Joyce McMillan: Why politicians are failing to tackle climate change

A house smashed by a fallen tree after Hurricane Michael blew through Columbia, South Carolina (Picture: Sean Rayford/Getty)
A house smashed by a fallen tree after Hurricane Michael blew through Columbia, South Carolina (Picture: Sean Rayford/Getty)
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The growing problems being caused by global warming show the need to curb our elaborate Western lifestyles, but politicians can’t seem to stop talking about economic growth in old-fashioned material terms, writes Joyce McMillan

It has been a bad week for those who hope – or ardently believe – that climate breakdown caused by human activity is not really happening. Just a month after hurricane Florence administered a savage battering to the coast and inland areas of North Carolina, hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida panhandle on Tuesday, while in north-east India, 300,000 people have been evacuated from their homes in Odisha state because of a massive approaching cyclone. Ten people died in Majorca after unusually intense October rainstorms swept the western Mediterranean.

And here in Scotland, we are bracing ourselves again, just three weeks after storm Ali, for a new storm called Callum, which is expected to wreak some havoc down the western side of the country today. And comfort ourselves as we may with tales of dramatic weather events gone by, and of humanity’s perpetual tendency to imagine that the world is coming to an end, the story told by climate science, and emphatically repeated in this week’s latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is implacable, and profoundly alarming. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warms the planet, and we have been pumping out Co2 at unprecedented rates for almost two centuries now, creating a rapid change in the Earth’s fine climate balance which is evident in recent disrupted weather patterns, and will soon reach a level that our familiar ecosphere cannot withstand.

READ MORE: Ruth Davidson: Real Conservatives fight climate change

So if we set the natural impulse of denial to one side for a moment – along with the politically motivated denial of right-wing environment-wreckers like Donald Trump – and accept that the IPCC’s dire predictions are accurate, what should we be doing to try to stabilise our climate? The answer, according to the IPCC, is simple. We need to stop using carbon-based fuels almost entirely over the next generation, and drastically reduce their consumption within the next 12 years; otherwise global warming will rise beyond 1.5 degrees centigrade, setting in motion feedback mechanisms that will lead to runaway change.

Nor are we short of technologies which can replace fossil fuels; it has been repeatedly demonstrated that we now have the ability to supply all the energy needs of the current global human population from solar and wind power alone. The forces stopping our rapid transition to a low-carbon and no-carbon economy are not technical or practical, in other words; they are psychological, and profoundly political.

And this is where the story becomes interesting, although not less frightening; for the truth is that even those governments which are fully signed up to the carbon reduction are still not moving at anything like the necessary pace. The Scottish Government, for example, is something of an international poster-child in tackling climate change, praised by the UN as “exemplary” in its approach to carbon reduction.

READ MORE: Lesley Riddoch: Scotland can lead the way on climate change if it acts now

Yet while Nicola Sturgeon once again trumpeted Scotland’s environmental credentials in her SNP conference speech on Tuesday – and while Scotland is undoubtedly one of the nations on Earth best placed to move rapidly to an economy based on renewable energy – she devoted only three lines of her 50-minute speech to the subject, and simply avoided any mention of what Scotland would actually have to do, in order to meet the IPCC’s climate schedule.

And this, as she has occasionally acknowledged herself, is because almost all of the easy, low-hanging fruit in carbon reduction has gone, with the closure of old coal-fired power stations. This week, a powerful report from the London-based Carbon Disclosure Project argued that just 100 large transnational corporations are now responsible for 71 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions; and that suggests that we are now entering a time-frame where saving the planet is no longer about individuals making tiny voluntary lifestyle changes, but about massive co-ordinated government action to confront those corporations, and to restructure our society so that climate-wrecking lifestyles are simply no longer available.

And of course, it is extremely unlikely that any government seriously seeking re-election will walk into the political hurricane involved in that task. Challenge Western voters’ right to drive around at will, or to eat a diet of meaty junk-burgers if they choose, and you run the risk of simply handing their vote to the next opportunistic climate-change denying populist. And any government that commits to confronting major corporations about their role in climate breakdown will not only risk a serious loss of investment and jobs, but will also be challenging more than a generation of dogmatic belief, across the West, that business knows better than government, and that the way to a bright future for us all is for government to stand clear, and leave corporations and consumers to get on with it.

Scotland’s Government is almost as good as they get when it comes to climate change, in other words. Yet it still cannot stop talking about economic growth, measured in old-fashioned material terms, as an unquestioned good; it cannot stop building roads, in which it invests far more than in public transport; it does not confront Britain’s archaic landholding system, which sells off the very life-sustaining fabric of the country on a global open market; and it dare not, in most areas, confront the big corporations which are trashing our world for short-term profit.

So of course, I am not optimistic about the chance of Scotland, far less the world community as a whole, making the decisions on climate change that now have to be made, to avert disaster. What I know, though, is that our hope of finding our way through this crisis-point in human history will depend first on our ability to name the obstacles we face, and to confront them honestly and squarely. The brute fact is that our elaborate Western lifestyles probably cannot survive this crisis in their present form; and that the current imbalance of power between government and a turbo-charged form of global capitalism makes the necessary change impossible within the time-frame before us. And once we fully acknowledge that – well, there is just a chance that the tectonic plates of our society can begin to shift, and that the juggernaut of the economic system we have built can be halted and re-engineered, before it crushes us all.