Are you angry, frightened for your children’s future, and ready to take action – by which I mean the kind of collective action taken by brave protestors of all ages who are willing to risk arrest, in order to drive this subject to the top of the news agenda, where it needs to be? Or are you, on the other side of the question, in full denial that any such process is underway, and convinced that we can and should continue with business as usual, ignoring the vast scientific consensus to the contrary?
Or – and this seems the most likely option – are you pretty well aware that something disastrous is happening to our planet, and constantly plagued by a deep and sick anxiety both for the future of those who are young today, but simply unable to cope with the scale and seriousness of the crisis? This is certainly the position in which I find myself, even after years of involvement in environmental campaigns. I can think about it, but only for short periods; and it’s easier just to get on with the pressures of the day-to-day, and to cling to the vague hope that something will turn up, making the eventual outcome less grim than the science currently predicts.
All of which goes a long way to explaining the impasse that now seems to affect climate policy worldwide, even as the impacts of climate change become ever more obvious. The factors involved are both obvious and intractable. Politicians bound into four or five-year electoral cycles, and into a ruthless 24-hour news culture, find it desperately difficult to initiate large-scale social and economic change, particularly at a time of high economic stress. The Scottish Government, for instance – fast becoming a prime example of the deadlock between good intentions and everyday politics – has a climate goal of reducing car use by a modest 20 per cent by 2030; yet it may well feel that it cannot try to price people out of their cars at a time when household budgets are already under severe pressure, and when under-invested public transport often cannot provide a viable alternative.
Further, across the political spectrum in the UK, the only road out of our current economic difficulties that most politicians seem able to imagine is through a revival of economic growth, conventionally measured; no real progress has been made, it seems, in trying to redefine “growth” away from those forms of economic activity that clearly damage the planet, and threaten human well-being.
And on top of all that comes the ruthless influence-peddling of massive corporations and other wealthy actors, who promote that ideology of growth because it serves their short-term financial interests. Already this year, a report produced by Harvard University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research has revealed that the Exxon corporation’s own scientists produced highly accurate climate change predictions as long ago as the 1970s; and that nonetheless, Exxon not only continued to expand its hugely lucrative oil and gas business, but also invested heavily in organisations and individuals willing to promote the big lie that human-made climate change did not exist.
Speaking two weeks ago in Davos, the United Nations’ Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, therefore, accused “fossil fuel producers and their enablers” of “still racing to expand production, while knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival”; and he added that “this insanity belongs in science fiction, yet we know the ecosystem meltdown is cold, hard scientific fact”.
Yet still, those who try to act to end this madness are subjected to accusations that they are themselves mad. The Scottish Government, for example, is itself vulnerable to corporate lobbying and capture, notably over the inexplicably huge budgets it still dedicates to building new roads, which invariably encourage increased car use.
Yet when it recently found the courage to state the obvious – that new and vastly expensive gas and oil developments in Scotland’s waters should be ruled out in favour of investment in renewables – the Colonel Blimps of the old energy system could hardly contain their rage, rising up to insist (wrongly) that our energy systems will still need gas and oil for “decades to come”, and that failing to exploit our own fossil fuel resources, while others exploit theirs, amounts to nothing more than empty virtue-signalling.
These, in other words, are the kinds of playground-level accusations – no-one else is bothering so why should we, and renewable energy only works when the wind blows – that still beset those who try, however modestly, to shift our society towards a more sustainable system; small wonder that many scientists are now resigned to irreversible and catastrophic climate change of three degrees of warming, or more.
And our best chance of avoiding these desperate outcomes can now only lie in a better class of politics, articulated both from the bottom up and the top down, that has the courage to offer a clear positive vision of a different and more sustainable world, where people can once again envisage a positive long-term future.
Across this beautiful and still varied planet, thousands of examples already exist of better ways forward; from public transport that is a joy to use, to detailed plans to repair and reforest wrecked environments, from Africa to South America. And now, it falls unavoidably to us as citizens, as well as to the leaders we choose, to lift our eyes from the daily grind, and to think – at least sometimes – about the scale of the change through which we need to live, in order to give coming generations a habitable future, on the beautiful planet we inherited; and then to vote, campaign, act and resist, to the absolute best of our powers, until that change is finally underway.