The great governmental challenge of climate change

Partisanship aside, extreme weather events linked to climate change pose an enormous threat to the Western, legal-political system of government. EPA/Steve Pope

The recently released fifth report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stresses the connection between climate change and severe weather events around the world, including devastating bushfires in places such as Australia. But what does this actually mean for governments?

In the first decade of the 21st century many governments around the world unofficially competed with one another to show how serious they were about dealing with the threat of climate change. Perhaps the pithiest entry in this competition was this newsworthy slogan offered in 2007 by the soon-to-be Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd.

Climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation.

While these words undoubtedly had and still have wide appeal, they are somewhat misleading. Climate change is not primarily a moral challenge, or an economic challenge, or a social challenge. The threat of climate change is primarily a governmental challenge, a challenge which the legal-political system of government is very much attempting to meet.

This system of government is marked by a tense but productive relationship between law and politics, such that each tries to hold the upper hand but each needs the other to survive. The system is used in many parts of the world.

In this spirit, we prefer to turn away from the slogans of politicians and towards Machiavelli’s advice, first published in The Prince in 1532, about what a wise ruler should do to prepare for the vicissitudes of fortune - or nature, as it is often called today.

I judge it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one half of our actions, but that she still leaves the control of the other half, or almost that, to us.

And I compare her to one of those ruinous rivers that, when they become enraged, flood the plains, tear down the trees and buildings, taking up earth from one spot and placing it upon another; everyone flees from them, everyone yields to their onslaught, unable to oppose them in any way.

And although they are of such a nature, it does not follow that when the weather is calm we cannot take precautions with embankments and dikes, so that when they rise up again either the waters will be channeled off or their impetus will not be either so disastrous or so damaging.

The same thing happens where Fortune is concerned: she shows her force where there is no organized strength to resist her; and she directs her impact there where she knows that dikes and embankments are not constructed to hold her.

Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince over 500 years ago still remains relevant for governments today. Frieda

In other words, climate change is undoubtedly a big challenge for the legal-political system of government. However, it is nonetheless a challenge within the scope of this system’s one norm: maintaining the widest possible appreciable spread of peace, security, well-being, and prosperity among the humans within the territories being governed.

So, in the face of the threat of climate change, legal-political governments around the world - as well as those parts of the United Nations and other international bodies which operate along legal-political lines - will act in the manner of Machiavelli’s wise ruler. That is, they will act so as to ensure - to the best of their abilities - that the “impetus” of these calamities “will not be either so disastrous or so damaging” as they would be were the governments not as experienced and well-equipped as they are.

The British government deals with the threat of houses on unstable cliffs sliding into the sea without letting morality trample over the interests of law, politics, sovereignty, the state, the economy, aesthetics, and science. The Australian government does the same in dealing with the threat of bushfires. The US government does it in dealing with the threat of tornadoes and hurricanes, while the Japanese government acts on the threat of earthquakes and tsunamis. All other legal-political governments deal with whatever slings and arrows climate change fires at their territories.

In this way, legal-political governments use all of the governmental resources and tactics they have developed over several hundred years. They also deploy their capacity for “trial and error” learning in a bid to find replacements for those governmental resources and tactics which prove inadequate.

Of course, in including the Japanese government’s response to earthquakes and tsunamis and the US government’s response to hurricanes, we are reminded that these two governments did not - by the best practice standards of legal-political government - do very well in helping those affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan and by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans respectively. Legal-political government fails on many occasions. This is a reality softened - though only slightly - by the government usually admitting to its failures and doing what it can to fix them and/or not repeat them (which is not always enough).

The Japanese government’s response to the 2011 earthquake was criticised in some quarters, proving the legal-political system of government isn’t always infallible. EPA/Kimimasa Mayama

Some extreme activists may wish to turn the challenge into an eschatological event. For them, climate change - because they regard its primary cause to be human involvement - is an opportunity to judge humans and to find them wanting. This is not - in and of itself - a concern for legal-political governments.

Such governments will not seek to prevent people from thinking that the anthropogenic component of climate change issues makes climate change into “the great moral challenge of our generation”. Of course, if any people holding more extreme views than this should threaten civil peace by any actions born of their moral convictions, legal-political governments will become more than concerned about them.

Just as such governments have always done when private moral or religious convictions boil over in any particular law-and-politics country to the point that they threaten large-scale civil violence, the government of that country will act decisively to quell the threat. To borrow a point from American political scientist Stephen Holmes, the threat of civil war is the “summum malum” for this type of government.

[It is] the uttermost evil to be avoided at all costs.

Climate change is a large and growing concern for legal-political governments around the world, but it is nowhere near the summum malum for any of them. This does not, nor should it, lessen their concern about (for example) the devastating impact of rising sea levels and/or tidal inundation in Kiribati and Bangladesh, where thousands of people have been displaced.


This is an edited extract from Legal and Political Challenges of Governing the Environment and Climate Change: Ruling Nature by Gary Wickham and Jo-Ann Goodie to be published by Routledge, UK, later this year.