How climate change could be a spark to create a better world

By Zoe Williams

One great taboo in the climate change debate is how much has improved over the past three decades: in public perception; in transnational consensus and determination; in scientific understanding and discovery. To stress these things seems to ignore the urgency of the situation, minimise the scale of the potential disaster, and let the air out of tyres that really need to be at their most pneumatic.

As climate scientists “ politely urge, ‘act now, idiots’”, (as the life-affirming BBC news story has it) the last thing we should do is congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come. The fact that global warming has gone from something routinely dismissed as the dreamchild of cranks to the animating campaign issue of the age, over roughly the same period as we’ve forgotten all kinds of other basics of progressive politics – how to argue for universal human rights, for example – is at best a diversion, at worst a bromide.

Nevertheless, environmentalism, while it distils everything woeful about the human condition – its short-termism, self-interest, the multiple impediments to cooperation and creativity – also contains the seed of transcendent hope. Both in what it has already achieved – the discoveries it has spurred, the alliances it has fostered – and what it can achieve in the future, including, but not limited to, saving the planet.

Donald Trump inhabits the White House and Brazil is shortly likely to elect another climate change denier to its highest office. The International Panel on Climate Change on Monday had to make the same dire warnings about a 1.5C warming limit that we’ve been signed up to since the Paris agreement of 2015 – and done nothing to achieve. A decade ago it was routine to take personal responsibility for climate change, foreswearing air travel and conserving water. This seems to have dissipated, replaced by a commitment to transnational action that is often discussed but doesn’t materialise.

There are sound reasons to despair, and there may even be a grim comfort in letting the waters close over our heads, at least until those waters become literal. Yet these setbacks are entirely commensurate with what we know of politics: rail against them, sure, but don’t allow them to eclipse the benefits of the radical change the climate demands.

In Britain, 27% of all our emissions come from poor housing stock. Were we to undertake a mass programme of housebuilding, creating homes that were carbon-neutral, while retrofitting existing stock, the impact would be immediate and substantial, and would echo into every area of our lives. There is no longer any serious doubt that more homes are needed: you cannot lock a third of a generation out of owning property and expect that situation to sustain itself indefinitely, the young effectively working in bonded servitude to the old.

Imagine if we could overhaul this market in a way that met our obligations to the future, as well as making people’s lives more liveable in the present, and energy bills a thing of the past. A programme so bold needs an unarguable political imperative – the last time we imagined such a thing, it was because of the nation’s obligation to its returning war heroes. Climate change presents an even stronger case, and it’s a challenge that history shows us we can meet. To the charge that we could never afford it, the argument that we can’t afford not to is true but insufficient. Capital needs this at least as much as people do: the drive to divest from fossil fuels is based on the real and fast-approaching danger that assets will become worthless as we commit to leaving them in the ground. Investing in social housing would be far more prudent.

In the US, meanwhile, they use 18m barrels of oil a day just in their cars, which they could drastically reduce by making cars lighter, electric and, ultimately, solar-powered. There is no shortage of innovation in this field, no lack of ambition. Nobody, post-Tesla, would argue that a petrol-powered car was preferable to an electric one. The challenge now is to bring the cost down. Nowhere are the interests of the environment and the simple aim of improving lives more closely aligned.

In Europe and across the world, renewable energy trounces its carbon competitors. The potential here is not just to make whole continents carbon-neutral within our lifetimes, it is also to foster a profound shared purpose across borders, as the sheer surfeit of sun in some countries, and wind in others, urges forth the infrastructure for sharing resources via, for example, a European supergrid. Not since the last century’s fight against fascism has there been a more legitimate and animating case for transnational cooperation.

The battle against climate change can do more than render other political divisions trivial: its solutions have long-term ramifications for all the other crises our vexed democracies are throwing up, from the cost-of-living crisis to inequality, from insecurity to conflict. All those ramifications are good: so yes, we should hurry, before it is too late. But more importantly, we should hurry, because what comes next will be better.

This article provided by NewsEdge.