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Synchronised thinking

Many commenters on the various posts following Nick Stern's climate change report have made the obvious point that however much we do here in the UK to reduce carbon emissions, it's going to make little difference unless similarly rigorous measures are taken worldwide. But none of the expert posters appear to have any idea how we can force the required change on a global scale.

David Cox argues that given the impossibility of coordinated global action, there's no point in our bothering to do anything at all. Less fatalistically but no more encouragingly, Tony Juniper argues that we should take action unilaterally regardless of the absence of a globally agreed legal and economic framework. Leading by example may salve our consciences but it won't solve the problem.

George Monbiot is right on the button with his 10-point action plan, but when he suggests that "if we want this to happen, we can make it happen," he appears to lack any sense of the complex dynamics of both domestic politics and global economics.

Monbiot suggests that if, 60-odd years ago, we could transform our economies for war production in a matter of months, then the threat of global warming should provoke a similar response now. It will not. Politicians everywhere lack the courage and wisdom to lead on this key moral issue. But then they largely reflect the apathy and ostrich-like behaviour of the population at large. Despite blanket media coverage this week, it remains the case that too few citizens are sufficiently aware or concerned to unleash a popular movement to sweep the globe and drive politicians from their lethargy.

Jeremy Seabrook's romantic call for an energising myth to inspire collective action sounds great, but that won't happen either. There's only one myth worth clinging to, the myth that democracy provides a mechanism through which citizens can act in concert to force change through the ballot box. Unfortunately, in its current form, democracy is unlikely to help much because its reforming potential has been hamstrung by the process of economic globalisation. While the nation state remains the principal vehicle for political decision-making, citizens of all nation states are now participants in, and reliant upon a single global economy.

In respect of climate change and many other pressing global issues (poverty, trade, fisheries) it's the separation of democracy from the economy which leaves politicians impotent and electorates frustrated. Without an effective global forum for democratic decision-making, little progress can be made towards the adoption of effective policies to tackle global warming. National democracies are largely impotent in the face of a global economy which, by its very nature, can neither respond or adapt to the threat of climate change without a global regulatory framework to guide it. As Calestous Juma wrote, "cooperation at international level is a must". If the only way to tackle climate change is through a concerted, coordinated international effort, then a way must be found.

It's not surprising that the world (or at least our small part of it) only woke up to the enormity of the problem when a renowned and respected economist framed the debate in terms of the future economic costs of inaction. It's ironic, therefore, that the principal obstacle to nation states taking unilateral action to reduce carbon emissions is fear of the economic consequences of so doing.

Given current global economic arrangements, the problem of first-mover disadvantage is the main obstacle to an adequate international response. If the UK was to follow Monbiot's 10-point plan, we might be entitled to feel very pleased with ourselves but as things stand it would be a disaster for the UK economy. We need a way of protecting countries from the economic disadvantage that would inevitably follow from unilateral action. Logic suggests that the only way to do this is to find a mechanism through which all nations can willingly implement the necessary policies simultaneously.

"What hope of that?" I hear you sigh. Well, for the last eight years a little-known and even less-well reported campaigning group, the International Simultaneous Policy Organisation (ISPO) has been working to precisely this end. What's more, it's come up with an ingenious plan to make it happen.

If we are to succeed in tackling climate change, it will be as a consequence of the activism of small numbers of people in many countries. It may not sound very "democratic" but democracy generally works best at promoting progressive social change when a few concerned individuals force such change through the judicious use of whatever social institutions are available to them. The simultaneous policy initiative (SP) provides a mechanism to make this possible on a global scale.

If you visit the Simpol UK website today, you can become an "adopter" of simultaneous policy. Adopters pledge either to vote at elections only for candidates who have similarly signed up or, alternatively, to lobby candidates of their preferred political party to adopt SP. There is no SP party: supporters and candidates of all parties are invited to become adopters, and there is nothing in the movement's guiding principles to discourage people of any political persuasion from signing up.

In theory, getting MPs and parliamentary candidates to adopt should not be difficult, as supporting the principle of SP carries no electoral risk. A small number of adopters in each constituency could have a considerable impact. If one candidate signs up during an election campaign, the others would be foolish not to for they may lose votes. This strategy may not alter the election result but it would ensure that gradually more SP-supporting MPs were returned until a critical mass was reached. If this success were to be replicated in many countries, SP could rapidly become a major factor in global politics.

If it sounds rather convoluted and improbable, national SP groups have already been established in 15 countries, and among the thousands of adopters already to have taken the pledge are 17 sitting MPs. They include Labour campaign group chair, John McDonnell, Tories Andrew Pelling and John Penrose, several Lib Dems and Adam Price of Plaid Cymru. Green party MEP Caroline Lucas is also an adopter, and the movement boasts endorsements from Noam Chomsky, Polly Toynbee, Tony Benn, Jose Ramos-Horta, Diana Schumacher and Sir Richard Body, the former Conservative MP and noted Eurosceptic.

Debate so far among SP adopters is remarkable for its lack of traditional left-right party political influence. Although SP rejects socialism and embraces the free market, its principal concerns are social justice and environmental sustainability. As John Bunzl, the originator of the idea says, "SP provides a global regulatory and governance framework within which global free markets can operate freely, fairly, and within sustainable environmental limits."

The other distinct advantage of SP is that it addresses the problem of global governance without compromising the sovereignty of nation states. It offers the possibility of collective action in response to global challenges without dismantling existing nation-state based political structures. It works through national democracies and should therefore hold no fears for those who believe the preservation of national sovereignty to be paramount. It does not require the aggregation of individual democracies into larger units (such as the European Union) nor does it threaten cultural diversity.

For anyone interested, I have written a longer essay on the context, background and thinking behind SP, which is available for download and distribution here. And, as well as the Simpol UK website where you can become an adopter, there is a great deal of information available from the ISPO website.

Thanks to the efforts of George Monbiot, Tony Juniper, Jeremy Leggett and many others, establishment figures like Nick Stern and Al Gore have now been recruited to the cause and, with the exception of a few die-hards who now occupy the lunatic fringe, there is finally a general acceptance of the gravity of the situation. We now need a tangible means of taking remedial action on a global scale. It may sound like pie in the sky, but the simultaneous policy initiative is the only viable plan I've come across; so sign up today, and write, fax or email your MP to tell them that they'll only get your vote at the next election if they do the same.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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