on climate change - and we will be the better for it. A good marker for this will be how The Green Party do in the European elections next month.


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