WORLD leaders must do more than simply pontificate in Paris if we are to save the planet, writes Joyce McMillan
It’s just one online report on this week’s huge climate change conference in Paris, universally known as COP21; but the headline seems to sum up the whole strange event, with its fine words, and conspicuous lack of guaranteed action. “No-one here believes this deal will save the world,” it says, before going on to outline a few positive outcomes.
Yet in truth, since “saving the world” from a catastrophic global warming of more than two degrees was precisely the aim and remit of the conference, the fact that it has not agreed the necessary rapid and enforceable decline in carbon emissions means that it has failed, in a way that may have horrifying consequences for future generations.
When it comes to the politics of climate change, though, contradictions on this scale are the name of the game. During the Paris conference itself, David Cameron was to be heard boasting of the British government’s green credentials, while at the same time, back home, drastically reducing government support for the development of renewable energy. Major oil companies declared themselves all signed up to the 2 per cent global warming target, but in private admitted that if that target was to be reached, most of the untapped oil assets they own would have to stay in the ground, with catastrophic consequences for the shareholder value on which their business plans depend.
And here in Scotland – well, our own government is no slouch in the contradiction business, as the First Minister takes the train to Paris to talk a brilliant game at COP21 on her government’s ambitious carbon reduction targets, greatly enhancing Scotland’s “green” image abroad, but comes home to reply only with evasions to a well-phrased question from Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm about the likely environmental impact of the government’s planned reduction in air passenger duty. And she goes on to talk both of the importance of continuing economic growth, and also of the absolutely vital importance not only of speedily re-opening the stress-fractured 50-year-old Forth Road Bridge that has become the defining symbol of Scotland’s current over-dependence on road transport, but also of opening the Scottish Government’s second Forth road crossing, itself once opposed by Green groups on the very reasonable grounds that whatever Scotland’s long-term sustainable transport future involves, it cannot be ever-rising volumes of road traffic, with ever more roads and bridges built to accommodate it.
As many leading Green campaigners have noted, though, when it comes to climate change, “cognitive dissonance” is still the norm, as governments and corporations increasingly recognise the reality of the phenomenon, but remain locked into systems that prevent them from dealing with it. There are still deniers around, of course. Yet this week, even Dame Julia Slingo, the chief scientist at the UK’s famously cautious Meteorological Office, confirmed on BBC radio that it was likely that climate change was causing Britain’s usual westerly winter weather to produce much higher rainfalls than in the past, sometimes by a factor of six or seven; and that will not come as news in parts of Cumbria and the Borders, where more than half of Edinburgh’s annual 26-inch rainfall fell in a single night last weekend.
It seems obvious, in other words, that we urgently need to break this climate Catch-22 between understanding and action; the trouble is that every aspect of our current politics seems designed to make it ferociously difficult for governments to escape from this trap. In the first place, our governments are all but lobbied to a standstill by big energy and other corporations which may talk the talk of environmental responsibility in public, but which tend privately to oppose most of the practical measures that might actually place a higher price on the environmental resources they use, or destroy.
Then secondly, our electorates have themselves, a bit like the Forth Road Bridge, been robbed of resilience and flexibility by decades of corrosion of the public sphere, and deliberate reduction of the public investment that cushions people through rapid social change. In an age of institutionalised pay-cheque anxiety, where housing is expensive and employment insecure, most people are fearful of any change that might push their precarious finances off the rails, and inclined to vote for short-term stability, whatever the eventual cost.
And then finally, there is the growing structural weakness of our governments, which renders them unable to resist the huge lobbying and popular pressures they face, even when it is clearly their duty to do so. It is no accident that the most rapid growth in renewable energy on the planet is taking place in China, where the government, once convinced of the need for a certain course of action, can simply go ahead.
And if democratic governments are to recover the power to deal with this crisis, then one thing that must stop, and stop now, is the reckless drive to reduce the size and power of the state still being touted by orthodox neoliberals across Europe, and driven in the UK by George Osborne’s frightening determination to reduce the British state to a pre-war level of 36 per cent of GDP.
Every statistic available suggests that the best-performing nations on earth, in terms of both human development and GDP per head, have public sectors that account for around 45-50 per cent of their economy; that balance enables the support of the kind of infrastructure a modern state needs, and makes space for innovation in public policy, whereas the Osborne route only leads to growing inequality and public squalor, and a paralysing politics of fear.
What’s needed now, and urgently, is a Europe-wide and global alliance of those politicians and parties, campaigners and enlightened business leaders, who want to call a halt to this age of destruction in the public sphere, and to empower governments to take the steps all speakers in Paris now agree are urgently needed. And if anything useful comes out of this week’s Paris talks, then it might be that: a growing recognition that when it comes to climate change, we are all in the same sinking ship, and that if we don’t rapidly strengthen our collective and public capacity for decisive action, it may soon – and finally – be too late to bale ourselves out.