Far from the shallow now

Climate change

By Alan Simpson

• Brazil opts out of hosting the next Climate Conference as President Bolsonaro prepares prepares to ditch the Paris Agreement (Greenpeace)
• G20 nations are still putting over £100bn of subsidies into fossil fuel industry (Guardian)
• Polish coal company becomes first sponsor of next UN Climate Conference in Katowice (DeSmogUK)
• CO2 levels rise for the first time in 4 years (BBC)
• From London to Shanghai, the world’s sinking cities face devastating floods (Christian Aid)

The messages are no longer subtle. Yet still we fight shy of a recognition that the time for transformational change is now… It may be the only time. The International Panel on Climate Change gives us 12 years to cut carbon emissions in half. As nations prepare for the climate conference in Poland it is hard to know if anyone’s listening.

The good news about this challenge is that this is still do-able. The bad news is that while national governments have lost the will to lead, social movements currently lack the means to do so.

This hasn’t stopped Extinction Rebellion from taking to the streets. In Australia, children too have stepped out of school, demanding that their parents’ generation (today’s politicians) stop the use of non-renewable energy before burning up their kids’ future. Across the planet, millions are finding their own ways of stepping forward; visible answers to Lady Gaga’s refrain

Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?

The common “somethin’ else” answer is … ‘a secure future’. Delivering it needs a radically different politics, one that draws as much on older cultures as newer ideas.

In place of profiteering

Much of today’s economics has been driven by short term profiteering. It’s why we are in the mess we are in. This is also why John McDonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, is insisting that the whole basis of economics has to be re-written; with climate physics, rather than convenience politics, in the driving seat.

Perversely, this may push the visionary Left into the same space as more far-sighted elements of the insurance industry, the security services…and the Bank of England. All recognise that climate breakdown presents the biggest systemic threat to everything we know, and that short-term ‘growth’ obsessions only accelerate the problem.

Professor Tim Jackson’s recent pamphlet “Understanding the ‘New Normal’ (1) sets climate crises alongside two other massively disruptive problems. The first is that in the next decade – when we must cut CO2 emissions in half – the industrial world is likely to drift towards secular stagnation. This will become ‘the New Normal’. Conventional notions of ‘growth’ will have to be replaced by ones of ‘circularity’ or ‘inclusiveness’. For the second ‘threat’, this could come as a blessing not a problem.

This second threat is the widening gap between rich and poor. The UN Rapporteur has just concluded that changes in UK benefits rules have thrown one fifth of the population into poverty. He accused the government of living in denial of the poverty it has created. As if to oblige, the Tories robustly denied it.

Government thinking now falls several steps behind its own defence and intelligence services. It was the MoD that commissioned Professor Jackson’s research. They at least recognise that widening rich-poor divides, and our utter unpreparedness for climate shocks, present huge threats to security and stability.

Link this to warnings flagged up by the insurance industry, the Bank of England and now the UN and you begin to see the scale of the crisis we face; only a bonfire of neoliberal economics offers any sustainable answers.

The next seven generations

A different starting point stood out in a Montreal exhibition of their First Nation tribes’ response to climate change. All of their strategies involved treading more lightly on the planet. One sentence from the T’Sou- ke tribe’s submission captured their fundamentally different way of seeing economics. It read – ” We must consider the impact of our actions on the next seven generations.”

The next seven generations?!? In the industrial world only polluting policies roll on from one generation to another. The next seven generations just get left to clean up the mess.

This is how Britain has ended up with 99.4% of its ‘export credit guarantees’ going to support international fossil fuel projects. It is why the Chancellor is seeking to introduce ‘transferable tax histories’ – allowing the fossil fuel sector to pass decommissioning costs from corporations to taxpayers, long after the profiteering has ended.

So much for ‘the Polluter Pays’ principle. So much for protecting the next seven generations.

You can see it just as easily around Britain when you pass clusters of wind turbines with only half of them turning. This has nothing to do with how the wind blows. Existing power stations are given ‘grandfather’ rights, guaranteeing that their output will be taken first by the National Grid. Whenever there’s a surplus, ‘clean’ energy gets stood down, ‘dirty’ keeps on running.

Historically, Ofgem turned down proposals to turn this ‘free’ electricity into heat or storage, insisting it had to be charged for at commercial rates. Today, it wants to do the opposite in order to sabotage solar;. It wants to end payments to households or businesses for the solar electricity they feed into the Grid. Fracking is just the same, with the government using its powers to override local preferences for cleaner alternatives.

The only consistent logic behind these follies is that the game is rigged. Britain’s energy market favours the corporate and the unclean.

At least Wales attempted to buck the trend. It’s ‘Well-being of Future Generations Act’, 2015, set out legal duties under which policies have to be tested against their impact on the generations that follow – “…all public bodies are required to consider how the services they commission and procure might improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of the area.”

Ths is Britain’s most tentative step towards a system of carbon budgeting that will soon have to over-ride traditional market doctrines.

Our obsession with everlasting consumption has blinded us to a recollection that life is as much about what we put back as what we take out. Farmers used to understand this in the ways they saved seeds. We understood it too in the way soils were nurtured, trees planted, water cherished and crops rotated. We understood it in economies that repaired and restored goods in preference to speed-buying and speed-dumping. To reclaim this understanding involves a leap of faith.

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

This is where tomorrow’s circularity of survival is going to be found … or not, if we’re too dumb to insist on it.

World leaders, gathering in Poland, will not produce the answers. But acknowledging the need for transformative change would at least recognise that, existentially, we really are far from the shallow now.

(1) Understanding the ‘New Normal’, Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, limits2growth.org.uk/publications, July 2018

• Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010, and is now an environmental adviser to John McDonnell

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