We are living in a state of emergency: the climate, ecological and sustainability crisis is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. For too long, we have ignored the effects, and now we are living through the consequences. Twenty of the 21 hottest years since records began in 1850 have occurred in this century. Since 1950 the global number of floods has increased by a factor of 15 and wildfires by a factor of seven. The abnormally hot and cold temperatures experienced throughout the world (temperatures in Britain passed 40°C for the first time in July) caused by global heating are thought to contribute to as many as five million human deaths a year. The natural world is being devastated: we are witnessing rapid species loss and the destruction of entire ecosystems.
This is a humanitarian catastrophe for those who are living, not just for those who come after us.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that, at current emission levels, the carbon budgets that give us a reasonable chance of staying below 1.5°C of global average temperature rise will be exhausted within this decade. This is the point at which the risk of irreversible and catastrophic climate change significantly increases. Bear in mind that governments’ current (and bleakly unambitious) commitments are based on deeply flawed and under-reported numbers: an investigation by the Washington Post found a gap of up to 23 per cent in our annual global emissions, for which no country seems to be responsible.
Confronted by this existential threat, the world’s political leaders are in denial, actively delaying change and distracting the electorate. Rather than coming together to combat the crisis, the global community is fragmenting as wars are waged and great powers compete for control over scarce resources and territory.
As the country that initiated the industrial revolution – as a legacy polluter as well as a brutal coloniser – the United Kingdom has a special responsibility to provide moral and political leadership on the climate crisis. (Until 1882, more than half of the world’s cumulative carbon emissions came from Britain alone.) But this is not happening: under Liz Truss, the Conservative prime minister at the time of writing, the UK is regressing.
Truss has demanded “growth, growth, growth” – but what does that mean when it pits the economy against people, nature and the climate?
In her short – and troubled – time in office, she has suggested lifting the ban on fracking, announced more than 100 new licences for oil and gas drilling in the North Sea, and pledged to ban solar power from most of England’s agricultural land. While her new Chancellor is being pressured to reverse these measures, much will still stand. In attempting to remove protective laws and regulations, Truss has launched what wildlife groups from the RSPB to the National Trust have called “an attack on nature”. This isn’t moral leadership – this is self-destruction.
In addition, the British government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, passed by parliament in April 2022, has granted sweeping new powers to the police. These powers can be used to restrict or curtail activism – yet another attempt to silence protest. When the uncomfortable voices become too loud, instead of listening to our demands, the people in power desperately try to suffocate the resistance. This will only come back to haunt them.
The UK’s plans to meet its legally enshrined commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 were already frighteningly inadequate – but the current government seems to have ditched them altogether. Faced with Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, it justifies its policy choices on national security grounds. But nothing is secure in a world ravaged by worsening heat, fire and flood. As the war in Ukraine shows, long-term dependence on fossil fuels does not merely sustain authoritarian regimes: it funds and powers their expansionist ambitions, from Moscow to the Gulf.
The longer the world delays the transition to renewable energy, the greater the climate catastrophe it will reap in future years, and the more the despots and autocrats will flourish. The surge in the price of fossil fuels since Vladimir Putin’s invasion has only strengthened the case for rapid decarbonisation.
Global greenhouse emissions are still on the rise, oil production is soaring and energy companies are making sky-high profits while countless people struggle to pay their bills. The changes necessary to avoid the worst consequences are nowhere to be seen. Recent studies show that at 1.5°C we risk passing irreversible tipping points, which will lock in human suffering on an unimaginable scale. Already today – at around 1.2°C of warming – people are being displaced and losing their lives and livelihoods.
It is the world’s poorest who are the most threatened. A recent report published in the journal Nature Sustainability found that the wealthiest 10 per cent of the global population were responsible for 48 per cent of all emissions in 2019, while the bottom 50 per cent were responsible for just 12 per cent.
In 2009 countries in the developed world promised to provide $100bn a year by 2020 to help poorer countries adapt to the impact of the climate crisis. Nearly three years after that deadline, even this inadequate commitment has not been honoured.
We should abandon the illusion that our politicians will come to the rescue of planet Earth, especially those who delight in calling themselves climate leaders. Time and again they have betrayed the faith that has been placed in them – using greenwashing and PR strategies disguised as politics.
But we cannot despair: the way we see and talk about the climate and ecology crisis has shifted. A critical mass of people – especially younger people – are demanding change and will no longer tolerate the procrastination, denial and complacency that created this state of emergency. I believe in democracy and in the power of collective wisdom.
It is not too late. We have a duty to help as many of our fellow citizens as possible understand the dire situation we are in. We must all do more to explain, inform and educate; public pressure can create profound change.
At the age of 19, I already feel like a broken record – but we need to keep repeating the message on climate action, constantly. For hope begins when we open our eyes and swap the impotence of words for the power of collective action.
This article appears in a special issue of the New Statesman guest edited by Greta Thunberg and featuring contributors including Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Rebecca Solnit, Ai Weiwei and Björk. Read more from the issue here.
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[See also: Greta Thunberg and Björk Guðmundsdóttir in conversation]
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency