Climate change: When people are struggling to breathe, it’s time to get serious – Joyce McMillan

A demonstrator makes a point at a climate protest rally in Sydney on Wednesday as bushfire smoke chokes the city, causing health problems to spike. (Picture: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)
A demonstrator makes a point at a climate protest rally in Sydney on Wednesday as bushfire smoke chokes the city, causing health problems to spike. (Picture: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)
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This should have been the climate change election, but it was dominated by Johnson’s buffoonery, writes Joyce McMillan.

It was a few days ago that the smoke first seeped onto my timeline. A friend’s son, now living in Sydney, posted two pictures of the same view, taken a year apart; one the classic image of Australian blue skies and sunshine, the other of a dingy grey-yellow sky thick with smoke from the bush fires now raging across New South Wales. More images followed; and then a Sydney Morning Herald opinion column by Mark Mordue, opening with the words, “I can’t breathe.” Mordue goes on to explain that this is because he is mildly asthmatic; but with smoke pollution in Sydney running earlier this week at 22 times recommended safe levels, every citizen’s health will suffer, in the longer or shorter term.

Sydney is not, of course, the first city to suffer an extreme air pollution crisis. Yet there is a categorical difference between pollution crises caused by preventable local production of toxic gases – coal burning in mid-20th-century London, vehicle exhaust in present-day Delhi and Beijing – and pollution crises caused by the runaway burning of forests dried out through prolonged drought. This kind of pollution – also experienced recently in Brazil and California – is directly related to climate change that can only be tackled at planetary level, if at all; and is therefore a whole order of magnitude more frightening and apocalyptic.

READ MORE: What Greenland’s rapidly melting ice sheet means for the planet

READ MORE: Climate change: Scotland taking a lead as ‘shameful’ Boris Johnson dodges debate – Angus Robertson

The truth is that this is how parts of the planet gradually become uninhabitable or uninhabited, as people with the means to move start to calculate that the chances of disaster – fire in California, unbreathable air in Sydney – are simply becoming too high, and not worth the risk. And although northern Europe is less of a front-line climate change region than some others, it lies close to a melting Arctic that – as scientists pointed out again this week – is now losing ice seven times faster than 20 years ago; with consequences for our weather and food supply systems that we can barely begin to predict, but which are already threatening some of Scotland’s best-loved wildlife and plant species.

Labour’s Green New Deal

So it’s perhaps not surprising that there was a time, a few weeks ago, when it seemed that this current general election in the UK might truly be the “climate change election”. Public concern about the climate crisis is at an all-time high, and Greta Thunberg – the 16-year-old voice of the generation with most to lose from catastrophic climate change – has become one of our first truly global politicians, this week scooping the title of Time Magazine person of the year. Governments across the world, including the Scottish Government, have declared “climate emergencies”; and Channel 4 for the first time organised a leaders’ election debate on the issue, while Labour became the first of the UK’s major parties to deliver a manifesto predicated on the urgent need for a “Green New Deal”.

That the election debate finally focussed so little on climate change therefore represents a serious indictment both of most politicians, and of our dominant media, which – for example – allowed Michael Gove’s infantile stunt of turning up to take part in the Channel 4 event to dominate coverage of it. So on this day, as the result of the election becomes known, it is perhaps worth reflecting for a moment on the issues we would have been talking about, if this had really been a “climate change election”. Here in Scotland, for example, we would have been debating how a government which says it wants to achieve net-zero emissions in the next 25 years, as part of a global effort to do the same, can believe that that is compatible with the continuing long-term extraction of oil from the North Sea and other Scottish waters.

We would also, at Scottish level, have been wiring into the question of how to win our upland territory back from its current dominant use by sporting estates, to re-forest it, and to restore its carbon-storing peat wetlands. And we might also be tackling the matter of the Scottish Government’s massive roads budget, at a time when new road construction should be ending, in favour of a massive transfer of funds to active and public transport. Essentially, the Scottish Government talks a magnificent game on climate change, and has some excellent policies and targets in place. But in these three key areas, and more, it still often fails to join the dots between principle, policy and practice.

Johnson’s buffoonery

Then at a wider level, across the whole of the West, we should be discussing not whether but when we enact legislation to ban the use of internal combustion engines and enforce a switch to electric vehicles, to end the production of single-use plastic, to replace all of our domestic carbon heating systems – that’s your gas boiler, and mine – and to ensure that the aviation industry begins to plummet in size, as flights beyond the compass of electric engines are strictly rationed.

The problem with this list, of course – and all the rest that would be required, to restabilise our climate – is that it involves constant confrontation with huge vested economic interests; that’s why Conservatives, and parties that like to see themselves as “moderate”, have little stomach for it. The attraction of this list, though is that it offers a way through this pinch-point in human history to a sustainable future; and perhaps also to a better and more balanced world for those of us who have, until now, been living the growth-addicted madness of the western consumer dream.

What we needed in this winter of 2019, in other words, was an election focussed entirely on this challenge, and on how we begin to meet it; what we had, perhaps tragically, was an election dominated by debate about the character, cowardice and general buffoonery of Boris Johnson. And all we can do now is pray that the result, however it falls out, acts as a catalyst for the change we urgently need; either in fierce resistance to a government incapable of embracing it, or in co-operation with a government that faces up to the frightening reality of a world in crisis, and begins to move, at last, in the right direction.