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The age of consequences: the future for which left environmentalism is unprepared

Progressives struggle with a disturbing truth: the climate crisis is going to get much worse no matter what, and eco-nationalists are poised to exploit this fact.

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Left environmentalism struggles in the face of a disturbing truth: the global environmental emergency is going to get much worse no matter what happens, as scientists’ warnings about the future increasingly become the destabilising reality of the present.

It is still technically possible to avoid a 1.5C temperature rise above the pre-industrial average, the goal that is centre-stage of COP26, the UN climate change conference to be held in Glasgow in November. Yet government pledges fall far short of what’s needed, and the chance of meeting this target under any scenario is rapidly diminishing; 1.5C could be breached before 2030.

Deadlines imply an absolutist logic – “12 years to save the world” – and have been central to the recent and necessary shift toward urgency in the political debate. But the world, of course, will not end on 1 January 2030 or when global temperature rises reach 1.51C. Instead, the world will be more unstable, suffering the compounding effects of storms, fires and droughts, as well as the consequences of biodiversity loss, soil depletion and other elements of the environmental emergency that can be obscured by a singular focus on the climate crisis.

Environmental instability has large social and economic repercussions. Water stress and collapsing ecosystems will exacerbate poverty, inequality and political instability, all of which already beset societies, especially in the global south. These impacts won’t be confined to one region but will ripple across the world through our interconnected social and economic systems – an interconnectedness that Covid-19 has so starkly demonstrated. And like the pandemic, the effects of environmental breakdown, both direct and indirect, could come fast, overwhelming underprepared societies.

Much of this is already happening and will get worse as we approach and exceed 1.5C and other parts of nature continue to be critically damaged. So, instead of clinging to the binary logic evoked by net-zero deadlines, we must increasingly think in terms of a zone of emergency into which we have already strayed and from which we must exit as soon as possible, all the while managing the progressively more severe consequences competing for our attention. The stakes mount as we head beyond 2C, with the growing risk that natural feedback loops – such as melting ice reflecting less heat, leading to more melting – could set off irresistible and irreversible change. Going to 3C, 4C or above would be globally catastrophic.

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The speed of our movement out of this emergency zone is largely dependent on two factors. First, radical changes must be made to how we live and how economies work in order to achieve rapid decarbonisation, reduce the immense volume of CO2 currently in the atmosphere, and stem the wider destruction of nature. Developing credible policies to achieve this – such as the Green New Deal, a massive, state-led investment programme to fast-track the transition to clean technologies and ameliorate inequalities – is an area in which left environmentalism excels.

But implementing such policies will take time and huge, sustained effort. While progress is being made in the US and other countries, the Conservatives’ “green industrial revolution” isn’t backed-up by the scale of investment that’s needed to drive adequate emissions reductions in transport, housing and farming and other land use. And governments on either side of the Atlantic remain overly fixated on technological solutions and lack strategies for tackling the overconsumption trashing ecosystems and for reducing the vast global inequities at the heart of the problem.

Second, and as a result, the process of mobilising for and delivering the change the left espouses will have to contend with the increasingly dire consequences of mounting environmental breakdown. Fighting to avoid a 2C rise in a 1.5C world could be vastly different from fighting against 1.5C at 1.2C, as we are currently. Fighting for 2.5C in a 2C world, more so.

[See also: “We all struggle with despair”: Naomi Klein on overcoming doomism with climate action]

It is in the face of this emergent medium-term reality that left environmentalism struggles. Is the Green New Deal policy agenda politically robust to a world of persistent food shocks and the fears and priorities that will exercise voters? What is the geopolitical strategy for supporting equitable decarbonisation in an acutely stressed global south while handling the expansionist ambitions of China? What progressive political narratives can effectively counter the fear whipped up by nativist framing of climate refugees, tens of millions of which are expected to be forcibly displaced in the coming years by the consequences of rising temperatures and the social fallout of ecological decline?

A Green New Deal will become ever more important as the world gets hotter and more unstable, but the process of winning and implementing such a programme will have to successfully navigate the threats therein. A nastier, less safe world could militate against progressive agendas, walls and border drones seeming to some like a more appealing response than a four-day week and energy co-ops.

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One group with a sophisticated analysis of a destabilising future is the security and defence community. The threat climate breakdown poses to global security has been recognised for years; the UK chaired the first UN Security Council meeting on the subject back in 2007. The US Department of Defense describes environmental change as a “threat multiplier” that aggravates political instability, social tensions and conflict.

This analysis is working its way into a government mainstream increasingly attuned to the acute dangers of unchecked climate heating. Within a week of his inauguration, President Biden signed an executive order explicitly recognising climate breakdown as a national security priority. Conceiving of the climate crisis in these terms might help motivate the apparatus of government into delivering rapid action and overcome partisan divides, translating the environmental emergency, a concern that often appears abstract and the preserve of liberals, into a pressing national threat that could mobilise conservative politicians.

At the international level, the Security Council is contemplating measures to bolster collective security as destabilisation grows, including early-warning systems to better pre-empt environmental shocks and expanding the mandate of UN peace operations to handle them. However, without a robust strategy for maintaining international cooperation and tackling global inequality, the emergent securitisation of the environmental emergency could drive us further into catastrophe.

As the world becomes more unstable – a process likely to be accelerated by the failure of the political mainstream’s chipper incrementalism – a national security focus could compel countries to turn inward to protect their populations, or prompt them to lash out in an effort to secure their interests in an increasingly dangerous world. The recent flaring of vaccine nationalism is a warning. Assuming a defensive, competitive stance in the context of a destabilising biosphere is a self-defeating folly, risking a resource-intensive militarism that could ultimately fracture the global response.

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We find ourselves in a bind. Those who have the most credible response to the environmental emergency don’t yet have a robust strategy to handle a future of compounding destabilisation. They also do not yet have the ear of governments around the world. Meanwhile, those in power who do have such a strategy could be complicit in engendering a response that drives us further into the abyss.

Overcoming this requires the left to develop a more sophisticated analysis of the coming destabilisation. Progressives need to expand the horizon of their ideas and policy proposals, including into the uncomfortable territory of security, defence and geopolitical strategy. Left strategies for winning and using power need to be capable of navigating the political challenges inherent in a world of food crises, eco-fascists and natural feedback loops. This necessarily means engaging with those who are facing up to the emergent medium-term reality before its chaotic consequences really start to bite, including those in the security and defence community.

[See also: The Budget showed the gap between the Conservatives’ green rhetoric and reality]

The vertiginous stakes of the planetary emergency and the shock of the pandemic have opened up an unprecedented opportunity to do so. Across the mainstream, previously unthinkable questions are being asked, such as whether restrictions on government investment are merely a political choice and even if perpetual growth is desirable or possible. Many unfamiliar doors are open, and the left should push on them before they close, blown shut by the vagaries of this age of consequences. Facing up to the truth that the crisis is already here – that we have already strayed into the zone of emergency – will be critical to ensuring the Covid-19 pandemic is retrospectively seen as the turning point in our struggle against environmental breakdown.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is a researcher and co-author of Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown, which is out today from Verso. He tweets @Laurie_L_L.