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Why We Might Not Beat Climate Change

In an interview with Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell critiqued their guest’s rejection of economic growth. While Raworth maintains that a new model is necessary to build a sustainable eco-economic system, Stewart and Campbell argue that the idea is simply politically infeasible. Both views are right. A model along the lines of the sustainable ‘doughnut’ that Raworth advocates is necessary if we are to avert the horrifying culmination of our 200+ year industrial experiment, yet is also impossible to implement in our current political system. A candidate or party advocating for such solutions simply opens themselves up to electoral annihilation. 

Is replacement of our current political and economic model really necessary? Surely substantial progress has already been made? Case in point, the Inflation Reduction Act. Passed by the Biden administration, it was a landmark piece of legislation that transformed the American response to the climate crisis and provided a beacon of climate leadership for countries all over the world. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, has made pledges for reducing their emissions and is rapidly investing in renewables. Yet while major countries continue to talk about slashing their emissions, and endless COPs promise the final turning point for climate action, global emissions continue to rise and rise

But even the current terrifyingly threadbare climate action may not last. The impassioned prayers of climate scientists were delivered with Biden’s victory in the 2020 US election on promises of substantial climate legislation. But with Biden’s popularity flailing, and deepening polarisation meaning that the Republicans are intransigent in their denial of climate change while the world burns, any GOP victory will lead the world’s largest democracy in a fossil fuel boom that will guarantee that any chance the human race has to avoid the worst is snuffed out. In Britain, the ruling Conservative Party, for example, set out the goal of net zero by 2050, including a provision for no new petrol or diesel cars to be sold by 2030, yet already the influence of pressure groups and right-wing outriders occupying the climate sceptic policy space have led the Conservatives to weaken their goals. Across Europe, right-wing parties are leading a backlash to green policies that threatens to undermine EU emissions targets. 

Therefore, consider this thesis: the Western economic and political system is patently unable to accommodate the complete transformation that adapting to climate change would require, having developed through the industrial revolution and the use of fossil fuels. The consumption of fossil fuels, which is destroying the environment, is also baked into national and global systems of governance. Campbell and Stewart both made this connection, the former referencing a ‘gulf’ between what needs to happen and ‘the political realities in democracies’. An increasingly apparent pattern is that the necessarily radical climate policies prove politically unpalatable, or that their cost is exploited by ideologues and cynical opportunists alike for electoral gain. Infrastructure projects like implementing renewable energy generation are hugely expensive and are scrapped or shrunk by recession-hit treasuries. Attempts to curb individual emissions like 15-minute cities are portrayed as attacks on individual liberties (obscuring real problems to be solved like their effect on low-income families). Degrowth and similar ideas are seen as simply further impoverishing already impoverished working people, and thus lie beyond the political pale. These are all changes that we need if we are to stand a chance against climate breakdown, yet are all changes that are unthinkable.

Of course, Western democracies are not the world. But the West clearly has an urgent duty to reduce emissions, due to having both some of the world’s highest per-capita emissions and because of the historical contribution to climate change. Cynical electioneering may lead liberal democracies to abandon their efforts to tackle climate change, a death sentence for any hope of meaningful and direly needed global action. The complex systems sustaining human civilisation cannot withstand the radical transformation that climate change will bring (see the paper by Steffen, Will et al. ‘Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS 115.33 [2018], which explains the multiplicity of earth-systemic tipping points that, once reached, further accelerate climate breakdown in a feedback loop).The current equilibrium of the Earth system is at breaking point and yet global political leaders delay, ignore and frustrate the action that is necessary. We need political actors to overturn the same system that has installed them in the first place.

I would strenuously clarify that I do not have a vision of an alternative political system, and I certainly do not believe in an ‘eco-dictatorship’. I strongly and passionately believe in my country’s system of liberal democracy yet it may be totally unsuited to our era of entirely unprecedented and existential crisis. The truth is that I don’t know the answer. I can offer a diagnosis but I am at a loss for a treatment. The only rational response to this two-headed paradox may be doomerism, an acceptance of the inevitable entailing giving up any attempt to stop runaway climate change. But this, too, is surely the wrong answer. It is our duty to not only the rest of humanity, but our descendants, and our forebears, to do everything in our power to preserve the Earth system that has fostered our species. If there is even the smallest, barest chance that we might yet save these things, then we must try. 

Image Credit: US Government/CC 1.0 Deed

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