My dark mountain

The publication of the hellish Hothouse Earth report during a global heatwave has woken many up to the stark reality of climate change. But few have woken up to the political reality we face.

Our instinctive reaction is to urgently call for more action. We still have time to act! We must!

The trouble begins with the report’s key point, that linear progress of the kind we’ve achieved in the 40 years since climate change action first began isn’t enough.

The report’s authors suggest to avoiding their hothouse scenario will require “a total re-orientation of human values, equity, behaviour and technologies”, leading to “widespread, rapid, and fundamental transformations”.

How likely is this?

Prof Chris Rapley, a veteran of climate science and politics, did the media rounds on the day of the report’s launch saying it’s naive, and our chances “must surely be close to zero”.

This is a very hard conclusion to swallow, but I think we must.

There are at least three levels on which we would need this total re-orientation, and in my experience none is likely.

Political change is paramount. Matthew Lawrence wrote a rip-roaring account of a radical politics for the New Statesman. His more ambitious, imaginative politics would:

require political and economic imagination, capable of remaking at scale the core institutions that shape production and consumption, investment and the stewardship of resources. It will require a politics committed to democratic negotiation of the challenges of the Anthropocene, capable of collective restraint where necessary, while mobilising for shared, sustainable abundance where possible.

The great problem with his proposal is that the chances of this happening are close to zero, as becomes apparent when we move from the world of political theory to empirical political science.

Our political establishment in the UK is currently disabled by Brexit and related internal party disputes. Parliament is unable to give enough time to the Government’s priorities, and the Conservative Party’s agenda has been largely captured by right-wing populists in its ranks and beyond.

One simple example is our Government’s absurd opposition to onshore wind, the cheapest energy source, because it mistakenly believes that the public shares the right-wing media’s hatred of wind turbines. Successive ministers since 2010 with an environment or climate change brief have either been climate deniers, or have scrapped and trimmed effective policies.

Our official opposition doesn’t share these problems, but it has others that are just as debilitating. The most obvious is that it continues to be consumed by crises of its own making.

The other is that even though few if any Labour MPs are climate deniers, most shy away from tough decisions that would embed linear progress., let lone a fundamental shift.

Take the Heathrow expansion vote this June. The Committee on Climate Change made clear that expanding the airport would require even greater action in other areas of our economy than is currently planned, and has made clear – along with Commons committees – than we’re not on track with those plans anyway. So it would clearly undermine linear progress. Despite this, almost all Conservative MPs voted to expand the airport. Labour’s official position was to oppose, but whether because the leadership lacked the clout or didn’t prioritise the issue, MPs had a free vote and around 100 supported it. Others just sat on their hands.

Take this astonishing tweet from a Labour MP that chairs the Environmental Audit Committee:

For those saying “we must lobby and act and persuade!”, bear in mind that this vote came 30 years after the first Prime Minister promised action, 20 years after we signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, and 10 years after the Climate Change Act, with huge and concerted efforts by campaigners, scientists and businesses over that period to persuade MPs to act on climate change.

Still, this highly informed MP abstained on a decision that is, in her own words, “unconscionable” – something so overwhelmingly bad that she cannot square it with her conscience – because it might create a few jobs in the short term.

There is little sign of positive change. Only one candidate for the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee elections mentioned climate change in their statement. Most have professed to care about the issue when asked, but in the internal politics of the Labour Party it clearly doesn’t figure. Lawrence’s project is commendable, but is unlikely to feature in internal Labour Party politics any time soon.

Any political scientist worth their salt would have to conclude that the chances of our political establishment totally re-orientating their values and prioritising a fundamental transformation of our economic strategy are… zero.

Personal change is also needed – a re-orientation of our own values and behaviours. For decades now, campaigners, scientists, government initiatives, community organisations and others have tried to bring this about.

Yet my experience must be the same as most. Blue Planet persuaded many of my family and friends to buy reusable bags and coffee cups. But they continue to fly when they can, eat a lot of meat and dairy, and buy lots of high-impact consumer goods. I am no angel in this regard, though I try my best.

This chart published by the House of Commons Transport Committee shows that flight passengers have increased almost every year since 1981, and are projected to grow and grow. This in spite of endless attempts to educate and influence people about the damage flights cause.

It’s easy to make incremental changes to our shopping habits, but hard to accept fundamental changes to our diet and holiday preferences.

Even the shock of this summer’s weather might simply become a new baseline that people come to expect, rather than a wake-up call that prompts a widespread reevaluation of our predicament.

Any behavioural scientist worth their salt would have to conclude that the chances of the public totally re-orientating their values and prioritising a fundamental transformation of our economic strategy are… close to zero.

Corporate change is little different, whether we talk about the private sector or trade unions or charities. All have a mixed record.

Many trade unions and business organisations have been loud voices for climate action, and played crucial roles in lobbying for steps such as the Climate Change Act 2008.

But both have also consistently lobbied in favour of projects and politics that will make climate change worse. Corporations have also lobbied aggressively against climate action. It’s entirely possible that we could have enjoyed 40 years of increasingly transformative change were it not for the lobbying of big business.

This isn’t changing. Most big trade unions lobbied to expand Heathrow airport, and the business lobby continues to generally support fracking, the oil industry and car-centric transport policy.

Any business or labour analyst could tell you that the chances of these corporate bodies totally re-orientating their values and prioritising a fundamental transformation of our economic strategy are… zero.

What are we to do, then, if we conclude that the chances of fundamental change to avoid a Hothouse Earth scenario are close to zero? Do we give up hope and bury ourselves in an early grave, or in distraction?

I don’t think we need to do that.

We first need to move beyond a fantastical politics of radical change, towards a realistic politics of resilience. For those of us who have reached this point to be imaginative about what we can do to make the future world better than it might be, even if we don’t think we can stop it getting worse than it is today.

I think this is very hard to describe. I have spent years thinking about it, and have come across very few people willing to think and write about it.

One beacon of ideas is the Green House think tank, which is running a project called facing up to climate reality.

Their introductory paper is worth reading. They set out a long list of questions they hope to explore, largely to do with understanding (or speculating on) the likely consequences of 4 degrees of warming.  A paper by John Foster called Towards Deep Hope sets out a framework for analysing policies if we accept that we will “underreach” – that is, fail to achieve the radical change we would prefer, and a more robust application of the precautionary principle that logically follows.

Other authors like Roy Scranton are writing about this. I’ve just bought his book ‘We’re doomed. Now what?’

For my own part, I’ve developed a very sketchy framework for my own politics and my priorities. I focus my energy on the following:

Things that might still lead to disruptive change. Without a crystal ball, I can only do my best to speculate on whether something is likely to lead to a little linear, incremental change, or something bigger. To pick a small-sounding example, I’ve helped achieve decisive shifts in policy for cycling and walking, which both help to reduce carbon emissions and create cities more resilient to a world with high fuel prices or disrupted fuel sources. The dramatic drop in the cost of renewable energy technologies is another.

Things that build large-scale resilience. This is very hard to do when those in power see no reason to seriously entertain the hothouse scenario. I tried to get a London Assembly committee to seriously explore the economic impacts of 4 degrees of warming, but failed because almost nobody on the climate scene was willing to talk about it, and no politicians outside the Green Party members really got why it was important. But getting more investment into natural approaches to flooding management across London, and putting pressure on London businesses to develop scenario-based adaptation plans, are two things I’ve helped to achieve.

Things that build community-level resilience. I forget who pointed out that, in the wake of every disaster, you can always spot the helpers – the people who step up and help people cope and recover. Our response is far stronger where there are strong civic institutions and organised communities, used to helping each other and coping with change together. So though it may seem rather obtuse, I see my current work helping people to set up Community Land Trusts as a way of improving community strength and resilience. In my politics I advocate greater power and resources for civic action, and less reliance on fragile centralised systems. This is probably also one strength of Transition Towns and similar initiatives.

Things that influence people’s values. The other fun thing with CLTs is the way they engage people’s time in an activity that is focused on community benefit, not their own private benefit. Getting people to spend more time gardening (and in a wildlife friendly way!) is another way to refocus our lives on intrinsically beneficial activities that we should be able to do long into the future, and away from extrinsically focused carbon consumption. On a larger scale, work to shift the politics of the refugee crisis could be seen as laying the groundwork to avoid an ugly nationalistic response to climate refugees.

I started on this line of thinking after a visit to the Museum of London, one that had quite a profound effect on me.

I had recently read about the launch of the Dark Mountain Project, an artistic response to what they saw as the inevitable unravelling of civilisation due to climate and ecological collapse. (As an aside, I think it’s a shame that – so far as I can see – the project hasn’t really engaged with political science at all.)

In the Museum of London you walk through the chronology of this great city. Through the Roman invasion, the Black Death, the Civil War, the Great Fire, the Blitz. The suppression and successes of revolts by peasants, workers, merchants and women. The people reinvented the city through every cataclysm, and without heading to the dark hills. Each disruption led to new social, political, economic and technological infrastructure. The history of the city is not one of linear progress – no honest history of any city or nation is – but of change through times of tragedy and joy.

And so perhaps our future is, in this sense, no different to our past. There will be cataclysms of a different scale and nature, of course. I do not wish, for a minute, to downplay the frightening misery to come, particularly to the poorest in the most vulnerable parts of the world. The changes in London will be more profound than any in the city’s history.

But as a people and a species we have adapted in the past, and we can adapt in the future. The question is how we can best structure things to do that well.

That principle is where my hopeful approach to climate change begins.

One Comment

  1. rupertread1 said:

    Excellent stuff, Tom.
    Thanks for drawing attention to Green House’s project.

    Two things:

    1) Unbelievably, tragically and disgracefully, it seems there are plenty of Labour climate change ‘sceptics’. Check this poll out: . The Tory ‘scepticism’ gets the headlines, but dig slightly deeper and you’ll find a surprising amount of Labour ‘scepticism’ (i.e. denialism) too.
    Here’s another key and really dangerous example of Labour pseudo-scientific climate-denialism:

    2) On climate disasters; as you imply, these might carry a slight silver lining of hope. See my

    16th August 2018

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