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Problem Solving or Political Theatre?

Reflections on the Current Climate Conversation

By Imran Mulla

Given that we’re all confined to our homes, and our climate strikes have been postponed for the foreseeable future, now is perhaps the perfect time to reflect on the state of the climate movement. Serious reflection means we have to try and work out where we’re going wrong, both strategically and ideologically – and it means considering why the conversation around climate change too often descends into political infighting, rather than producing real solutions to what is, after all, an incredibly significant issue.

Climate activists are often seen as self-righteous whiners trying to force austerity onto people. That’s a big problem. There are great ethical cases to be made for all sorts of individual lifestyle changes, but this is a terrible strategy for trying to encourage action on climate change. Our message needs to be delivered with a razor-sharp focus on solving the problem – only decisions made by global elites will have a significant impact, not activists managing to persuade people to recycle more and give up plastic straws.

We’ve actually made quite a good deal of progress in shifting the rhetoric around the climate towards the need for systemic changes, but we have a long way to go – we don’t want to be seen as the people lobbying for the government to pass laws making life harder for everyone. Encouraging austerity is simply a dead-end political strategy – it’s how climate activists become seen as privileged, out-of-touch trouble makers.

But just as dangerous is the rhetoric of looming apocalypse. Gleefully conjuring up visions of a dark and unbelievably dismal future seems to be the preferred strategy of far too many writers and speakers on the issue. Climate change is certainly a deeply significant problem, one that promises severe disruption to human civilisation – and one that threatens to be particularly devastating for poor countries that lack the capacity to respond effectively to extreme weather events.

But climate change doesn’t herald the extinction of the human race. The UN’s IPCC report projects no such apocalypse, and we must accordingly avoid the temptation to paint terrifying images of a future that is neither guaranteed nor even likely, in the hope that this will somehow spur people into action.

Many children today are genuinely afraid that their future is doomed, and this surely risks accelerating the already rising levels of anxiety among young people. The language of apocalypse is morally wrong, dangerous and doesn’t at all help our cause – our rhetoric must be grounded in clear-eyed analysis. We have to be agents of change, not prophets of doom.

So how do we effectively put forward intelligent solutions to climate change to the public at large? The Green New Deal, for example, is surely a good idea; there’s a compelling case to be made for the government to manage and accelerate our transition away from a fossil-fuel based economy, and the program’s commitment to ensuring economic security for all, alongside a constructive international outlook, is admirable – but we have to be wary of falling into political partisanship.

A government-directed decarbonisation of the economy could certainly involve nationalising energy companies, for example, but it could just as well entail a more market-based approach, such as carbon pricing (with the danger of low-income households being punished removed through a carbon dividends scheme, such as the one proposed by the conservative Climate Leadership Council in the USA). Essentially, the economic response to the climate crisis could follow a range of approaches, and we should allow for this and make it patently clear in our rhetoric. Alienating people on either side of the political spectrum is simply not an intelligent strategy.

In the UK, climate change has become a partisan issue on which people on the Left tend to support more drastic action than conservatives. This is a significant problem, since the Left doesn’t hold political power. We need to work on reaching out to people everywhere on the political spectrum (especially those with influence), and that means pragmatism on issues such as the use of nuclear energy. There exists compelling evidence to suggest that rapid decarbonisation is only possible if nuclear energy is in the mix – and indeed, the 2018 IPCC report itself states that more nuclear power will be necessary if we are to meet the Paris agreement. Considering this, the wholesale rejection of nuclear by many leading environmentalists is incredibly troubling. We can’t sound the alarm on climate change and then turn around and dismiss the most obvious solutions.

But avoiding political quagmires also necessitates guarding against eco-nationalism. National populists across Europe are increasingly using environmental concerns to serve their agenda, often repackaging old Malthusian arguments in increasingly creative ways. Here, too, climate change becomes merely another weapon to be wielded in political battles. We can counter such opportunism by promoting and amplifying direct solutions to the climate crisis, rejecting rhetoric designed to serve unrelated political agendas; the climate is, after all, a serious issue – not a political football.

There’s also a lot of innovative thinking being done that doesn’t make its way into the popular discourse surrounding climate change. Consider this article by Patrick Mellor published by Palladium, a magazine providing a uniquely thoughtful approach to tackling the institutional failures of our current order. Mellor contextualises our current predicament through a dive into deep time, showing how we’re currently living in a rare and extremely precarious Ice Age. He then proposes that we turn to geoengineering as one solution to our problems – specifically, a method known as Oceanic Iron Fertilisation.

The idea, essentially, comes from the fact that iron stimulates algae growth – and algae absorbs a lot of carbon. It follows from this that putting about 2.2 megatons (equivalent to 6 large oil tankers) of iron a year into select parts of the ocean could actually absorb about 20% of the carbon in the atmosphere. What makes this method so attractive is the fact that it’s not at all environmentally destructive – after all, it’s just an attempt to mimic a process that has naturally occurred in the past. It’s also very safe – as Mellor assures us, it would have “self-limiting negative consequences if negatively applied”. The cherry on top is the simple fact that Oceanic Iron Fertilisation would be relatively easy from a practical standpoint – there’s no fancy technological innovation required, and it’s not even that expensive.

And yet, before I read this Palladium article, I’d never once heard it mentioned in environmentalist circles, and proponents of the Green New Deal rarely ever talk about any forms of geoengineering. This silence on the part of the mainstream climate movement must be, at least partially, down to the fear that it’s a false technical solution brought up to distract us from the serious business of decarbonisation. But Mellor, and most scientists who discuss geoengineering seriously, propose it only in tandem with a range of other policies – chief among them cutting our carbon emissions.

What makes Mellor’s argument so compelling is his assertion that even if the world did manage to reach a state of net-zero carbon emissions, we still wouldn’t have a stable climate. This moves geoengineering from being a quirky and unusual solution to a genuine necessity.

The second reason why environmentalists are so often wary of geoengineering is that many consider it to entail unacceptable interference with the natural order. The problem here is that to assert that humans should never interfere with the global climate is absurdly impractical – and after all, we’re interfering with it right now. To pursue geoengineering, thus, is to move from meddling with the climate in an irresponsible and dangerous way to attempting to shape it in a positive way. That we should pursue rewilding and reforestation is broadly uncontroversial; something like Oceanic Iron Fertilisation should be viewed along the same lines – it’s an attempt to take serious action to mitigate climate change using all the methods we have at our disposal.

This brings us to the inescapable fact that no form of geoengineering could be a casual, get-out-of-jail-free-card solution to the problem of global heating. Rather, it would require a total paradigm shift, away from our current way of viewing nature as merely a tool to be carelessly exploited. Geoengineering done right would mean coming to view ourselves as caretakers, as opposed to ruthless overlords, of the natural world. As Mellor writes, we must “admit ourselves direct control, responsibility, and husbandry over the earth”.

Attempting to achieve a stable climate, thus, means accepting that humans now control the carbon cycle – and embracing the responsibility that comes with that power.

With such a moral awakening we can identify also the potential for a rejection of a simply utilitarian attitude to the natural world. Are we to combat global heating purely because it suits our needs as humans? Or does the natural world – including the animal kingdom – have its own value, which we must recognise and respect? These are astronomically large questions, and the first step to being able to answer them is to adopt a moral awareness of the power that we wield. They’re unlikely to be answered if we fixate solely on transitioning away from fossil fuels – which, in all honesty, is highly unlikely to happen on a global scale by 2050. Such an approach would likely lead to individual countries, in a few decades’ time, hastily deploying internationally contentious and unsustainable methods of geoengineering as a panicked response to global overheating. Surely, thinking about these solutions right now is the wisest course of action.

The popular dismissal by the climate movement of geoengineering undermines our claim to be committed to amplifying the best possible solutions to the climate crisis. Whomst among us truly believes that a neo-Keynesian economic project with its roots in Roosevelt’s New Deal is going to be the sole thing that saves us from global climate catastrophe? This neglect of other solutions also means that we’re missing out on the opportunity to craft a narrative around dealing with climate change that transcends partisan political divides; people of all political persuasions can quite easily unite around a strategy that tackles the threat of global heating head on and doesn’t appear to surreptitiously serve unrelated political agendas.

Any responsible geoengineering would require incredible international cooperation based on serious ethical considerations at the highest level among elites worldwide – certainly no mean feat. But what better solution to elite incompetence and a reactionary political culture than a people-powered push for an internationally oriented, ambitious and noble drive towards preserving life? This is what climate activism should be about, not trying to score political points.

Wolf Tivy, Palladium’s editor-in-chief, recently conducted an interview with Nikita Zimov, who is engaged, on a Siberian nature reserve, in the restoration of the Ice Age Mammoth Steppe ecosystem in order to prevent the permafrost from melting – surely the most impressive rewilding attempt in the world. These kinds of projects, and many more of the ambitious ideas featured in publications like Palladium, deserve to be discussed properly within the mainstream climate movement. If we really want to push the climate conversation to new heights, we need to start listening to a far wider range of voices.

I’m in college. I’m neither a scientist, nor an economist, nor a political philosopher, and neither are the young people organising climate strikes around the world. But our movement has genuinely shaped the public conversation; when students start going on strike, people take notice. The majority of the British public now support taking greater action to deal with climate change and the secretary general of Opec has labelled climate activists the “greatest threat” to the oil industry. If we want the public conversation to improve, we need to step up our game as activists.

The monthly events that we hold as strikers are incredible; all the organising is done by students, so that young people can miss lessons once a month to come and receive an education – which we provide through carefully considered speeches. Schools often even support their pupils in attending, and the brightly coloured placards and banners that fill the streets are a testament to the unmatchable creativity of youth. And then there’s the extremely social nature of the strikes, which makes them a genuinely rare sight in this age of atomisation. Even now, during this pandemic, we continue to hold online events and produce podcasts.

What really gives our movement its character, however, is its intrinsically positive nature. This isn’t a movement of anger or hatred, and it’s not aimed towards destruction or petty political squabbling. At its core, this is a movement comprised of people who simply want to see a better future, and who haven’t become jaded enough that they no longer believe such a thing is possible.

That means that we can, and should, improve and refine our rhetoric, aiming to galvanise public support and work constructively at all levels, with city councils and the government, for positive change – rather than allowing the movement to descend into useless political theatre. It will require pragmatism, an ear for innovative ideas, and a focus on amplifying the most convincing proposals for tackling the threat of climate change. The stakes are high, and the opportunities are immense – after all, there’s everything to play for.

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