Ed Miliband of the UK Labour party opines in the Guardian that Our biggest enemy is no longer climate denial but climate delay. Is this mere partisan political hackery, or does he have something to say.
Future generations will look back on the climate events of 2021 and say: “That was the year they ran out of excuses.”
Politicians never seem to run out of excuses.
Heatwaves and flooding here in the UK, temperatures topping 50C in Pakistan, hundreds killed by a heatwave in British Columbia, deadly floods in Germany and China. All within a single month. Add to that the recent dire warning from the Met Office that the age of extreme weather has just begun.
See my post Is Our Heatwave a Sign of the End Times?
The wake-up call that this offers is not just the obvious one: that climate breakdown is already here. It also illustrates that we, in this generation, are in a unique position in the history of this crisis. Climate breakdown can no longer be plausibly denied as a threat etched only in the future. And all too soon, avoiding it may be a luxury lost to the past. The window to avoid catastrophe is closing with every passing day. We’re in the decisive decade in this fight, and we must treat the climate crisis as an issue that stands alone in the combination of its urgency and the shadow it casts over future generations.
Miliband falls into the sad trend of ever escalating rhetoric. First, it was the greenhouse effect, then global warming, climate change, climate crisis, global heating, climate emergency, and now climate breakdown. I wouldn’t call the extreme weather we’re seeing a breakdown, in the sense hitting a tipping point that caused the polar ice caps to melt would be. It is evidence of climate change, and has led to short term emergencies, but I would not call it a crisis either. To call it one and insist on the urgency of the issue, when we are dealing with truly urgent issues in the coronavirus and the economic fallout of the epidemic is to risk triggering apathy in people who are tired of being told what to do by politicians.
The actions we take defy the normal rhythm of political cycles. What we do in the next few years will have effects for hundreds of years to come. Unless the world cuts emissions in half in this decade, we will probably lose the chance to avoid warming of significantly more than the 1.5C set out in the 2015 Paris accord. We have seen the catastrophic effects of a world warmed by just 1.2C. What happens if we get to 2.5 or 3C? By then, we’ll look back at recent summers as not the hottest we’ve ever had but, in all likelihood, the coolest we will ever have again.
I don’t disagree that what we’re doing will alter the climate, though it’s likely to be a meaningless change in geological terms. Doing what we can to make that impact as small as possible makes sense. Politicians, like most people, are terrible at balancing long term costs with short term costs.
In software development, we have the concept of “technical debt”. If you put off work on maintainability, test automation, and scaleability for too long, while you continually implement features that bring in short term revenue, your code base becomes increasingly expensive to modify, and often, a competitor will come along who is able to deliver more quickly than you. The only way to deal with this is to spend time doing the work you know is important but not urgent, before it becomes a problem that’s too big to deal with.
The accompanying truth is that our biggest enemy is no longer climate denial but climate delay. The most dangerous opponents of change are no longer the shrinking minority who deny the need for action, but the supposed supporters of change who refuse to act at the pace the science demands. As Bill McKibben, environmentalist and climate scholar, says on climate: “Winning slowly is the same as losing.”
Climate delay is climate denial. You judge people by their actions, not their talk. If you really want to meet the goals of the Paris accord, all countries need to do their part. There will be things that we have to make slow, steady progress on, like replacing coal and gas fired electrical generation with hydro, nuclear, or solar/wind with storage. There will be things that seem to go nowhere, like electric vehicles, but then will hopefully reach a tipping point when their cost is reduced enough and the new infrastructure they require is common enough, and will rapidly replace the status quo.
The UK government is a case in point. There is a chasm between the boosterish rhetoric of the Johnson government and the reality. We are way off meeting our climate targets, which are themselves insufficiently ambitious, graded “somewhere below” four out of 10 for delivery by the Climate Change Committee. Nothing is more dangerous than the mirage of action shrouding the truth of inaction, because it breeds either false confidence that we will be OK or cynicism and despair about meaningless political promises.
I’m always cynical of government.
But why are they failing? Above all, because of a dogged refusal to put government investment at scale behind a green recovery. The more government refuses to provide that proper plan and finance, the harder the decisions on boilers, cars and industrial transition become. A government that absents its responsibility for making these transitions is a government that will fail to make them happen.
Before you invest, you need to have a plan that will work. I’ve yet to see one. Carbon taxes are not a strategy.
This is not simply failing to protect us from the biggest long-term threat we face; it’s economically illiterate too.
A government that admits it is unable to predict the economic outcomes is better than one that thinks it’s ‘economically literate’ but isn’t.
The case for investing now is not just clear as a question of intergenerational equity, it’s also the only conclusion to draw from a hard-headed fiscal analysis of the costs and benefits. The Office for Budget Responsibility tells us that the costs of acting early are surprisingly small relative to our national income – in the central scenario, an average annual investment in net terms of just 0.4% of GDP between now and 2050.
Investing in what? Nuclear, hydro, or solar/wind power? Rapid transit? State run charging infrastructure for electric vehicles? Or are you talking about giving money that you take from the citizens to incentivize them to manufacture electric vehicles, retrofit old buildings, and the like?
Meanwhile, we know that inaction is entirely unaffordable, leaving massive costs of climate damage racked up and left for future generations. The OBR also tells us that delay will significantly raise the cost of action, in part because we are baking high carbon into our infrastructure. We will have to make the transition at some point; failing to act now will betray our children and grandchildren and will just end up costing more.
We are making the transition now. It will take time. Government spending may be able to help speed it up, but it can also increase the tax burden on the poor. I don’t trust government to spend my money wisely.
We should act now not just because we must avoid future generations living in a disaster movie but because rewriting the script can produce a better world. Rapid decarbonisation is the imperative, but we can do so in a way that fixes the inequalities that exist in our current economic system. This is the promise of the Green New Deal – that this transformative programme of investment can also generate good jobs, help existing industries transition and create new ones, ensure warmer homes, cleaner air, and a lasting shift in wealth and power across our country. This is the vision we must fight for.
Of the five objectives of the UK’s “Green New Deal”:
- Decarbonise the UK
- Create secure jobs
- Transform the economy so that government is accountable to people, not corporations
- Protect and restore vital habitats and carbon sinks
- Promote global justice
only two are directly related to climate change: decarbonization and protecting and restoring carbon sinks. Creating secure jobs, transforming the economy, and promoting global justice are all Labour party platforms. The referenced website has no concrete proposals for how any of these will be achieved. This seems like a political promotion of the Labour party, not a serious plan.
Particularly, in this year of all years, what we do here at home has real impacts around the world. If other governments believe that a country that has led the way on climate is full of hot air, it simply undermines trust and lets the big polluters off the hook. In the less than 100 days left to COP26, the prime minister must finally wake up to the fact that this is not a glorified international photo opportunity but a complex and fragile negotiation where he must deliver at home and engage in the hard yards of diplomacy.
Johnson was elected because working people in Britain were fed up with the unelected dictates of the European Union. Neither his traditional Conservative base nor his new found supporters in the working class industrial north are going to applaud him making further commitments that will hurt British business.
Just over 50 years ago, Martin Luther King said of the fight for racial and economic justice: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In the unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.” As the generation that stands astride the causes and consequences of this climate emergency, we must take heed of those words.
If you want to make real change, you need to stop hyping up your rhetoric, make simple tactical plans, rather than invoking the need for ‘global justice’ and reforming the financial system, and stop advocating government taxation and spending as ‘solutions’. Based on the UK Green New Deal, it looks like the UK Labour party is using the ‘climate breakdown’ as a fear tactic to gain votes for their agenda. This makes it hard to believe that they truly believe that climate change is a crisis.