It's time to get real about climate change

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There is a growing gap between what scientists say is needed and what politicians and big green NGOs are actually trying to do. People must be told the truth … that we must go on a war footing to meet this global emergency

by Phil Thornhill
National Coordinator, Campaign Against Climate Change  (UK)

Climate Change is a bizarrely innocuous phrase for the phenomenon it describes. Perhaps that’s part of the problem. It seems to have just burst out of some far-fetched sci-fi movie. Who would think that the entire global environment could be changing, destabilising, irreversibly, all at once and at an accelerating rate?

People had been suspecting, at least as far back as the 60s, that our cutting down of forests, wrecking of diverse ecosystems, fouling of the oceans, contamination of the soils under the pressure of an ever more feverishly consuming and ever expanding populace, would one way or another push our planet to its environmental limits. But few saw this. Few suspected it would be the invisible build up of certain gases in the atmosphere that would rip up and entirely rewrite the book of environmental crisis. Indeed the book of any kind of crisis.Given the problems we already had, environmental and other, climate change has arrived on the scene like the blackest curse from deepest hell.

No surprise then that just about all of us are struggling to come to terms with it, with the magnitude of it, with the speed of it, with its manifold implications. It is unprecedented. It has no real point of reference in our individual or collective experience. We are all left reeling from it, trying to catch up with it – the ‘man and woman on the street’, politicians and governments. Even the scientists. If anyone is the world’s leading climate scientist its probably James Hansen and just look at the odyssey he’s travelled in terms of his evolving views about the scale and imminence of the climate crisis.

As a layman I cannot even guess what the scientists will be saying in twenty years time but what I can see is the direction that scientific opinion up to now has been moving in and the vast yawning gap, already, between what the scientists are saying and what those who determine our practical response, the politicians, are actually doing about it – in fact even just what they are saying about it.

That gap has been steadily growing and now yawns more spectacularly wide than ever. At the international level not only is there a dearth of  will to surmount the political obstacles to the requisite global cooperative effort but just about everything that is even just on the table looks painfully inadequate or deeply flawed. At the national level the UK looks in one sense to be out ahead with its truly revolutionary Climate Act. But its an entirely different story if you look at what we are doing to make this promise written into legislation actually happen or if you look at what the Act does not cover: like the effects that our exploding consumerism is having on the emissions of those countries that are feeding it, or the wider land-use related climate impacts that our demand for the products of global agro-industry is having.

Even if none of that was the case the claim that the targets enshrined by the Act are adequate is increasingly denied by those at the cutting edge of the science. Kevin Anderson from the UK Tyndall Centre, for instance, says that we need something more like 10% cuts per year to keep the increase in global average temperature within two degrees, while that underlying premise itself – that keeping within two degrees will give us a reasonable chance of avoiding catastrophic impacts – is denied by Hansen, amongst others.

The magnitude and the unprecedented nature of what we are facing are maybe, on their own, enough to explain the gap between the science and the politics. Perhaps enough to explain, as well, the disbelief, the visceral gut-resistance, the sometimes frenzied determination to refuse to believe its happening. Hence, up to a point, the sceptics.

But there is more, of course, because this unprecedented crisis is throwing into sharp relief the weaknesses, the vulnerabilities, the injustices, some might say the sheer rottenness and disfunctionality, of the political and economic system we live in. I mean – for instance -the imbalance between civil society and private interests, the pervasive influence of corporate power and its frequently malevolent grip on politicians and government, the debasement of the popular media over many years, the creeping emergence of an angry ignorant populism that can be manipulated by super-rich and cynical elites…. One could go on, but there are several books worth here, many of them already written.

But let alone the ignorant and the plain evil, for the moment. Amongst those struggling to catch up, to come to terms with the climate crisis are not just the mythical, generalised, ‘public’ or the political and economic elites but also those we might assume, and are generally right to assume, are ‘on our side’.

The groups and organisations with a cause, the NGOs – even the environmental NGOs. Sure enough they have caught up faster than most and in many ways they are leading the fight. Great work by many wonderful people that we should all do everything we can to support.

But have they all really twigged that a multitude of their campaigns are in any longer term perspective a complete waste of time if we do not deal effectively with climate change?

And have they realised how far off we are from doing that?

Have they really made the radical redirection of resources that that implies is needed? I suspect not.

Have the development NGOs grasped the bleak bitter truth that ‘the millennium goals’, say, mean nothing if we do not achieve what now looks like the near impossible over climate change?

In 2004 they had hundreds of thousands on the streets to ‘make poverty history’ – even then, in my view, they should have been directing that energy, those resources, as far as possible, to the fight against climate change . You might reply with – easy to say, wisdom of hindsight, no sense of the practicalities of how these organisations work, what was possible at the time etc. etc. … But I’m talking about the need to achieve the near impossible that the demon curse of climate change has forced upon us.

There has been, its true, a realisation amongst NGOs that climate change is a game-changer and in the UK an attempt to adapt – to come together in fact in the ‘Stop Climate Chaos coalition’ –  to achieve the requisite political critical mass.  This culminated at the Copenhagen COP and there’s the most outstanding problem with this laudable initiative.

Great that a substantial effort was made – at last – at Copenhagen, but disastrous that it was not sustained when the Copenhagen Talks ended in the predictable train wreck.

The public heard the claims – “our last, absolutely, final, chance, to tackle climate change etc…etc..” – and then witnessed no massive outraged reaction to the Copenhagen failure but rather a near instant cutting back on NGO commitment and energy on the issue, as they all slipped back into their heavily branded comfort zones – suggesting that not even the NGOs themselves really believed their own rhetoric.

What we have now is a concentration of effort on lobbying those in power, when the latter are already dangerously ahead of large sections of the public, threatening a powerful regressive backlash of the sort we can already see having a profound impact on the politics of Australia and the US. There is  a focus on the minutiae (clause x of the Energy Bill) of the politically achievable with little expenditure of effort (or cash) on nurturing a popular movement united around broader principles or salient rallying cries – which might also actually reflect the overwhelming scale of the crisis we have found ourselves in.

Meanwhile the nations of the global South, slow to catch up like the rest of us, are beginning to catch up now as they are already experiencing some of the initial impacts and are beginning to understand just how dire the consequences for them will be if climate change is not effectively tackled. Now many are demanding a target of 1.5 degrees. There’s a challenge for the NGOs. If they cheer on the Global South with this demand will they face up to what that really means in terms of what we’d need to do, here at home ?

If it wasn’t obvious already it should be obvious now that what we need is a revolution. I’m not talking Lenin or Robespierre – not a recalcitrant bourgeois like myself. But I am talking about the total mobilisation of society towards the single aim of fighting climate change. I mean something analogous to a war effort.

Lets try and put it in figures. Some people can only understand you if you express yourself in terms of monetary value. Lord Stern and others tell us that fulfilling the goals of the Climate Act should cost us around 1% of GDP. During the two national emergencies of the last century, the world wars, the government increased its spending by thirty or forty per cent measured as a proportion of GDP. That implies that that was roughly the proportion of GDP we spent on fighting those wars.

That’s what a real effort to tackle a national emergency looks like. Don’t let anyone say ‘that’s unrealistic,’ ‘it cant be done’ – its purely a matter of political, and perhaps one could say ‘social’ – will. And of course the cost we will be forced to pay will be at least as high as this in due course and – I hardly need to say it – the less we do now the more it will cost (in every kind of way, not just money) later.

Needless to say, though, this is a million miles away from where the political dialogue is now. It will be accurately characterised as, currently, politically unrealistic and for that reason the NGOs and most campaigners are in a different place fighting for what can actually be achieved politically. Understandable and justifiable. Its essential that all these political battles are fought, that every inadequate but feasible, and perhaps critical, victory is won. And we should all do our utmost to support the fantastic work done by NGOs in these vital political battles.

But there is also a problem with this because its where the political battles are currently being fought that tends to define for too many people the totality of what we need to achieve and so the scale of the crisis we are facing. And this is part of a scaling down of the problem that is all pervasive and pernicious. Kevin Anderson, for instance, has lambasted scientists for giving “false hope” by understating the scale of the climate problem we face and failing to “report brutally honest results, no matter how disturbing or depressing.”

It is this unwillingness to face up to bad news and the constant pressure to fit scientific, physical-world, reality into a space we can call ‘politically pragmatic’ that pervades all through the system, with many NGOs not doing enough to stem the tide and arguably sometimes even, inadvertently, contributing to it.

There is therefore a place for, indeed a need for, expanding the dialogue beyond the battlefields that are defined by political pragmatism.

In the Campaign against Climate Change – struggling inadequately, like everyone else, to find a viable campaigning response to this awesome and overwhelming crisis – we have tried, for instance, to embrace the “Zero Carbon Britain 2030’ report from the Centre for Alternative Energy as at least one inspiring example of how we might lift our vision beyond the immediately politically feasible with a coherent far reaching plan that really does take us closer to matching the scale of the threat we face.

The great strength of the report is its positivity and vision but the weakness, or limitation, of anything like this (so not a criticism), is perhaps that it is too shiny, futuristic and abstract to embody the ugly pressing urgency of the crisis the world is facing – and can be too easily discussed, respected, praised, and forgotten without generating the political energy needed to make it a reality.

Another campaign – ably pioneered by our Trade Union group – articulates the demand for a Million Climate Jobs, once again embodying the scale and ambition, but possibly in a way that offers more social relevance and political traction, as well as offering a solution to both the climate and economic crises at the same time. But everything has a downside and this arguably runs the risk of being perceived as a self-serving and insincere attempt to harness environmentalism in the cause of a familiar left wing demand – or in certain political contexts of being indeed subsumed within a larger louder campaign demanding simply jobs with little more than an opportunistic nod towards the environmental crisis.

But finally there is our long running “Climate Emergency” campaign and its corresponding Early Day Motion, which not only includes the demand for Zero Carbon by 2030, and a million climate jobs but outlines the scale of the climate emergency and makes additional, spiky, awkward, concrete and well defined, demands like a 55 mph speed limit and a ban on domestic flights.

These demands are too real, feasible and specific to be brushed off as idealistic, or self serving, rhetoric. They are not the kind of vague hyperbole that politicians can hide behind when they are unwilling to stick their heads above the parapet for any corresponding level of real action on  climate change. Technically they are not in themselves, individually, absolutely necessary to achieve what we need to, but they represent the kind of thing we would not think twice about doing if we had a proper appreciation of the scale and horror of what we’re up against. We certainly will need to do things, in other words, at least as potentially unpopular as these.

They are in effect a way of ‘getting real’ about the strange, unprecedented and almighty crisis we face. If we are ever to respond to this crisis on a scale sufficient to match that of the threat it poses then we will have to get real. There may always be a tension between the need to assemble a sufficiently broad and powerful ‘critical mass’ to win some specific political battles along the way and this need to bear true witness, Churchill-like, to the magnitude of what we’re up against. But this latter is something we will always need to do and somewhere within the campaigning spectrum there must always be a space for it.

And it’s an appropriate role for a Campaign against Climate Change to play whilst it may be harder, for instance, for an NGO that does not wish to ‘scare the horses’ of the membership that pays for it.

We will not be able to bridge the huge gap that exists between the scientifically established reality and the politics until we change the dialogue, the language, the framing – of this huge, unprecedented, national and global emergency. It has to be the language of truth, the language of getting real, not the language of obfuscation, of sugaring the pill, of political convenience, of ‘selling’ to a consumer.

A crisis of this scale can only be tackled by the whole of society acting together through government. But governments, in particular, will need to do more than ‘sell’ their green policies, one by one, to the public opportunistically on the basis of their incidental benefits or of hiding their cost. They will need to make a strong, bold, courageous, effort to get out there and explain, proactively, to the public the depth and horror of the crisis we are in, the frightening magnitude of the threat we face and of the changes that we, collectively as a society, will need to make.

They will need, in effect, to ‘get real’ with the public. They will probably never do that unless somebody else begins to do it, first.