Why our chances of addressing the Climate Crisis have never been better

September 4, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam’s Tim Gore responds to my recent downbeat posts on the politics of the climate emergency.

Duncan’s latest piece is a depressing read. He describes escalating climate-related disasters amidst a lack of political leadership and rising populism. The prospects of today’s agents of change – Extinction Rebellion and the school strikers – are “bleak”. His list of possible precedents for the scale of politico-economic change needed to fight climate change only shows how unlikely it is to happen. Not so much ‘how change happens’, as why it won’t!

What makes it so depressing is that it’s hard to disagree with anything he writes. But if only for the motivation to get up in the morning, I felt I had to try.

Duncan is not alone in stripping-back the sugar-coating from climate discourse. Truth-telling is in vogue, and it’s throwing up all sorts of unpalatable reading. But while we need honesty in public debates about the climate crisis, we also need a bit of hope, at least I do. If our language ends up stoking fear, the only winner will be the far right.

Sooner or later the right-wing populists will stop denying climate science, and embrace climate policy. There’s another strand of dystopian writing at the moment depicting the rise of eco-fascism – from putting up walls against ‘climate refugees’ (real or imagined) to nuking hurricanes. Who knows what beggar-thy-neighbour crack-pot geoengineering schemes might be designed.

I think we need a more promising story, one to tell our children at least, if not ourselves. It seems vital for our mental health and resilience as campaigners. But it’s likely also the only political platform on which an alternative future could be built. As Kumi Naidoo often points out: Dr King didn’t tell anyone he had a nightmare.

So it might be wishful thinking, or a self-defence strategy, but I think our chance of achieving social, political and economic change on the scale needed are better now than they have ever been. It’s true, as Duncan notes, that we don’t have the same top-down political leadership on climate action as 10-15 years ago. But we probably reached the limits of what that theory of change could achieve in the Paris Agreement, whose inadequate emissions reduction targets are not being met.

If we accept that we don’t just need stronger national targets to cut emissions, but a more radical break with our growth-obsessed, grossly unequal, extractive global economy, then we should look elsewhere for signs of progress. Following Laybourn-Langton and Jacobs, I’ll briefly mention a few developments in rich, high emitting countries in three areas they see as foundations for economic paradigm change: intellectual underpinnings; popular discourses; and political policies.

Firstly then, as they note, we are seeing a growth in alternative accounts of economics, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world. The ideas themselves would hardly strike Indigenous communities or many others as ‘new’, but the fact they are being written about in the neoliberal birthplace in the UK and US is surely significant. There’s now a menu of ideas about the new economy on the shelf – from de-growth to post-growth (and doughnuts of course) – waiting to be turned into a political project as soon as the conditions are ripe (something Duncan always said we should be planning for).

Secondly, meaningful lifestyle changes among very rich, high emitting households no longer seem inconceivable. Consider two of the biggest factors in personal GHG footprints – meat consumption and flights. US fast food outlets – who sell Americans most of their 3 burgers each per week – are now competing on meat-free alternatives from the Impossible Whopper to ‘finger-licking’ Beyond Fried Chicken. Supermarkets around the world are giving prime retail space to meat- and dairy-free products. Still a drop in the ocean, perhaps, but could ordering a beef patty go the way of the veal steak or fur coat? Flights are a harder nut to crack. But where I live in Sweden – hardly a representative sample, but still – the concepts of ‘flight shame’ and ‘train-boasting’ have taken root. Demand for rail journeys is up and domestic flights down.

Of course, if we have to rely on voluntary action by individuals instead of economic system change to address the crisis, then we are in trouble. But if these trends show that high emitting lifestyles are not inevitable and can rapidly change, they could create new political space for alternative economic ideas to be taken up.

Thirdly, there are perhaps a few signs of that happening. The New Zealand government’s ‘wellbeing budget‘ puts them alongside governments in Bhutan and Costa Rica in chipping away at the deification of GDP growth. Meanwhile in the US, the Green New Deal – offering to combine state-led meaningful climate action with social transformation – has framed the Democratic primary.

Returning to the issue of national climate targets, leading Democratic candidate Sanders just released his climate plan, and it’s emission reduction target of 161% below US 2017 levels by 2030 (if you think the maths sounds weird, look it up) are aligned with those the Civil Society Equity Review group recommended as the US fair share of global mitigation efforts. There was no point even at the height of top-down political leadership on climate in the mid-2000s that such a prospect was remotely feasible. Something has changed.

Of course none of this is enough. It’s all far too little and far too late, and no-one is served by kidding ourselves that there is a happy ending just around the corner. But tempering the truth-telling about the crisis we are in with more than a glimmer of hope is surely needed, to give us all the strength to keep fighting.