Three reasons that we are not lines on graphs

There's a gulf between imperative and honest action - so how do we actually change stuff?

Fewer than 18 months since world leaders pledged to try to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, it looks like it may be game over. New research suggests we only have four years at current emissions rates before we blow the 1.5° carbon budget.

Securing the ambition – if not the commitment – to 1.5° in Paris was a major win for the world’s most vulnerable nations. A major study in 2012 linked 400,000 early deaths a year to the impacts of an already changing climate. It’s literally a matter of life and death.

With so much at stake, and so much stacked against us, it’s easy to lose hope. But even if aiming for 1.5° looks tough, it’s still the right thing to do.

Climate change is a continuum, not a binary choice. Every fraction of a degree throws more chaos and risk into the system. A 1.6° rise is better than a 1.7° rise. And so on. Let’s just do as much as we can, as quickly as we can. Let’s say we tried.

But: how?

I don’t mean what do we need to technically do’. We know that. Very many policy reports have been written, such as last week’s contribution from the IEA and the International Renewable Energy Association.

But they’re just words. Emissions are still going up. Actions aren’t keeping pace with implied lines on graphs.

Take fossil fuel subsidies. Obviously we need to end them, and in the next few years. But there’s a gulf between imperative and honest action – much like the Paris pledge to 1.5° itself.

Power plant

So: how? How do we actually change stuff?

Power. We need to talk about power. There’s a reason many of the world’s richer economies have done so little for so long on climate change. It’s hard, and it makes you powerful enemies. Particularly so when your entire industrial and to an extent financial system has been built around fossil fuels; when oil companies have so much clout with and influence over governments; and when the faint threat of angry queues at petrol stations is enough to give any mandarin palpitations.

We’re talking about a mass disruption: a rapid change from one state to another, far faster than would happen as a result of things like peak oil’That’s scary to a lot of people with a lot of power.

There are probably, very crudely, three ways that power might be unseated.

  1. Game-changing technological innovation. This is afoot all right, but is it enough? Tesla is now valued more highly than Ford. But even unflappable entrepreneurs need governments to set the right conditions. There’s still nowhere near a level playing field on the economics of energy: renewable energy support remains under assault despite trillion dollar fossil fuel subsidies, while the price of carbon fails to capture the damage it causes. Outrage is needed, and must be cultivated, about taxpayer handouts to extremely profitable dinosaur industries.
  1. The cultural toxification of fossil fuels, with behaviour change to match. We’ll know we have won’ the fight against climate change not when lines on graphs are coming down in a nice orderly fashion, but when the very idea of an economy based around fuels that kill people is considered abhorrent and unfathomable. This is the real power of the divestment movement, and why those who carp at its superficially marginal impact on the share price of oil majors totally miss the point. It tells a story of agency – I can do something’ – and of the inevitability of the end of the fossil fuel age. And it needn’t all be negative either: new models of ownership can help usher in the everyday, unthinking normalisation of decentralised, clean energy, where we can all permanently take control of the energy we use.
  2. And yes, political will. This is often talked about in the abstract: politicians need to just do something’. But simply to yell impotently about the need for political will’ is to howl into the void. Political will doesn’t just appear – not in a system this tentacularly wrapped around fossil fuels. Delivering it needs untenable pressure to change. In the absence of replacing parliamentary democracy with a dictatorship – something into which you would, shall we say, not want to rush – that pressure has to come from somewhere. And it has to be pressure not just to make promises like those in Paris, important as signals to the market though those are, but to actually drive them through. We need, more than ever, campaigns and movements, uprisings and protests. What else, after all, is there to do? And not necessarily about climate change,’ that often ephemeral concept – but about energy access, and clean air, and corporate greed, and the future of our economy.

People aren’t lines on graphs. They’re messy and unpredictable bags of water – seven billion of them. Changing complex systems is one heck of a messy and unpredictable business.  The above forces – and other ones too, no doubt – will interact with each other. Who knows quite how it’ll all pan out.

But we do know that we need to understand power just as much as we understand emissions pathways, or all those reports may end up being little more than glossy I told you so’s.

This article first appeared in Business Green and is reproduced here with permission. 

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