Climate change: If we fail to act, we already know what will happen – Joyce McMillan

In northern Mozambique, people used to living in stable climatic conditions suddenly find themselves facing a drowned and devastated world in a warning about the dangers of climate change, urges Joyce McMillan.

Search on the internet for the city of Pemba in northern Mozambique, and you’ll see pictures of a beautiful, palm-fringed seaside city marketing itself as a holiday resort; a place of pools, beaches, and luxury hotels, with a nearby national park.

From this week, though, no more; for the city of Pemba has now been devastated by cyclone Kenneth, the second massive storm to hit East Africa in two months, demolishing buildings with hurricane-force winds and waves, and then – like recent cyclones in the United States – lingering for days, pouring further heavy rain onto an already inundated landscape. Cyclone Idai, which made landfall in mid-March, was the largest tropical storm ever seen on this coast; Kenneth, striking further north, is the first such storm seen in that area since records began.

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It is still easy, of course, for us in Europe to hold these distant horrors at arm’s length. Climate experts seem agreed, though, that what we are seeing in eastern Africa is not chance, but climate change in action, an inevitable consequence of the rapid warming of the western Indian Ocean; and the whole spectacle offers just one more reason for voters to welcome the various declarations of climate change emergency that have suddenly become all the rage among our politicians. The words are cheap, no doubt; but the idea that klaxons are sounding, and that urgent radical action is necessary, seems at last to be entering our mainstream political consciousness.

A little girl stands on the porch of her house in Pemba as Cyclone Kenneth hits and heavy rains batter northern Mozambique (Picture: Emidio Jozine/AFP/Getty Images)A little girl stands on the porch of her house in Pemba as Cyclone Kenneth hits and heavy rains batter northern Mozambique (Picture: Emidio Jozine/AFP/Getty Images)
A little girl stands on the porch of her house in Pemba as Cyclone Kenneth hits and heavy rains batter northern Mozambique (Picture: Emidio Jozine/AFP/Getty Images)

There is another reason, too, for welcoming these declarations; in that they perhaps signal that the debate on our environmental future is finally moving on from a long 30-year period when it seemed that governments would not act decisively to save our environment, and that climate-conscious consumers would therefore have to do it for themselves. Ride a bike, don’t drive, eat less or no meat, take fewer flights, avoid single-use plastic and disposable nappies; in no time at all, the business of saving the planet became indelibly linked in the public mind with a litany of self-denial that reflected one of the traditional battle-lines of British politics, between puritanical and moralistic Roundheads on one side, and laughing, reckless Cavaliers – the Jeremy Clarkson tendency, if you like – on the other.

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It was a development that made it easy for everyone of conservative mind to dismiss the idea of climate change prevention as just another load of joyless, hair-shirt wearing nonsense from the puritanical left; it also helped to make high-profile climate activists into sitting ducks for accusations of hypocrisy, as if our fate depended on Emma Thompson taking a slow boat home from Los Angeles. And it drove – and still drives – many decent citizens to distraction, as they try to do their individual bit in a society still absolutely structured around the assumption that massive consumption of fossil fuels and plastics is the norm, as is never-ending material economic growth.

Well, enough of that; for if one thing is certain, it’s that all the individual guilt-tripping and hand-wringing around these issues has been as much of a waste of time as the ignorant haw-hawing of those in climate denial. Now, we are beginning to glimpse the reality; that it is up to governments at all levels to begin to prohibit and phase out all those economic activities which are destroying our global environment, from deforestation to the continuing extraction of fossil fuels, and to ensure the development of sustainable alternatives, preferably well ahead of the UN zero-carbon target of 2050. Some climate activists believe that this shift can only be achieved through the destruction of capitalism itself, and a move to a wartime-style command economy. The truth is, though, that some forward-looking companies and corporations are already well ahead of climate-denying governments in developing sustainable alternatives; and many of the wise men and women of global finance are already flagging up the need for a huge shift in investment patterns, to finance the necessary transformation.

If a confrontation is necessary, in other words, it will come on two fronts. First, the world will need to see the back of the dogmatic and destructive market fundamentalism that has dominated elite thinking for the last 40 years. It has already done untold harm to people and the planet; and it has no place in a world where corporations will increasingly have to operate within a rule of law designed to ensure that the natural environment on which we depend is not devastated within decades.

And then, of course, there is the fight for the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens, who – if the necessary action is taken – will soon find themselves beginning to live through the end of the age of unlimited growth, of the internal combustion engine, of daily meat-eating, and of ever more frequent flying. We will have tools for conviviality to help us through, of course, from the much-maligned internet, to the growing recognition across the west of the role of the arts, creativity, lifelong education and active leisure in generating rich lives without massive material consumption.

We will also, though, need a historic strengthening of social support – including a possible basic citizen income – to see individuals and communities through the massive transition from high to low-or-no carbon, from jobs that involve driving miles to service a rampant and wasteful consumer economy, to jobs that involve creating a new sustainable local infrastructure in food, housing and energy.

And if all of this purposeful, positive change seems unlikely at this moment of paralysis in British politics, then just look for a moment at the alternative if we do not act. Look at the faces of those caught up in the current emergency in northern Mozambique, and at the utter shock of people used to living in stable climatic conditions, who suddenly find themselves facing a drowned and devastated world. And remember that in coming decades, those could be the faces of parents, children and grandchildren here in these islands; facing a world of climate chaos in which, to quote one journalist reporting from Mozambique this week, “normal has been swept away, perhaps for ever”.