The defining characteristic of humanity is how we face and survive constant change; how we deal with the reality that nothing stays the same forever, or even for very long.
Over recent centuries, that change — social, technological and political — has been complex and has accelerated relentlessly. Some of that change has been positive — advances in medicine and communications, say — but some changes have had negative, unsustainable consequences.
Looming climate collapse is one of those and, on Monday, our Government launched a plan to try to avert the chaos our long-term, continuing misuse of this planet causes. This is a bigger challenge than even our Great Famine — another catastrophe exacerbated by inaction.
Every other issue, no matter how loudly debated or passionately felt, is a distant, irrelevant second.
When the natural fear, the dishonest advocacy, the corporate lobbying, the living-in-a-bubble disconnect, and dangerous denial are stripped away, tackling climate chaos is still a matter of humanity’s survival, a matter of protecting the civilisation that sustains us and which offers the foundation — the only one we have — for our children to have a chance to enjoy the future.
To imagine it is anything less, to imagine it peripheral to our destiny, is to be part of the problem rather than the solution. Our situation, our great predicament, is, tragically, that stark. It is the ultimate zero-sum game and we have made ourselves the winner-take-all stake in this bet against our darker instincts.
Economist Joseph Stiglitz has argued we should regard climate collapse as a “third world war”. Even if this is a disturbing analogy, it seems an understatement, as the war against climate dystopia will be never-ending.
Milestones that once seemed entirely natural — a new carbon-fuelled car, building a family farm herd of Friesians from 40 to 100, unlimited air travel, and homes warm enough to bake meringues — have been recognised as unsustainable. How we modify those behaviours defines the viability of the next stage of civilisation.
Monday’s plan, even if it is a decade late, must be welcomed almost unequivocally, but bitter experience demands that we must wait until declarations of intent become achievements before we can celebrate. This is so as the plan is partially a response to international pressure, particularly from a frustrated EU over our failure to deliver even modest reforms.
Ironically, that announcement set the terms for the sternest examination of our political system and class since the foundation of the State. If these reforms are not delivered, the already-stretched faith in political moderation will collapse. Ever-spreading climate protest, and the unprecedented support for the Greens in European elections, underline this.
It is, however, unwise to imagine that this is a crisis politics must resolve alone. Just as we, for many decades, wrongly blamed Catholicism for every malaise that befell a society that tacitly endorsed inhuman behaviour, we cannot blame politics alone for climate crisis. We all contribute and all have a part to play in confronting it. Worryingly, some angry, cynical responses to Monday’s announcement, especially on social media, do not augur well.
If ever there was an issue that demands we transcend anger, this is it. We must turn that negative energy into something more positive, more redemptive. That imperative applies to political parties as well as individuals. Politics must ensure that reform is equitable.
After all, it would be very difficult to convince a homeowner to spend a good proportion of their savings on insulating their home while a neighbouring farmer continues to expand their herd.
These are the brass tacks of the crisis and they will test our resolve, imagination, and patience in an unprecedented way. But resolve them we must, as we are living on borrowed time and have been for some years.
Despite commitments made in the first UN climate treaty in 1992, and despite pledges offered at every save-our-world summit since then, last year, global carbon emissions reached a record 37.1bn tonnes.
Last month, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 415 parts per million for the first time since the Pliocene epoch, millions of years ago, when sea levels rose up to 40m above today’s levels.
The alarm bells can hardly ring more loudly, so we must refocus agriculture, diet, reimagine transport and housing, probably curtail air travel, and rein in relentless consumption. In short, we must plan to endure, to survive by radical change, but that won’t be easy — and time and options are ever-more limited. Inaction, or even half-measures, promise oblivion. It is almost impossible to overstate the urgency.