The video stream was grainy, the makeshift banners wonky, the two men on camera were not named and they were reading their speeches off paper, one of them not very fluently. Various other bigwigs then appeared on screen to congratulate all concerned, and then, 29 minutes in, they switched to Powerpoint and the screen went black.
It could have been the declaration of a military coup in some far distant country, with the production values of 20 years ago. Or an Open University seminar from the 1970s. In fact, it was the press conference to launch the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report on the science behind climate change.
António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, summed its contents up succinctly: “Code red for humanity”. Global surface temperature is now 1.09 degrees higher than in the back half of the 19th century. The past five years have been the hottest on record. Heatwaves, extreme rainfall events, droughts and cyclones are multiplying – and human activity is to blame.
In all scenarios, even ones that include global cooperation and rapid carbon reduction, we could reach the tipping point of 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial average before 2040 – not 2050 as previously predicted. In the worst scenarios, the global temperature will reach 2.5 degrees by mid-century and 4.4 degrees by 2100.
But in its shambolic presentation, the IPCC’s press conference on 9 August demonstrated the strategic problem. The science is clear and urgent. Yet important segments of the electorate, in all countries, do not care. No government in the world has a plan to decarbonise its economy. As a result, the socio-economic scenarios that climate scientists are working with are out of joint with reality.
The five Shared Socio-Economic Pathways (SSPs) used by climate modellers to predict the future temperature of the earth were first published in 2013. They are, in summary: (SSP1) the world goes smoothly, collaboratively and enthusiastically green and more socially just; (SSP2) the same but too slowly; (SSP3) the world system breaks up into competing regional powers, with each country prioritising its own growth and energy security; (SSP4) global inequality dominates, with high social unrest and poor progress on decarbonisation in the developing world; (SSP5) hyper-neoliberalism, where we just burn carbon and rely on the market, and economic development, to curb population growth and (eventually) find a geo-engineering solution for the burning planet.
The bad news is that under even the most benign scenario, we still hit 1.5 degrees by 2040. The worse news is that all these models now look unrealistic. What we are going to get, unless something changes radically, is a mixture of the bad bits of SSP3, SSP4 and SSP5: a fragmented global system, with high inequality, regional rivalry and social unrest – with transnational institutions powerless and the financial elite still dreaming that technology will save us.
Even if, as the IPCC predicts, we get approximately constant, and not rising, carbon emissions out to 2070, this is a dire prospect. I don’t know what the climate results for this combined model look like, but my guess is they would be worse than anything the IPCC has predicted.
What do we do? Between now and the COP26 conference in November, we’re going to get a case study in what not to do. Boris Johnson has put Alok Sharma in charge of Britain’s international diplomacy to secure a new carbon emission reduction deal. In 24 votes in the House of Commons on climate related matters, Sharma has not supported measures to reduce carbon emissions 17 times.
Sharma knows, as does the rest of the Tory government, that there is no way the Conservatives will be able to sell to their loyal voters the radical measures needed for Britain to decarbonise its energy, housing and transport systems by 2050.
This is a problem for Labour, too. Labour went into the 2019 election with the most detailed and radical decarbonisation plan ever presented by a mainstream political party. It called for a “green industrial revolution” and pledged to “put the UK on track for net-zero-carbon energy system within the 2030s – and go faster if credible pathways can be found [and] deliver nearly 90 per cent of electricity and 50 per cent of heat from renewable and low-carbon sources by 2030.”
That would mean borrowing £250bn over ten years, to build vast new offshore wind and solar facilities, to insulate every home and transform home heating systems, to electrify all transport and to manage the entire energy system centrally.
Labour bombed. The scale of the borrowing and spending needed, and the radical changes in behaviour that will have to go alongside them, were beyond the imaginations of people on the doorstep. I remember an elderly ex-car worker in Birmingham screaming at me that “Jeremy Corbyn will destroy the economy”.
In a way, I now think the Labour canvassers of 2019 are among the luckiest people on earth: we have glimpsed what’s going to happen when people are confronted with the scale of the economic changes needed to meet the demands of the climate crisis. It will terrify them – above all because they know that, under free-market capitalism, the only people who ever lose out when things change is themselves.
So the Sixth Assessment leaves global politics at a crossroads. You can see where conservatism is going ideologically from the insistent calls for “adaptation” over “mitigation”. We’re an advanced country, with high technological expertise. We can adapt to rising sea levels and sudden floods. The unspoken coda is that we’re going to have to sink refugee boats in the channel, as the Global South, which cannot adapt to desertification and floods, implodes.
It is certain that, as electorates get confronted with the point-blank choices, ecofascism will rise. In their book White Skin, Black Fuel (2021), the Swedish academic Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective make a compelling case that the carbon-burning heat engine and the racist colonial empire are the two dynamos of capitalism, and predict that race hatred, and genocidal solutions, will proliferate as climate chaos increases. “The far right,” they point out, “has not figured in any climate models. Variables of whiteness and race and nationalism have not been included.”
In my forthcoming book How To Stop Fascism, I trace the far right’s progression from outright climate science denial towards acceptance of the science, alongside the solutions proposed by the Finnish “ecofascist” Pentti Linkola – depopulate the earth and, in the name of defending nature, let large parts of humanity in the Global South die.
Faced with this, the left needs something more effective than what Corbynism offered – and there are only two realistic choices.
The first is what Malm calls “eco-Leninism”: the adoption of harsh programmes of economic transformation, akin to the “War Communism” of 1919-21 in Russia, using a draconian state. In this Leninist model, you reject all timetables that rely on the consciousness and spontaneity of the masses: you seize power (somehow) and you use it to force the pace of change.
I think we should reject Climate Bolshevism for the same reasons that we should reject Leninism: it didn’t work. After just three years of War Communism, the Bolsheviks had to lead an organised retreat back to market socialism, only by now they had destroyed all vestiges of workers’ democracy and spontaneous self-organisation.
The second option, if we are to avoid the inexorable collapse, is what I’ve been calling for since 2015: a revolutionary reformism. The only political vehicle that is going to be able to enact a programme similar to the one Labour offered in 2019 is the Labour Party. The only state that’s going to execute that programme is the existing state, albeit reformed for the task and minus numerous placemen for the fossil fuel industry.
The actual battle, then, lies within the existing system, the existing parties and the existing state. We are losing it, up to now, because nobody within the political class – Corbyn included – placed climate at the centre of everything else, and made a convincing case for urgency and priority. Having now borrowed and spent more than £300bn on Covid-19 mitigation in a single year, dwarfing the sum proposed by Labour to mitigate climate, maybe there’s a chance of resetting the frame.
From Berlin to Brighton, what matters most in the run-up to COP26 is whether social-democrats and the larger Green parties get this. Once they do, they still face the task of selling radical social transformation to a sceptical elderly electorate, and to recalcitrant trade unions.
Keir Starmer has committed Labour to doing “the bulk of decarbonisation” before 2030. Given that, the next election there is no way Labour can avoid leading, once again, with a radical climate offer.
The task is to persuade and mobilise: to persuade people stuck in conversations about potholes and anti-social behaviour to see the disaster rushing towards them. To mobilise those who already understand to actually vote.
There is no guarantee of success but that’s the challenge laid down by the IPCC report.