The Economist Essay competition submission: What fundamental economic and political change, if any, is needed for an effective response to climate change?

Burning forests, flooded cities, deserted stretches of land. This is how climate change has been portrayed for decades by environmentalists trying to raise awareness about global warming and climate related risks. For years, such imagery has been denounced by many as alarmist, exaggerated or even as a plain hoax. However, as more and more data is coming in year after year, people are slowly waking up to the realization that the “alarmists” were right all along: we are on the brink of a climate crisis, and its consequences will be even more disastrous than suggested by those images. A report published on May 22, 2019 by the Australian National Centre for Climate Restoration gives a dire warning, that climate change might be set to end human civilization as we know it as early as 2050. The report steps away from the neutral, calm language often used by consulting bodies in their statements on climate and describes the upcoming calamity in all its dreadful details: deadly heat waves, devastating weather extremes and wildfires, aridification, desertification, coastal floodings, the forced displacement of billions. Far from being a worst-case scenario, the report simply assumes that no urgent political action is taken, but emissions still peak in 2030, which under current policies is not a given. This trajectory lands us on 3°C of warming over pre-industrial levels by 2050, with brutal consequences.

The report is not an outlier in its call for urgent action. Scientific documents published on climate science are becoming increasingly more alarming, making clear that the situation is critical and that immediate, coordinated and global efforts are required to address it. The time to act was yesterday, and each passing day is another nail in the coffin of millions, potentially billions of people. Yet, governmental action on climate is not picking up speed. The introduction to the doomsday scenario in the above-mentioned report contains a shuddery quote that seems to capture the current situation precisely: “The case for a global, climate-emergency mobilisation of labour and resources to build a zero-emission economy and carbon drawdown in order to have a realistic chance of keeping warming well below 2°C is politely ignored“.

The situation seems almost desperate, but is there a way to overcome this inaction, to listen to the warnings and act accordingly? Can we collectively set a course that will take humanity safely into the next century and into a sustainable future? Yes we can, but only if we radically change the political discourse surrounding climate change: we need to stop talking about it as an environmental issue and start discussing it as an issue of national security, health and future economic prosperity, making it a topic that people across the political spectrum can openly support and discuss on the basis of facts. Climate change continues to be pigeonholed with other, smaller environmental issues and remains associated exclusively with the political left. This political polarization causes climate activism to be met with disregard, mistrust and even mockery from conservatives, and effectively excludes a large chunk of the population from engaging on the issue.

Rather than trying to overcome this division, conservative leaders continue to foster it, publicly denying the basic science of climate change and stubbornly spreading the unsound belief that human activity does not have an impact on the Earth’s climate. Examples can be found all around us: In early June, US president Donald Trump answered, in an interview about his personal opinion on global warming, “I believe there's a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways”. Matteo Salvini, the Italian minister of internal affairs and leader of the conservative Lega Nord joked in front of a crowd on May 29th “They told us about this climate change, but I don’t remember a May this cold and rainy in my entire life”. And the leading candidate of the far-right party AfD in Germany, Jörg Meuthen, stated recently that “Two thirds of scientist are unsure about the reasons of climate change”, a ludicrous claim given that scientific consensus on for man-made climate change has reached 100% among actively publishing scientist in 2019.  (in comparison, scientific consensus for the theory of Evolution lies at 97%). This kind of political language fuels climate change scepticism among conservative voters, reinforcing and spreading the soothing conviction that our way of life is just fine and that climate change is not an issue to resolve, but leftist alarmism at best and a conspiracy to undermine the economy at worst.

One could talk at large about the origin of this politicization, highlighting the role of major oil producers, lobbyists, false scientists and conservative leaders, but the past is in the past and we need to focus on moving forward. Independent of their political orientation, everyone needs to acknowledge climate change as what we have let it become: an existential threat to human civilization that must be addressed immediately. Imagine we discovered an impending meteorite on a collision course with Earth; would we be sitting around arguing its existence, or would we unite and mobilize all our resources and ingenuity in response? History has shown time and time again that society, when faced with a challenge, can pool all available resources to accomplish incredible feats in very short time periods. Examples of this include the Manhattan project or the space race, but also disaster management episodes such as the Chernobyl cleanup efforts or even wartime mobilizations the likes of WW2. However, these efforts required a broad consensus on the importance of the cause, both among the population and among elected officials. Regarding climate change, such a consensus will only form once the issue is freed from all its ideological shackles. The public and political discourse must be re-centered around facts before we can hope to deliver an effective response.

By: Valentin Bernard 

Published on: 3.03.2020

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