The best way to fix the long term is with more short-termism

People don't like thinking about hard problems while the economy is a mess.

Just in case you aren't convinced that things tend to get worse before they get more worse, here's another example of why it's incumbent on us to solve the short-term problems in the short term because, not despite, of the long-term problems plaguing us.

The Washington Post's Brad Plumber writes about building the support needed to tackle climate change:

A new study finds that U.S. senators are far less likely to take green votes when the unemployment rate in their state is high…

Grant Jacobsen of the University of Oregon took a look at the voting records of 296 senators between 1976 and 2008. He then checked the local unemployment rate in each senator’s state, and matched them up to the “green scores” that were given to each senator by the League of Conservation Voters.

The result? “A one point increase in the [state] unemployment rate leads to a statistically significant 0.48 point decline in the LCV score of the average senator.”

Doubtless politicians – particularly right-wing politicians – wouldn't agree that Making Tough Choices about climate change is the same as Making Tough Choices about what we're used to euphemistically referring too as "much needed structural reforms", but they are. In both cases, the move would be unpopular, painful for a number of entrenched interests, and probably necessary in the long term – but the idea that we ought to take difficult steps in the middle of the biggest recession Britain has ever seen, and then start fixing the recession, is madness.

Of course, the problems with fixing climate change in the middle of a recession aren't identical to the proposals to cut employment protections, corporate tax rates and financial regulations. For one thing, there's a chance that efforts to reduce the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere might actually do what they're intended to do, while the evidence that businesses are just straining at the bit to give us perpetual 3 per cent growth were it not for those pesky unfair dismissal laws is slim.

But also, of course, many efforts to fight climate change are also ones which would end the damaging austerity keeping us in this economic crisis in the first place. So while politically, we may have to solve the short term problem – and end the depression – before we can move on to fixing the climate, economically, they're one and the same.

Still, what we should take away from this is that something which can end the depression is something which should be done. It doesn't matter if it's "kicking the can down the road" – once that can is kicked, we can start thinking about the long term solutions which might eliminate the can altogether, or maybe power it with wind, or solar energy. (That metaphor ran away from me somewhat)

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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