Climate change vs Brexit: the distraction, the emergency, the opportunity

Brexit is distracting us from society’s bigger and more pressing issues, causing us to miss the emergency and opportunities presented by climate change.

Robert Hutchison
9 June 2017

A climate change protest in Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Takver/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The distraction

Climate change is a global emergency from which the UK Brexit vote is an almighty distraction. Brexit has been much debated in the period up to the UK’s general election – but so should the steady erosion of public services, growing inequality and the need to move much more rapidly to zero carbon societies.

Scarcely anyone noticed that 9 May was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to which almost every nation on earth is a signatory. The risks to life on earth from mounting average global temperatures have been increasing for decades. Because global temperature rise results from cumulative emissions over time, and is therefore quantitatively predictable, arriving quickly at a ‘net zero carbon’ world is critical to minimising the risks.

The upsurge of economic nationalism and anti-scientific populism have created an  unsettling context in which climate change must be thought about and acted on. So while for most people who study the subject, the science of climate change is complex but clear enough not to paralyse us, and the economics of the great energy transformation away from fossil fuels are compelling, the politics remain painfully and perilously difficult: we have the technology of the gods and the politics of narcissistic children.

We have the technology of the gods and the politics of narcissistic children.

‘Well below’ 2C?

At climate conferences there is much talk about pathways to achieving 2 degrees centigrade (2C) or to ‘net zero carbon’ – that is a balance between human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and their complete removal or sequestration by carbon sinks, whether forests, bogs, oceans or new, largely untested, technologies. In Paris in 2015, there was a collective strengthening of commitment, and a new target. The agreement reached is that all countries will together aim to limit any temperature increase relative to pre-industrial time to ‘well below’ 2C and will pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C.

Most climate scientists accept that restricting average temperature increase to 1.5C is geophysically possible; but the power of vested interests, institutional inertia, cultural resistance and political short-termism are massive obstacles to achieving that target.

While a certain totemic status has been given to the 2C threshold there has been much less focus on the profound and immediate changes to the consumption and production of energy needed to achieve the 2C target, nor recognition of the risks involved in settling for or organising around that target. Professor Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, has argued that ‘the complete set of 400 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios for a 50% or better chance of meeting the 2C target work on the basis of either an ability to change the past, or the successful and large-scale uptake of Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs)’.

NETs, which have the potential to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, include afforestation, making biochar, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), direct air capture (DAC), and ways of increasing oceanic absorption of carbon dioxide. NETs may help to provide more time to reduce emissions, but a 2015 report on NETs from the University of Oxford concluded that ‘attaining negative emissions is in no sense an easier option than reducing current emissions’.

The emergency

Climate change is an emergency because it is ‘a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action’. Global warming can’t be stopped; but it still might be possible to prevent complete or extreme catastrophes. It is an emergency because lives are being lost or destroyed by climate change and we are not on a path to reduce this loss of life. It is a prolonged emergency, because stabilising the climate is a task for generations. But time is now the scarcest resource in facing up to climate change.

Time is now the scarcest resource in facing up to climate change.  

Most people born before 1930 didn’t know that their emissions were causing a problem; those of us alive now can only pretend that we don’t know. It is a form of denial referred to by psychotherapists like Rosemary Randall as disavowal: ‘Its most common form is not the outright “black-is-white” argument of the denialist industry but the common capacity to keep the awkward knowledge split off in one part of the mind so that ‘‘life as usual’’ can go on…. People know and don’t know simultaneously. Uncomfortable knowledge is shelved…Loss doesn’t have to be faced’. In other words we acknowledge the facts as true, but behave as though they are not.

But climate change is not just an emergency to which few people give any consistent attention. It is also an emergency about which governments, persisting with pumping billions of subsidies into the fossil fuel industries rather than into the ‘insurgent’ renewables companies, speak with forked tongues.  

At the end of the Paris climate change negotiations, David Cameron said ‘this generation has taken vital steps to ensure that our children and grandchildren will see that we did our duty in securing the future of our planet’.  The Paris Agreement embodied important steps forward but, as so often, the former Prime Minister was thinking aloud wishfully. We haven’t secured the future of our planet for our children and grandchildren. ‘Our duty’ remains to be done. ‘Political language’ as George Orwell said, ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’.

The ‘joy of enough’, not unachievable endless growth.

The opportunity

Climate change demands that we think big, and re-think radically, in the direction of more stable state economies – the ‘joy of enough’, not unachievable endless growth. For those who are listening, enlightened leadership will emphasise the opportunities provided by this historic moment. There are immediate and substantial benefits to moving rapidly to a low carbon world, including new jobs, stronger communities, improved health and less air pollution, the latter currently responsible for more than 5.5 million premature deaths each year. The ‘just transformation’ to one-planet living requires more equal societies, because more equal societies are not only better for the poor and vulnerable, but for everyone else too. It also requires the defence and expansion of the public sphere and the public realm, which form the social glue of societies.  At present, on climate change, the UK government combines self-congratulation, disavowal, missed opportunities, incoherence and delay. This election should have been about public services, inequality and climate change – and much else – not just Brexit.  

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