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12 February 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 12:27pm

It’s no longer climate change we’re living through. It’s environmental breakdown

To confront environmental catastrophe, we need urgent political transformation. 

By Laurie Laybourn Langton

In 1962, American playwright James Baldwin wrote that “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Today, his words should give us succour. We need more than ever to face the reality of environmental change.

I’m a researcher at IPPR, a think tank. We have been observing warnings of rapid, negative environmental change from the scientific community. So we decided to understand what that means for our work, for policy, and for politics.

In a report released today, we bring together the latest science on human-induced environmental change and seek to understand how politicians should respond. We conclude that when it comes to climate change, political debate has failed us in three different ways.

First, the term “climate change” no longer captures reality. The scale of environmental change that our earth is currently experiencing far exceeds it. We are depleting soil, killing species, damaging oceans. This is happening at a pace that is unprecedented in human history and in some cases millions, or even billions, of years.

We call this what it is: the age of environmental breakdown – a term that is a more proportionate description of the totality that the earth presently faces.

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Second, political debate does not adequately recognise the consequences of environmental breakdown. This isn’t just about saving polar bears or the health impacts of air pollution, however crucial these issues are. It is about higher incidences of drought, an impaired ability to grow food, cities afflicted by extreme weather events. It is about the resulting consequences: famines, forced migration, economic crises – and war.

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Our age of environmental breakdown has inaugurated a new “domain of risk,” unprecedented in its complexity and the potential severity of its impact.

Finally, current political debates skirt around the urgent need to transform our social and economic systems in response to environmental breakdown. Tinkering in the margins and providing quick fixes or short term measures will no longer suffice.

The consequences of environmental breakdown will fall hardest on the poorest, who are most vulnerable to its effects, and the least responsible for the problem.

The poorest half of the global population account for around 10 per cent of yearly global greenhouse gas emissions; half of global emissions are attributed to the richest 10 per cent of people. In the UK, per capita emissions of the wealthiest 10 per cent are up to five times higher than those of the bottom half.

The question of how we confront environmental breakdown, and who will feel its effects, intersects with inequalities of class, ethnicity and gender. Environmental breakdown isn’t just about climate change: it’s about justice.

To confront environmental breakdown, we need two overall transformations.

The first is to make to make societies sustainable and just, bringing human activity within environmentally sustainable limits while ensuring a decent quality of life is available to all. This sits at the heart of arguments for a Green New Deal. Programmes to halt environmental breakdown can and should include measures to improve social and economic outcomes, including providing good jobs for all, tackling structural discrimination, and expanding free education.

The second is to build societies that are prepared for environmental breakdown. Infrastructure, markets and political processes need to be resilient to environmental breakdown resulting from past and future activity. We don’t talk about this enough. While it may be scary to think about preparing for environmental catastrophe, it is fast becoming necessary. In particular, we need to develop a politics that runs counter to the nativist right, whose programme of anti-migrant and anti-environmental could win big as the seas rise and the food runs out.

Policies like the rollout of renewable energy and the successful efforts to stem the breakdown of the ozone layer have made progress towards realising these transformations. But most efforts have neither adequately focussed on all elements of environmental breakdown, nor sought to fundamentally transform key social and economic systems. Little attention has been given to ensuring societies are robust enough to face the increasingly severe consequences of breakdown.

Younger generations are now faced with a daunting twin task: preventing environmental breakdown and responding to its growing impact. IPPR will be exploring how to help younger generations find the energy that often eludes them as they confront a rapidly destabilising world.

The scale and pace of environmental change confirms that the only credible way forward is systemic transformation of societies and economies. To change the path that lies ahead, we must first admit that we are entering an age of unprecedented breakdown. Time is running out.