climate change politics

Some questions about western climate leadership

With the climate talks coming up in Scotland in November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been talking about climate change more. It’s a late bid to make up some ground perhaps, and ensure that he has enough credibility to influence negotiations.

Commentators have noted that he is trying to establish the UK as a leader on climate change, a claim that we often make as a country. Johnson has made it very explicitly: “We want to see world leaders follow our lead,” he said after announcing climate targets earlier this year.

Across the Atlantic, Joe Biden’s new climate policies are often described as the US picking up the mantle of climate leadership after the Trump years. Here’s the Brookings Institute for example, on how the US can ‘return’ to credible climate leadership.

I think we should interrogate this idea. I’m not going to answer the following questions. I’d just like to put them out there for us to bear in mind. I think we should ask them – publicly as much as possible – whenever we hear claims to authority from leaders in rich countries.

  • Why does the West feel entitled to lead on climate change?
  • What is the legacy of Western leadership on climate change so far?

If you think you have good answers to those questions, ask how satisfactory they would sound if you were from a country that was colonised.

It comes naturally to people like Boris Johnson to assume that they should be in charge, so we should ask why they think they are qualified to lead on something as important as climate change.

After all, it was Britain that developed fossil fuelled industry and then exported it to the world. It is the capitalist growth imperative that keeps the fossil fuel industry going even though we have known for decades that it is ultimately suicidal. It is the Western powers that built the international institutions that have so far been inadequate to the task of slowing emissions. So what makes us think that this system of government, these patterns of thought, will now lead us to the solutions?


  1. I’m not sure about your take on this, Jeremy. While I am in no way going to say I’m satisfied with our government’s record on responding to climate change, I think your argument depends on what you mean by “lead”.
    Surely, as the first countries to begin the industrial scale release of CO2 (and other pollutants) it is reasonable to expect that the UK and other Western nations should be the first to begin seriously tackling the problem – at least domestically – and, in this sense, we should be leaders.
    Whether or not we should be telling other nations how they should be responding is, indeed, a more nuanced question and I agree that we cannot elect ourselves to be “in charge” of the global response.
    Should we not lead by example while accepting that other nations may reasonably take a different route towards the same goals?

  2. What i’ve picked up so far is:
    – it depends what any particular person means by ‘lead’ (what does Boris mean here, for example?)
    – but the fact that uk politicians tend to put things in that way is quite instructive (are other verbs available?)
    I think it’s good to consider what such ways of thinking, speaking and acting have done for us, and whether other ways are viable, and could be better. I guess Jeremy probably had this sort of thing in mind in writing this article.
    It would be very interesting to think about alternative approaches by other countries/governments, and how they may be working out differently? I’d love to know what examples other people could suggest?

    1. When politics is conducted on competitive grounds, as it is both locally and internationally, leading or going first is usually a claim to authority and importance. It could be read otherwise in other contexts, but I think better words are available for those that have the humility to use them.

      ‘Taking reponsibility’ for example. Or rather than talking about ‘world beating’ offshore wind power, as if there’s some kind of prize for it, we could talk about how we’re moving early on it and are committed to sharing what we learn.

      The language used around these sorts of things can be a jostling for kudos, asserting superiority and national interest, and it often reinforces old colonial hierarchies. Alternative phrasings can signal cooperation and collaboration, the solving of shared problems, and that approach might get more done at COP26.

  3. The more I think about it, the more I see a common thread of ‘bragging brigandry’ running right through from our earliest history (Saxon and Norman warlords etc), land estate owners and ’empire exploiters’, right through to contemporary corporations and politicians. Or is that too much of a left-wing slant?

    I’d love to understand more about alternative approaches which could work practically. I’d be keen to know what lessons we can draw from other traditions of management and collaboration, including indigenous societies, traditional practices in Europe (like shared strip farming or forest management?), and some modern nations (maybe Costa Rica, Bhutan and others?). I think some even-handed analyses (not starry-eyed nor dismissive) could be very illuminating, but I don’t have much idea what exists along those lines, or where to find an accessible but competent introduction(s) for those without a great deal of time to study in depth?

    1. There are certainly other decision making processes out there, and I know what you mean – I don’t really know where to find out more about them either. Participative decision making is something that the Quakers have always done well. There is also a traditional form of democratic consensus building that is used in village councils in Madagascar. David Graeber studied them in the 1990s. Participative political processes are also more common in South America. I’d be interested in reading a book that summarises some different approaches and applies some lessons – I’ll see if I can find one.

  4. Yes there must be myriad examples from traditional practices throughout history and geography. I was struck by Elinor Ostrom’s work and i imagine that lots of collaborative deciding and managing must have gone on (albeit imperfectly) in the past, even in our own back-yards. I think our countryside must tell a rich story of successes and failures in this respect. Although it could be said that these are all highly localised, I do wonder if they have potential to be replicated and scaled up, given our current capabilities in comms and data handling etc? Could be a good PhD (or career!) for some…

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