Start the world, we want to get on

The Copenhagen debacle gave little grounds for hope of concerted action against climate change, but

The climate-change meetings in Copenhagen proved something of a fiasco. The global nature of those December talks, with representatives attending from 192 countries - including many heads of state - certainly indicated that the world is taking climate change seriously. Yet the bickering that occurred between nations and groups of nations undermined the idea that humanity is coming together to take a stand against its risks. The Copenhagen Accord, the only tangible result of the 12-day event, is a slim document, put together by a handful of countries, to which states will sign up in a voluntary way.

Nations deciding to commit to the accord were supposed to have set out plans for reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions by 31 January. That deadline has since been "softened". A number of countries have submitted their promises for cutting carbon emissions, but these are generally seen as inadequate. At a meeting in New Delhi on 24 January, four of the five originators of the document (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) announced their intention to continue to support it, but only on condition that it will never become a treaty - that is, have binding force in international law. The current position of the United States, the other country that created the accord, is murky, as the proposed US climate change bill has not been endorsed by Congress and perhaps never will be, given the domestic difficulties President Obama faces.

So, will the accord lead to real action on a scale commensurate with the huge task involved? Obviously, it could founder. We shall have to wait and see, but I think it is a new beginning of potential importance. I was never much in fav­our of the Kyoto/Copenhagen-style approach, which was too slow-moving and bureaucratic to make the impact needed. If the accord does progress, it will be driven by a smaller group of countries. But that group is likely to include all the big polluters and, just as important, will probably cross-cut the divide between developed and developing countries, the prime source of acrimony at Copenhagen.

The accord therefore could provide a linchpin for emissions reductions, but we have to think and act on a broader scale, too. Copenhagen was not a singular event: its failure expresses deep-seated problems of global governance. We live in a far more interdependent world than any previous generation, and climate change is the negative expression of that interdependence. Yet the institutions of transnational governance have not advanced in tandem. The UN is regularly paralysed by the very divisions that sank the hopes entertained at Copenhagen.

I cut, you cut

Here are some of the points and problems that governments and other agencies should be thinking about and acting upon, whatever happens to the accord.

First, the various groups of countries should work with each other informally to make pro­gress in cutting emissions. Sixteen countries account for well over 80 per cent of total world emissions and they should be meeting in a regular way. That it was George W Bush who originally made this proposal shouldn't put us off what is a necessary idea post-Copenhagen.

Second, a G2 - the US and China working together (see box) - is an essential part of global policy, as these two nations alone contribute such a high proportion of emissions. It isn't likely to be an easy relationship, but the rest of the world has a stake in its effectiveness and should encourage such collaboration. There should also be a climate-change G3, involving the European Union. The EU was sidelined at Copenhagen when the accord was drawn up - a terrible rejection for an organisation that aspires to world leadership in this area. One chief reason was the usual difficulty - that the EU does not speak with one voice. A single person should represent the Union at future climate-change negotiations: either the new high representative for foreign affairs, Cathy Ashton, or someone specifically appointed for the task.

Third, close connections need to be drawn between emerging regulation of the world financial system and world climate-change policy. The G20, whose emergence is one of the most positive aspects of recent developments in global governance, is the obvious forum for exploring such overlaps. A transnational tax on financial transactions no longer looks as implausible as it did even a couple of years ago; in the medium term it could supply the means to help the poorer countries cope with climate change. The accord promises a fund for this purpose, building up to £100bn a year. If it is forthcoming, we will need to find ways to monitor how it is spent, because its sole purpose will be to help developing countries either to reduce their emissions or to adapt to the consequences of climate change. The existing conduit for channelling money to poorer countries, the Clean Development Mechanism, has made little impact in either respect.

The UN's role

Federal policy on climate change in the United States will now be weak at best. Yet the US is a diverse society, and other groups can help fill the void. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California has proposed that cities, states, provinces and regions work together to meet the challenge. The R20 group he established in 2009 has had considerable success in getting such groups to sign the pledge to reduce emissions by at least 20 per cent below those of 2005 by 2020. Activism at the sub-national level will play a vital role across the world, and some means should be found of giving NGOs a formal position in climate-change bargaining.

Finally, we must rethink the role of the United Nations. The UN's core weaknesses were laid bare in Copenhagen. Proceeding by full consensus simply isn't possible with issues where there are abiding differences of interest between countries. Most of the real action will now happen elsewhere. Yet, weak though it is at making decisions, the UN is in some respects irreplaceable. Whatever comes from the accord can't be left to the participating countries to monitor. We need a global regime, for example, to assess states' emissions and to track their progress. The logical home for any agency set up to carry out such work is the UN. Its participation is the best guarantee of impartiality.

The Copenhagen debacle could lead to a period of quiescence in which not much is done to pursue climate-change policy. But I don't think this is what will happen. We stand on the verge of profound change. The social and economic system created by the fusion of political and industrial revolution in Europe and North America, now becoming globalised, is starting to subvert itself. The dangers posed by climate change are the most far-reaching expressions of this, but we face much broader issues of sustainability. Whatever happens with formal agreements, we can anticipate a burst of innovation - economic, social, political and technological - over the coming decade and beyond.

Anthony Giddens is a Labour peer and the author of "The Politics of Climate Change" (Polity Press, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood