Politics in a time of consequences

Fighting the environmental emergency is about power and politics, not just clean technologies and regulation. This presents a problem for political systems. When considering the record of our democracy in handling problems that arrest all parts of society, such as Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, the prospects look poor for responding to the environmental emergency over the coming decades. 

It is at once a global and a domestic problem, disproportionately caused by those who are least impacted and most able to protect themselves. It results from an unbalanced relationship between complex, dynamic and inseparable human and natural systems, from global financial markets to the nitrogen cycle, of which voters and journalists know little and over which politicians do not have much or any direct control. It is hard for us to see the immediate connection between our actions and environmental reaction. An effective response hinges on mediating between the, often divergent interests of groups across society, some who benefit from the current system, or simply cannot conceive it as a system. Trust is at a low ebb at precisely the moment when we need unprecedented cooperation to weather the storms and reap the benefits of the green transition. 

These problems are not new. It seemed easy to play them down over the last decade or so, to accommodate or simply ignore them. The natural outcome of this state of affairs was a government that relished making all the right promises, enshrining full decarbonisation in law while failing to make the plans that will get us there. These things take time, of course, but time is the one thing we don’t have. Environmental breakdown is no longer in the future or over there; it is here, now. Fires, floods, failed harvests and zoonotic diseases have dominated the year, reminding us that catastrophic things can happen fast, overwhelming systems that were built to prioritise efficiency over resilience. As scientists are at pains to remind us, this is only the beginning. In the same way it was impossible to imagine April – the lockdown and the thousands dead – back in February, we will soon experience what it’s like to move up the exponential curve of environmental chaos, and all the tests of government and politics that it will bring. The age of environmental breakdown is a time of consequences. 

New hope

In some ways, the growing clamour for a green recovery and a recognition of the complexities of the threat show that our political system can get a grip. Promises now abound of how this will not be a re-run of the tragic failure to prioritise sustainability in the wake of the 2007/8 financial crisis. We shall see. Yet political discourse has changed over the last two years; stories of environmental peril flood the media, school children are marching, politicians face incentives to recognise the scale of the problem and the benefits of change, policy PDFs are stuffed with references to systems and resilience, economic policy is ditching the tired constraints of the last forty years, and experiments are underway with greater democratic engagement in these issues. 

These positive developments come alongside a continued record of failure and enduring problems with the structures of our political system. Our government is overly centralised, and we are one of the most regionally unequal industrialised nations in the world, constraining the ability for local areas to bring their ideas and capabilities to bear. The state’s capabilities have diminished too much, as the gaps in expertise and ability exposed by the pandemic show, and the false, counter-productive narrative of austerity still captures the political imaginary. Contribution to aggregate environmental breakdown is a function of cumulative degradation, including the stock of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, and yet there is little to no explicit recognition this fact in political discourse. The natural world still remains relatively marginalised within policy, not one of its overriding objects. Trust between the various elements of our political system remains low, division is high, short-termism rules.

Abroad, Joe Biden is the great hope for a resurgent internationalism. Even with the constraints of a Republican Senate, there is much he can usefully do on the world stage. He joins China, whose recent net-zero pledge has won global acclaim. In the mind of some, China’s growing leadership on the environmental emergency hedges against the volatility of US politics and a sclerotic EU. China is aiming for global pre-eminence at some point mid-century, the stories goes, so they won’t let the world end. Even without asking about the costs to liberties and so on, China’s political system is still fraught with sectional interests who can divert and delay, producing all sorts of contradictory outcomes. We see this with the Belt and Road Initiative, the destructive power of which will grow beyond its construction, encouraging consumption and material throughput wherever it touches. 

A central lesson from the financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic is that in a fast moving, connected world, leaders are only in charge as much as it suits them to be, or over the things they understand and recognise, or that simply they can no longer be much in charge at all. Missteps have happened. The biggest mistake possible – the failure to limit warming below that which triggers irreversible tipping points – is odds on more likely than not at this stage, even with China’s announcement and Joe Biden’s victory. You can’t buck the climate system. 

New world

The response from many campaigners in this country and across the West is to say that contemporary politicians are venal, corrupt and that a new progressive politics can save the day. Deep citizen involvement is both enabler and outcome of this approach: we need to further enfranchise people, as they will inevitably make the right choice and elect pro-Green New Deal politicians, and the democratic reform that results will ensure the new consensus endures and that everyone will play a role in a great collective effort. It’s certainly a far more plausible story than chipper incrementalism or the barbaric zero-sum nationalism of the Trumpian type. 

But it runs the risk of slipping into a familiar trap. We are used to fighting the environmental emergency over a period of relative stability, at least compared to what’s coming. That period is increasingly over. The pandemic gives us a taster of what is to come. Bad stuff can happen and happen fast, it disrupts systems, and overwhelms underprepared societies. We have to learn from this – and fast. Fighting against 2C in a 1.5C world will be vastly different from fighting against 1.5C at 1.2C. Fighting for 2.5C in a 2C world, more so. This is not only a new, extreme normal, it is no normal: a constantly evolving state of saturating complexity and uncertainty unprecedented in human history. Without a sophisticated analysis of the drivers and consequences of this new state, the project of seeking a more sustainable, equitable and resilient world could be overcome, beset by its failure to pre-empt and prepare for destabilisation.

Failing to develop medium term strategies that are dynamic to this reality risks empowering extremist political movements. More destabilisation is coming. Those who say “liberal leaders knew, they didn’t act, so now let’s build walls and protect what we’ve got” could become more successful in a world of persistent food shocks and economic uncertainty. Many of those who are engaged with environmental politics see this. They are right to say that we therefore need more inclusive, empowering political narratives that drive systemic change, giving everyone a role and repairing the inherent injustice of the environmental emergency. This includes sharing power and resources with local areas, so they can fully mobilise their expertise and energy, and more deliberative democracy to enable and deepen these changes. 

However, the strategies for realising these outcomes must be aware of and robust to what we see massing in the window into the future gifted to us by scientists and the experience of those on the front line for centuries. Millions could be displaced, the majority of whom will stay and suffer as ever but some will seek refuge, so what is the political strategy on opportunist nativist migration narratives? Does denigrating Trump and Farage supporters set us up to have cohesive, trusting polities in a world of persistent food shocks? How do you combat the nihilism, despair and anger that could erupt as people realise what has been done? Answers are needed to these questions, for we can be sure that the Millennial Trumps and Bolsonaros can confidently look to the future and be assured that the conditions for their success are growing.  

This article was originally published by the Ecologist.