Sunday 7 May 2017 19.18
Climate change is the most urgent challenge facing humankind. Other issues make headlines: terrorism kills; inequality affects everyday life for billions around the globe. But climate is paramount, because in sustainability human survival itself is at stake. Why then have the nations governing the planet been so hopelessly ineffective in addressing the grave environmental crisis?
Is it because the consequences of carbon emissions seem hypothetical, or too far off? Politicians pay few costs for doing nothing, and receive little credit for acting aggressively. In the US, a nation that contributes one-fifth of all global greenhouse emissions (China is responsible for another fifth), Donald Trump has promised to reopen coal mines and free up oil drilling.
The problem isn’t the science. The merchants of doubt who claim there is a climate science that is open to scientific debate are not scientific adversaries at all. They are political adversaries, mostly bought and paid for. It is in the realm of politics that the struggle for sustainability must be fought and won.
Politics is hardly at its best right now, and that is perhaps the greatest challenge facing us. The weakness of politics undermines democracy – the faith behind politics. But democracy is crucial because climate change is also about justice: how to distribute the costs of decarbonisation and the transition to renewable energy fairly among rich and poor, developed and developing, large and small, north and south.
This politics can’t be found in increasingly dysfunctional nation states. The good news about the attempt to address climate change through government action is that it’s happening. The bad news is that it’s happening far too slowly. For every new hydroelectric plant built in the global north, some enormous lake dries up in the global south – Poopó, Bolivia’s second largest, has literally vanished over the last few years.
The US state of California is a leader in green public policies, but farmers there also grow pecans in semi-desert conditions where each nut harvested uses up to 300 gallons of water. For every urban fracking ban enacted, there is a move to block it in the courts. Coal is shut down, but fracked natural gas is accepted as a “transition” fuel – however pernicious its effect on decarbonisation.