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Why the left cannot afford to be optimistic about climate change

However fast we decarbonise our economies, adaptation to environmental decline will be essential. 

By James Meadway

Two reports released this month communicated in stark terms that whatever we may once have hoped about the future, even as recently as 18 months ago, it will not now live up to its promise. The Committee on Climate Change’s report on the accelerating impact of global heating laid out in exhaustive detail the range and extent of the threats to Britain’s economy and society from worsening climate change, already noting “billions in economic losses and thousands of heat-related deaths during events such as the 2018 heatwave”. It makes an urgent call to ramp up adaptation to the changing climate, and criticises the government for leaving adaptation “under-resourced, underfunded and often ignored”.

Meanwhile, Whitehall’s leaked plans for managing Covid after 19 July – the proposed date for the full easing of lockdown measures – make graphically clear that there will be no return to pre-pandemic normality, as face masks, working from home and periodic social distancing remain necessary to contain the virus. An essential article in Foreign Affairs by leading epidemiologists makes the case in unequivocal terms: Covid isn’t going away and, for as long as vaccination remains uneven, the risks to countries across the world will remain present. Less than 1 per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa has been fully vaccinated, and the first reports of the Delta variant in Kenya are now starting to appear. We are not going to emerge from Covid-19 for a long time, if at all.

The environment we inhabit is changing more rapidly than humanity has experienced since the foundation of the first cities. Adaptation to those changes is becoming essential, and either that adaptation will be fair, building on principles of social and economic justice, or it will – by default – reproduce and exacerbate the worst features of capitalist society. The Covid pandemic, notoriously, has seen the super-rich become richer across the globe as millions have died. Socially just adaptation would start to address these vast inequalities.

Globally, the left has settled on the Green New Deal, which promises green jobs today from taking action to remove carbon emissions from our energy systems, transport and housing stock. There is low-hanging fruit in decarbonising, such as retrofitting homes to provide better insulation. This is very labour-intensive, with a comprehensive programme for the UK creating 200,000 jobs over a decade, and provides an immediate benefit to households in efficiency savings. And it would be possible to deliver this without making significant changes to how we live our lives.

But while a scheme like retrofitting homes seems win-win, much of what we need to do to adapt to climate change will involve changing how we live, and here there will be costs and trade-offs. Working from home, for example, is broadly popular with those who have the option to do it. But many jobs obviously can’t be performed remotely, and if our city centres are drained of office workers, the jobs needed to serve them will disappear. And with reports of companies attempting to expand workplace monitoring into their workers’ homes, there is an urgent need to put in place clear controls and regulations over the conditions of home-working, in the same way they apply in the workplace.

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[see also: The truth about climate change that no politician will tell the public]

These are all questions about adaptation, and Covid has made them unavoidable. But most versions of the Green New Deal proposed so far, including Labour’s in 2019, have severely underplayed the necessity of adaptation. More recently, calls for a Zero Covid strategy have tended to radically underestimate the immense costs of the kind of restrictions on society that, for example, strict border controls and regular lockdowns create, and minimise the extreme improbability of ever eliminating Covid globally. This is another version of avoiding the question of adaptation.

It isn’t pleasant for the left to think about the world this way – as something that is changing, irreversibly, for the worse. For as long as there has been a left in politics, it has been predicated – with whatever setbacks or failures along the way – on a fundamental optimism about the capacity of people to improve the world around them. What climate change means is the exact opposite: it says that if this year was bad, we should expect the next year, on average, to be worse, and the year after that to be worse than that, and so on every year until we die. If we make extraordinary, unparalleled efforts right now to decarbonise our economy, we might be able to slow or lessen the decline. But decline will still occur. Things cannot only get better.

If the left tries to base itself on optimism, it will find it is grossly out of step with the times we live in. We can achieve near-miracles with science and technology: the spectacularly rapid introduction of highly effective Covid vaccines over the last year is evidence of that. But the social system we live in – global capitalism – means we cannot distribute the vaccine fairly and quickly worldwide, and so we are dooming ourselves to life with Covid as new variants emerge among unvaccinated populations.

Even if radical action to halt emissions was taken immediately, the effects of doing so will play out over decades. The real crunch point on climate change action will be when huge and costly efforts are being made to reduce emissions at exactly the same time as the costs of global heating become overwhelming: food shortages, pressure on water supplies, further pandemics. The cost of this, globally, has been forecast to be $300-700bn by 2030, on top of the “incalculable” cost of lost livelihoods. The impact of the huge efforts we’ll be making to decarbonise the economy won’t yet be visible. It’s not hard to imagine the reactionary argument: why bother trying to rescue the future when today’s problems are so overwhelming? Adaptation can therefore be easier terrain for conservatives to position themselves on.

And there is, already, a far-right version of this ecological argument. Marine Le Pen, currently leading in the polls ahead of France’s presidential election next year, has become a freshly minted environmentalist. Her party, Rassemblement National (RN) argues that climate change is the product of rampant globalisation. “Borders,” insists RN spokesman Jordan Bardella, “are the environment’s greatest ally.” And France, they argue, will need to defend itself against the millions of refugees displaced by climate change in the future.

This is the grave danger of Labour’s decision to centre its attacks on the government’s India border policy rather than, say, the inadequacy of its financial support for those asked to isolate. Whatever its merits as a short-term position, if Covid is going to be with us for many years, stricter border controls cannot be the main policy response from the left. The demand risks setting up positions that may become hard to unwind later and, as the arguments about adaptation become unavoidable, it threatens to leave the left in a weaker place to respond. Adapting to environmental decline may involve making harder arguments than the left would want, and none of us want to live in a world where they are necessary. But they cannot be avoided any longer.

[see also: Joe Biden’s infrastructure deal fails to match the climate threat]