by Jack Layton
I love climate change. More specifically, I love climate change as an idea. It is one of the greatest achievements of humankind. Not the fact that we’ve accidentally interrupted our planet’s biological and atmospheric systems, more that we were able to discover it.
Climate is inherently complex, standing in for average atmospheric conditions over long periods of time. Climate change takes this idea and extenuates it, attending to climatic change around the world, over millennia, and projecting the multiple effects into the future. To develop a concept like climate change has required extensive weather records from different places around the world over time, an amalgam of proxy records (ice cores and tree rings), and scores of scientists collaborating, and building upon each other’s research. Not to mention the huge advances that have been achieved in computer modelling of complex interactive systems.
As an intellectual feat, climate change is an elegant and impressive idea — the cumulative effect of countless hours of human labour. However, its time has come and passed. The actually-existing processes of climatic change are well underway; but the social, political, and cultural attitudes that harboured climate change as an idea have passed.
The high point for climate change as an idea was reached in the mid to late 2000s. It was around this time that Al Gore’s feature length documentary An Inconvenient Truth was released (2006); the blockbuster thriller The Day After Tomorrow hit cinemas (2004); the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their 4th report (2007); all the while preparations were being conducted behind the scenes for the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen (2009). Worth adding to this list is Hurricane Katrina (2005), and the Boxing Day Tsunami (2004), each of which provided a palpable sense that environmental hazards could strike disaster anywhere around the world. Political effort, international cooperation, cultural awareness, and the fear of the impact of runaway climate change all worked in tandem to cement the idea of climate change as serious and worth acting on. This recent history seems distant.
It was remarkable that by the mid-2000s climate change was an idea that commanded the attention not only of global political leaders, but also had a foothold in popular culture. However, as I sit writing this in the late-summer of 2016, climate change could not appear as more antithetical to the zeitgeist. I want to briefly outline three trends that appear as blockages to climate change re-emerging as a political force.
Firstly there appears to be more tangible risks at hand. The possibility of an ISIS-style attack in our city centres animates public neuroses. Theresa May will get more praise for setting out a comprehensive anti-terrorist agenda, than a comprehensive strategy for addressing climate change (R.I.P. Department for Energy and Climate Change). Whilst across the pond we have a vocal climate sceptic pushing Clinton in the polls, and I have yet to hear either candidate talk about the issue substantively.
Moreover many countries around the world are still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. In the popular imagination climate change appears as expensive, and somehow anti-growth, a luxury risk for more prosperous times. Arguably neither the ongoing crisis in the middle-east, nor the continued economic stagnation can be comprehensively addressed without the lens of climate change. Access to energy and designing a sustainable economy both implicate climate change, but it would be a bold political leader that acknowledged this.
Second, there has been a turn towards nationalist sentiments. Climate change does not adhere to borders. The atmosphere moves across the planet paying scant attention to lines sketched on a map. Addressing climate change will require concerted international cooperation, whilst managing the worst of the impacts will require international negotiation over how the costs, risks, and losses are distributed more equitably across the planet.
In the 2000s this globalist bent to climate change was an attractive bonus for those that held a certain cosmopolitan disposition. Grassroots activists, liberal governments, and NGOs across the world were to be united under a single cause to face the biggest challenge facing humankind — for many this is still an ambition. However I find it unlikely that a “newly sovereign” UK would be willing to submit to any substantial environmental oversight from international organisations. When the nation trumps all, global issues are eroded (pun intended).
It is not just that climate change challenges assumptions about the coherence of nation-states, but that the immense scaffolding of work that supports climate change as an idea (the research, the activists, the think tanks) thrive in a world with fewer borders. It is well known that most universities supported staying in the EU, and scientists particularly benefitted from generous EU funding. I do not think the UK leaving the EU will affect climate science substantively, but it is not unlikely that UK science will receive less funding, and Europe-wide efforts to better understand climate change will fracture. Inward looking nations are less likely to collaborate across lines on the map.
Thirdly there is the rise of post-truth politics. Climate change is perhaps the example par excellence of an expert-centric issue. Quite simply, climate change could not be comprehended without experts. With Michael Gove declaring the public are fed-up of experts, and Douglas Carswell arguing with Professor Paul Nightingale (Deputy Director of Science Policy Research at University of Sussex) about whether the moon affects tides or not (https://twitter.com/MrLaytonJ/status/778222708853178368) — the value of ideas dependent on extensive scientific knowledge seems fragile. Who needs a scientific community to prove that climate change is happening, when a US senator can introduce a snowball onto the senate floor as infallible evidence (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/26/senate-james-inhofe-snowball-climate-change).
Climate sceptics may not have won the argument about climate change, but their style of engagement with scientific fact has become the tour de force of contemporary politics. If Donald Trump were to become president I image that stepping away form the (meagre) commitments that the US has made to the global conspiracy of addressing climate change would be on his to-do list. Whilst Hillary Clinton would probably do her best to make minor commitments quietly — hardly the kind of leadership the challenge of climate change demands.
If the Global North eases off on its efforts to mitigate climate change, on balance, it will be able to cope. Money will appear for sea defences. Insurance will be placed on high value city centres. Emergency services will rescue homeowners in the case of flooding. Crops will be protected from drought. Water will be secured by any means necessary. For the Global South, the picture is bleaker. It is likely that the world poorest nations are going to be those most affected by rising sea levels, whilst average temperate increases in the tropics will raise the likelihood of extreme weather events, and prolonged drought events.
Some ideas have their time. Just as the space race was intertwined with the Cold War, perhaps our efforts to address climate change were intertwined with a certain liberal globalist attitude, which for the time being is in retreat. The tragedy of this is that whether or not we reached the moon, did not determine whether or not vulnerable segments of the global population were exposed to extreme atmospheric conditions. The real inconvenient truth is not that climate change is real, but that our efforts to address it, are too little too late, and no longer politically feasible.