The climate isn’t linear. So we shouldn’t be.
David Powell is Head of Environment & Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation
Cross-posted from the website of the New Economics Foundation
You don’t need statistics to tell you that last week it got very, very hot. But stats there are: in Cambridge last Thursday, the all time temperature record for the UK was broken: a brow-furrowing 38.7C. And today’s report by the Met Office into the state of the climate is another such stark, scientific rendering of something we increasingly know in our guts. Climate breakdown is here, and it’s getting worse. Britain’s weather is getting more extreme; the UK’s 10 hottest recorded years have all been since 2002.
We know what needs to be done about it. Rapid carbon cuts are needed, starting yesterday, in a way that is fair and popular. The UK’s new commitment to move to ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050 – freshly endorsed by Boris Johnson – is a start, but isn’t quick enough. Extinction Rebellion want to see the UK completely carbon free by 2025. Others plump for 2030, or 2035, or 2038. Arguments about the date can get very heated.
But while it obviously matters how fast we cut carbon, something else matters even more. Ending the fossil fuel age, with which our modern economy has grown symbiotically, will be a Herculean effort — whether we’re trying to do it by tomorrow, 2025 or even 2035. Whatever date we choose, we’ll need to start doing economics and policy very, very differently to how we’ve done it until now.
Daunting stuff. Because we are used to thinking in slow, straight lines; carbon reduction as a steady, linear, and acutely technocratic process. Steady, year on year progress. That would be fine if we had forever to get there. But we need to get down that hill far quicker than any human has ever got down a hill before.
There is a fable about a poor man that saves the life of a king. The king offers him anything he wants as a reward. The man takes out a chess board and says that all he wants is some wheat — on day one, one grain of wheat on square one; twice as many every day on each successive square on the board. The king happily agrees. What the king hasn’t realised is that by the time square 64 is reached, the man is entitled to 1,119,000,000,000 metric tons of wheat. Silly king.
Zero carbon by any kind of near term date means jettisoning the idea of a luxurious, slow, linear trudge. We need an exponential response.
Be more virus
It’s not as if the system we are trying to deliberately affect – the climate system – is linear. The main reason to insist on erring on the side of a very ambitious near term date is to reduce the risk of tipping points being hit. The melting of the Arctic permafrost, under which sits a truly terrifying amount of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is one such potential tipping point — which is why this summer’s fires within the Arctic Circle are such bad news. Climate change is part of the ‘great acceleration’ of human impact upon the natural world.
But if ever greater human activity and impact is part of the problem, so it contains perhaps the single largest grounds for optimism. In the networked, tightly populated 21st century, change can happen properly fast. Just a year ago, Greta Thunberg was just a Swedish schoolkid, and no one had heard of Extinction Rebellion. They have helped to inspire protests and a resetting of what it is permissible to demand from politics which has transformed, far faster than we could have calmly conceived, both public awareness of the ecological crises we face and the political mandate for doing something about it. And think, less heroically perhaps, of the smartphone: just ten years ago, barely invented. Now there are over three billion of them.
In climate terms we have for too long thought of ourselves as the managers of a system; Gods, tinkering from on high. Instead we need to think like a virus. Every intervention that we make has to try to make it twice as easy for the same thing to happen next year, and twice as easy for the year after that.
Green New Deal
The new acid test for any climate policy – and in a time of climate emergency, all policy is climate policy – isn’t the date it’s aiming at, but whether it unleashes exponential, runaway and unstoppable change, across the seven dimensions of climate change and beyond.
This principle must infuse plans for the Green New Deal, which aims to tilt the full power of the state onto a major programme of green job creation, particularly in the held back parts of the UK and those most reliant on high carbon work. Its policies are being worked on by activists, thinkers and experts around the country — itself testament to the ability for new movements to grow fast and ideas to be rapidly and consensually co-designed.
But getting it to happen fast won’t be easy. We have an economic system that’s tilted to the vested interests of powerful companies that like things as they are. We have a politics hardwired to obsess on the short-term to the detriment of the long. And our centralised, stodgy governance likes doing things its way. While responding to the ecological crisis should be common sense for the Treasury, too often it buts up against established, outdated thinking. The Treasury’s axing of the Feed-in Tariff for small scale solar energy – the popularity of which led for a while to a huge boom not just in the take up of domestic solar but its transformation into a status symbol – shows what happens to disruptive ideas under ‘the Treasury view’. This is one of the reasons that anyone serious about delivering any kind of system-shifting political programme has to have done all their thinking before they take office as to what outdated rules and more will need to be dumped from day one.
Key to thinking exponentially is understanding that the right kind of small change today can lead to massive, uncontainable change tomorrow. So, for example, if helping a council design a plan to deliver its commitment to a climate emergency, let’s do so in a way that enables them each to mentor and support two more, and so on. Let’s insist that policies are popular and fair, and something that people pursue and give a mandate to because it makes their lives better, cleaner, safer, and more human. Like grains of wheat on a chess board, every year, a doubling; in money spent; in actions taken; in homes insulated; in councils acting on the climate emergency; in cycle lanes built, bus routes restarted; and in good, green jobs created at the very heart of the communities that need it the most.
Climate breakdown is the trampling over hubristic human claims to be masters of nature. It is epoch-defining disruption. It is a change to the perceived rules of the game. Which means our response has to be too.