Climate change was once regarded as a distant, even abstract threat. Indeed, the word “change” itself suggests a gradual shift. Yet the evidence that we face a crisis is now accumulating with grim speed.
As a new report by the think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research – This is a Crisis: Facing up to the Age of Environmental Breakdown – has documented, the 20 warmest years since records began in 1850 have occurred in the past 22 years. Since 1950, the number of floods has increased by a factor of 15, extreme temperature events by a factor of 20 and wildfires by a factor of seven. Animal vertebrate populations have fallen by 60 per cent since the 1970s, with insects, crucial for functioning ecosystems, declining at an ever faster rate. As David Attenborough warned at last year’s UN climate change conference: “The collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
Climate scientists suggest that the world has only a dozen years left to restrict global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Should temperatures increase by 2°C (they are currently 1°C higher), humanity’s capacity to prevent catastrophic food shortages, floods, droughts, extreme heat, poverty and mass movement of people will be severely impaired.
However, the disparity between the scale of the threat and the global political response has only widened. Donald Trump has withdrawn the US – the world’s largest polluter after China – from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change (despite the opposition of 69 per cent of US voters). Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has threatened to do the same and has opened the Amazon rainforest, “the world’s lungs”, to deforestation by agribusiness.
To limit global warming to 1.5°C, carbon emissions must be reduced by 50 per cent by 2030 and to net zero – such that any emissions are offset elsewhere – by 2050. Yet this epic challenge is not equalled by the political leadership available.
China and India accept the reality of climate change and are investing heavily in renewable energy (the price of which has fallen far faster than opponents predicted), but global progress towards decarbonisation remains perilously slow. In Europe, France, Germany and the UK are absorbed by domestic political crises. Theresa May, a prime minister who seldom mentioned climate change before 2017, has belatedly sought to reposition herself as environmentally conscious. But targets such as ensuring all cars and vans are “effectively zero emissions” by 2040 remain far too feeble (electric cars are already cheaper to run than their diesel equivalents).
Rather than viewing climate change as a cost, as too many on the free-market right do, governments should recognise it as an opportunity. As Grace Blakeley writes this week, a “green new deal”, through public investment in new technologies, would increase growth, employment and productivity. The climate crisis represents the greatest threat to humanity’s collective prosperity and survival. Should governments continue to prevaricate, future generations will not forgive them.
The creed of self-improvement is written in America’s DNA, from Jay Gatsby’s belief in “the green light, the orgastic future” to Barack Obama’s faith in “the audacity of hope” – the title of his second book and a crucial phrase in his successful 2008 presidential campaign (condensed simply to “hope” in the powerful Shepard Fairey poster). His predecessor, George W Bush, noted that “people want to follow an optimist”.
However, as Sophie McBain writes, US national optimism is in decline. Trump’s 2017 inauguration speech talked not of the American dream but of “American carnage”. The loss of industry has ravaged the economies of towns such as Janesville, Wisconsin, where the closure of a General Motors plant took with it 3,000 jobs. An opioid epidemic has devastated communities, contributing to a fall in life expectancy. High eviction rates have fuelled homelessness.
This narrative of decline, which can be found in several recent bestselling books, is gradually erasing American optimism. But pessimism is in itself not a bad thing, and can coexist with hope. It now falls to the new Democratic representatives to show that it can also bring about change.
This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy