THERE IS NO PLANET B: PART ONE
On March 15 an estimated 1.5 million schoolchildren in over 100 countries worldwide demonstrated to demand government action to combat global warming. It’s easy to be cynical. While the turnout was impressive and a mass movement appears to be developing, it could be dismissed as predominantly a middle class and First World phenomenon. Which it is. Yet in so far as it represents doing something as opposed to nothing on an issue of universal concern, it surely merits approval.
The schoolchildren’s movement grew out of a “Climate Strike” around the opening of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, and focussed initially on the three aims of clean energy, keeping fossil fuels in the ground and helping climate refugees. It went viral last year partly inspired by Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, who went “on strike” from school last autumn, has maintained a high profile since and told world leaders at Davos in January “We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility.” Ms Thunberg, (sixteen on January 3) has now been nominated for the Nobel peace Prize.
On March 1 the Guardian published an open letter, in advance of the demonstrations, attacking politicians for failing to address climate change, and claiming that the young (50% plus of the global population) were “not included in the local and global decision-making process.” The piece continued “We, the young, have started to move. We are going to change the fate of humanity, whether you like it or not. United we will rise until we see climate justice. We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis.” Stirring and idealistic words. Whether they will prove effective in pressurising governments worldwide to take decisive action is another matter.
It’s not as if the issue is unimportant. With the exception of Trump and fellow flat-earthers who deny the reality, and the wealthy and influential lobbies and oil producers which benefit and profit from the current situation, there is virtual consensus among scientists on the clear and soon-to-be present danger to humanity global warming poses, with only a limited number of years left to take effective remedial action. There seems little doubt that the tipping point for irreversible damage to the Earth’s environment IS fast approaching, certainly by 2100 and probably well before. Indeed last October a UN body – the IPCC – suggested as desirable limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees rather than the more modest two degrees advocated by the 2015 Paris Conference, with a deadline of 2030 for action to achieve this.
Ruling elites do tend to take action in respond to pressure, and constant lobbying from a variety of environmental groups, including Thunberg’s supporters, may prove instrumental eventually in securing meaningful action. But getting political leaders to focus on the future threat to the environment in the face of current pressures and demands is never easy. Faced with an immediate domestic, social or economic crisis, what MIGHT happen several decades later will not get priority. Any change will come slowly, episodically and incrementally. That is the way government policy normally evolves.
In political terms moreover the issue is one to which two quotations apply. First, the “Juncker Curse.” The current President of the EC and former Prime Minister of Luxembourg famously remarked in 2007 that “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.” He was speaking of economic reform but the remarks can be applied with a vengeance to taking effective action on global warming. Equally pertinent is Keynes’ dictum that “in the long run we are all dead,” a quotation famously modified by Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s close advisers in 1933. Responding to a Senator’s remark criticising New Deal relief programs that “the economy will work itself out in the long run.” Hopkins retorted “People don’t eat in the long run Senator, they eat every day.” And that, ceteris paribus, is the rub. Politicians will – indeed must – respond to present pressures.
The simple truth is that the short term effective action of the type required and being advocated by the environmental lobbies would involve such fundamental alterations in the lifestyle of the populations of the First World and the affluent classes elsewhere that consumer resistance would be such as to delay, water down and postpone the measures advocated. Pain today for the benefit of future generations does not entice. While some actions have already been taken and ambitious plans are being talked up in various capitals, how much, how painful and over what time frame effective measures will be enacted are very much open questions. Factor in the pressures imposed by democratic elections, the siren sounds of populism (Trump’s election an ominous example), and the eagerness of politicians to avoid harsh decisions and pander to the aspirations, ambitions and demands of their supporters, and actions on global warming are likely to be limited and dictated by available resources, whatever the rhetoric politicians spout.
Even the EC, which has been to the fore in setting ambitious and legally binding targets for cutting greenhouse gases by 2020 and by more in 2030, is experiencing consumer resistance.. The rioting in France in recent months was sparked initially by dissatisfaction among rural dwellers at hikes in gasoline prices introduced specifically to meet national environmental targets, while, even closer to home, the Irish government, facing similar rural opposition, had to jettison plans last October for gasoline hikes and carbon tax increases only weeks after Taoiseach Varadkar had announced them. They are to be applied in next October’s budget. We shall see, given the possible effects of Brexit and a pending general election.
The fatal flaw in the ambitious cuts in harmful emissions the international community signed up to under the Paris Agreement of 2015 is that the cuts will be voluntary, with no mechanism to ensure compliance. The Agreement itself suffered an early body blow when Trump announced that the USA, the world’s second largest polluter, would pull out in 2020. And anyone who googles the targets countries have pledged will find that many of the so called pledges have the caveat that they will be dependent on international assistance, i.e. that they will be funded whole or in part by wealthier countries.
And here’s the other rub. Central to the climate debate – and one that has raised temperatures (ouch!) – has been the notion of Climate Justice. In summary the attitude of the less well-off countries, however defined, is one of righteous indignation and a demand that, morally, the countries of the first world, which, having industrialised earlier, caused or initiated the problem, must therefore shoulder the blame, bear much of the burden of adjustment, compensate, assist and make allowances for the less well-off to catch up. Not an easy one, on any front. Perhaps Greta and her supporters born since 2000 might reflect also on the fact that, since 2000, the world’s population has increased by nearly 25%, from 6,145,006,969 to 7,632,819,325 in 2018, an increase of almost 1.5 billion souls. Something surely has got to give! No Planet B; indeed!