Many social democratic parties adopted the aim of 'sustainable' economic growth in the 1980s, implicitly acknowledging the green critique of economic orthodoxies (Callaghan, 2000). The need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions had been an element in this green critique since the 1970s, and the first detailed proposals for carbon taxes made their appearance in the same decade (Baumol and Oates, 1975). The discovery of damage to the Antarctic ozone layer in 1985 and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in April 1986 provided additional evidence that environmental problems have global impact and demand international collaboration between states if they are to be addressed effectively.
Social democratic parties in Scandinavia, Germany and Austria were quicker than the other established parties (for example the left parties In Britain, Spain, Italy, France and Greece) to acknowledge that a problem existed. All of them were dedicated to working in the institutions of government to get things done, but real progress obviously required action at a trans-national level.
In 1988 the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Programme established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The letter's first report in 1990 confirmed the scientific basis for climate change and argued that human activity in the production of greenhouse gases would probably cause a rapidly deteriorating environment for humans. A succession of intergovernmental conferences followed and the Second World Climate Conference in 1990 called for a global treaty on climate change. A Convention on Climate Change came into force in March 1994 pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The Berlin Mandate adopted in April 1995 called on developed countries to set quantified targets for future reductions within specified time frames. A treaty was negotiated in Kyoto in December 1997 to support these pronouncements, though it was not until February 2005 that it came into force (expiring in 2012).
The Kyoto Protocol, with 169 signatories - though not ratified by them all - required industrialised countries to cut their collective greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 per cent compared to the year 1990 (a 29 per cent cut compared to the level that would otherwise be reached by 2010). It represents, according to its supporters, the most ambitious international carbon trading scheme extant. Yet it was painfully slow to construct and well short of what was required, according to many scientists (while also completely unnecessary, according to the small minority of their colleagues who rejected the dominant view of global warming). Developing countries such as India and China were excluded from its arrangements and other major polluters such as Brazil and Indonesia were allowed to continue their practice of massive deforestation by fire. Yet other major polluters - such as Australia and the USA - used these exclusions to justify their refusal to ratify the treaty.
Thirty years of debate about global warming illustrates some general points about international politics. Even when the issue is indubitably global and has a life-and-death urgency about it, as identified by most of the world's leading scientists, binding agreements between states are difficult to achieve. Such agreements may also prove to be much less useful than originally trumpeted - and then the work has to start all over again. The question is what difference can social democratic parties make in this intractable and unstable sphere?
The social democratic answer to this question has always been optimistic. At its origins in the last quarter of the nineteenth century social democracy saw itself as an international movement with an internationalist outlook. The Second International, founded in 1889, embodied this ideology. Its members thought of themselves as belonging to a movement that represented a huge societal shift towards democracy and social equality. …