Climate Change: the beginning of the end?

As school students protest internationally, Nigel Doggett finds hot air from governments

Attention is increasingly focussed on multiple environmental crises, with climate change posing a lethal danger to us all. It is no longer fanciful to suggest that our civilisation might collapse within the lifetimes of young people living today. The looming threat to their future, in contrast to older generations who benefited from a relatively benign climate, constitutes an intergenerational injustice. Young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s interventions have inspired widespread protests, reaching Britain last month. Their argument is cogent: neither government nor business have acted decisively and this highlights adults’ failure and children’s seriousness.

Extreme weather events across Australasia, Asia, Europe and America reveal the new ‘normal’ climate uncertainty and unprecedented extremes.  Biodiversity is jeopardized at all levels from oceans, insect life to birds and large mammals, with ominous implications for food production. The melting of glaciers, arctic ice and permafrost causes sea level rises, threatening low lying coastlines and patterns such as the gulf stream current that brings mild winters to the British Isles. The recent Brazilian dam collapse was merely an extreme example of reckless risk-taking in the name of profit.

The latest IPCC report identifies severe risks beyond 1.5℃ above the pre-industrial benchmark level, but the average temperature has already risen by 1℃ and the possibility of staying below 1.5℃ depends on political will. It is technically, financially, politically and socially difficult to change pathways, with past investment in infrastructure such as airports, roads and pipelines tending to lock us in to high carbon lifestyles based on consumerism, foreign travel and lavish diets.

The December Warsaw Climate Conference (COP) agreed monitoring rules for emissions reductions, three years after the Paris agreement set a target of well below a 2℃ rise. A classic case of fiddling while the world burns, this prompted accusations of settling for what was politically possible, not what was necessary. Whilst David Attenborough, token advocate at the COP for the world’s people, has avoided the political implications, Thunberg put Davos business leaders on the spot: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day and then I want you to act”. This challenges accepted wisdom that change on environmental issues requires a positive message, not doom-mongering. However, a review of progress since climate change became an internationally acknowledged problem 30 years ago shows much more hot air than solid action. We need to go beyond incremental change to more fundamental social transformation.

Accordingly, the IPPR report This is a Crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown argues that politics and policy has ‘failed to recognise that human impacts on the environment have reached a critical stage’. It identifies three key aspects: the scale and pace of environmental breakdown, the implications for societies, and the subsequent need for transformative change. Whilst promising initiatives at town, city and regional level abound, the far-right populist tide shows how easy it is to disrupt even a cautious climate consensus unless it has active popular support. The gradual nature of climate change means that it is never the most urgent issue, but it’s surely now the most important. Of course consumption and carbon emissions have been led by richer countries and people, whilst the worst effects will be felt by poorer ones, hence the growing calls for ‘climate justice’.

We should be proud of the last British Labour government’s active role in climate negotiations and Ed Miliband’s 2008 Climate Change Act, which set a binding reduction target of 80% in carbon emissions by 2050. But Britain’s record is distinctly patchy, with progress in reducing emissions by 38% between 1990 and 2015 based on ‘low hanging fruit’, mostly the switch from coal to gas for electricity generation and heating. It is essential to move on to ‘hard to reach’ areas such as domestic heating demand. The Tory government has failed to act – allowing the fruitless fracking sideshow, phasing out feed-in tariffs for renewable energy, cancelling obligations in new housing standards and failing to confront the growth of road and air transport or promote greener electric cars, buses or local trains.

Despite the glare of Brexit headlights, Labour is taking low carbon transformation seriously across economic, industrial and environmental policy, but faces a challenge in achieving a ‘just transition’ to a low carbon economy that ensures sustainable jobs and avoids more devastation in industrial communities. Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has launched a year-long Green New Deal consultation on a ‘green jobs revolution’ involving round table events with unions, industry and community groups. We should all make our voices heard.

Labour’s plans will be tested in economic crisis, post-Brexit (whether it happens or not) and post-austerity. We must mobilise public support, not just from those directly affected by pollution or seeking employment, but by demonstrating the potential for a better life with clean air, less traffic and warmer, cheaper to run homes.

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