Did you know that we are at a critical juncture for the fate of our species and planet? Well if you didn’t know, almost everyone with a camera or microphone is here to remind you that we are.
In all seriousness, climate change is a ubiquitous topic at this point, and as we come closer to the long awaited COP26 in Glasgow, many individuals, businesses and governments are either promoting climate activism or asking themselves whether they can do more to help.
I’m not here to tell you that climate change isn’t a big deal or that there isn’t anything we can do about it without enormous costs, because I don’t believe either of those things and I never have. Anthropogenic climate change is very real, and the projected losses from climate-related issues such as migration, famine, extreme weather and conflict over natural resources will become the defining issue of our generation, just as the Cold War was for our parents. As Nick Bostrom has noted on existential threats such as nuclear war or AI, if there is even a small possibility of a catastrophic risk, we must take it extremely seriously.
However, as climate change has morphed from a niche topic of tree-huggers and plant lovers into an everyday debate, it’s crucial to address the fact that climate activism and the conversation surrounding climate change have become easily politicised, which distracts us from the solutions and obfuscates the difficult issues we need to tackle head on.
In Britain alone, the debate is rarely on substantive issues such as heat pumps or carbon taxes. Rather, we focus on radical activists blocking busy motorways, hypocritical celebrities flying around the world while telling us we’re emitting too much carbon, or other amusing but distracting elements of the conversation. This is understandable but unhelpful – we look at the interesting and sensational bites of information rather than diving deep into analysis because the former is fun and quick and the latter is boring, time-consuming and rather depressing. The former is also a continuing distraction which is taking up more and more of our social bandwidth, while the latter is becoming more and more urgent for two reasons.
Firstly, due to the nature of global warming and “feedbacks”, the longer we wait the worse the situation gets. One feedback is ice melting: the planet gets warmer so more ice melts, which means less heat from the sun is reflected back which makes the planet even hotter, causing more ice to melt faster, and so on.
Secondly, many of the solutions to climate change take years if not decades to implement, and at a massive amount of expense. Some of the technologies we need, such as more efficient batteries for renewables or carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) require decades of research and development if they’re to form a core element of our climate mitigation strategies. If we’re serious about addressing the problem and minimising the damage of rising temperatures, we should have begun investigation and investment into these options far earlier.
What is truly required is a sober analysis of the facts using the best data we have available to us. Climate change is real, and its projected consequences are well documented and well proliferated in the public consciousness. But they are often taken over by catastrophism or outright denial.
If you spent all of your time on Twitter, not only would you be very unhappy and quite socially awkward, but you might also believe that the only feasible solutions to climate change are to adopt a policy of “degrowth”, whereby we wind back the civilisational clock to prevent further damage to the planet.
You might also believe that “there can be no solution to climate change under capitalism”, which is another ridiculous soundbite. Furthermore, climate change is perhaps an extinction event orchestrated by big tech and fossil fuel companies, as if we ourselves aren’t profiting every single minute from the services and products which these companies provide.
I have seen such conspiracy theories promoted on major outlets by prominent climate figures, and it’s disheartening to see such basic reasoning absent in the conversation – do these people really believe that some white men in boardrooms have been polluting the planet just for the hell of it? Is it so far-fetched to believe that pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have arisen because of flawed technologies being supported in everyday activities that we ourselves demand?
These arguments make no sense and offer no solutions (let’s just “end” capitalism then, shall we?) and yet they fill up an enormous amount of the space concerning climate debate. When Greta Thunberg says “blah blah blah” on the world stage and mocks world leaders for making historic and unprecedented commitments, it’s useful to remind ourselves that criticising others for attempting solutions isn’t very big and brave when you posit no real solutions yourself.
So what can we focus on instead of bowing to conspiratorial and sensational nonsense? Where can the real difference be made to elicit positive change in the right direction? Firstly, the importance of “climate diplomacy” cannot be understated. The use of climate pledges, climate virtue signalling and carbon-intensive industries as bargaining chips in future diplomatic relations will only continue to increase as we struggle to decarbonise further. (This is because easy means of reducing GHG emissions are low-hanging fruit, and more and more sacrifices will need to be made as we try to get closer to zero.)
Secondly, energy and transport are two sectors which make up an enormous portion of every nation’s emissions, from a third to almost half. If each nation were to make a concerted effort to decarbonise these two industries as much as possible, the world would make enormous progress towards limiting global warming to 2°C and avoiding the worst projections from climate modelling. As I’ve argued in the past, nuclear energy must be a core part of this decarbonisation effort, and anyone who believes that decarbonisation of energy is possible on renewables alone simply isn’t willing to deal with the issue soberly and responsibly. Nuclear is the cleanest and most efficient and reliable option we currently have as a species, and to reject it out of irrational fears of worldwide meltdowns is a disappointing reaction.
Finally, carbon taxes have worked and will continue to work, especially when implemented on a global scale. As Eamonn Ives from the Center for Policy Studies has argued, carbon taxes take sound economic reasoning and apply it for the benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Supporting businesses which are innovating in decarbonisation and emerging technologies is a further priority, and Britain must become the leader in exporting its knowledge, expertise and skills in decarbonisation around the world, providing climate mitigation as a service industry in the same way we are revered for law and finance.
Fanaticism and soundbites are no longer relevant, and have never truly contributed to solving one of the most wicked problems our species has ever faced. Climate change is an everyday topic now – the activists have done their part. Now it’s time for people with real facts and real solutions to determine the best means of ensuring a prosperous and sustainable future.