The age of environmental breakdown

There is only a small window of opportunity to prevent further catastrophic change, writes Lesley Rankin.

February 12, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Jenny Tañedo (Flickr)

In conversation with Prince William at the end of January in Davos, Sir David Attenborough said the climate crisis is “difficult to overstate”. Twenty of the warmest years since records began have been in the past 22 years. Current concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air have not been as high for between 3 to 5 million years, and the current speed of increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide is unprecedented in Earth’s history. 

If this all sounds familiar, it should. Climate change and its threats are now well understood and communicated. What’s less familiar is just how comprehensive the crisis is, extending beyond ‘just’ climate change, which is the subject of an IPPR report released today.

Globally, vertebrate populations have shrunk by 60 per cent on average since 1970. More than 75 per cent of the Earth’s land is substantially degraded. In the UK, populations of the most threatened species have decreased by two-thirds on average since 1970, and the most comprehensives study of the state of nature in the UK describes the country  as one of the “most nature-depleted countries in the world”.

These areas of damage are not isolated. Natural systems are complex and interdependent. Too much damage in one area can disrupt other systems, potentially triggering large-scale environmental change at a regional or global level that is unpredictable, abrupt, greater than the sum of individual hazards, and not easily reversed.

For instance, biodiversity loss through extinction is chiefly caused by habitat loss – including land use changes resulting from farming. In another example, warming of 2°C could transform ecosystems across 13 per cent of the world’s land area, increasing the risk of extinction for many insects, plants and animals.

In all, we have entered a new chapter in the Earth’s and humanity’s history – the age of environmental breakdown.

Activists weren’t kidding when they warned decision makers to act over the last few decades, and because opportunities to curb the damage in the 20th century weren’t taken, significant disruption is already inevitable. The stable, hospitable conditions that enabled human society to flourish over the last 12,000 years are a thing of the past.

We must simultaneously resign ourselves to living with what environmental breakdown has already occurred (and which is inevitable in the future because of time lags in natural systems), and fight tooth and nail to prevent the crisis getting rapidly and significantly worse.

Instead, we’re largely behaving as if everything is fine, and merrily continue business-as-usual. After a short reprieve of flatline growth, carbon dioxide emissions continued to increase in 2017 and 2018. The action that is being taken is too piece meal and too slow. At current rates, it would take 400 years to switch to a clean energy system.

There is only a small window of opportunity to prevent further catastrophic change. ‘Tipping points’ in natural systems mean that as we do more damage, abrupt change becomes increasingly likely. To paraphrase Sir David, we now need to apply ourselves to this problem with the focus it requires.

We need a comprehensive shift in how we live and work, to become sustainable, just and prepared. Firstly, this means transforming society and the economy to bring human activity within sustainable limits while tackling inequality and providing a high quality of life for all. Secondly, it means getting ready for the impacts of environmental breakdown resulting from past and any future activity.

At IPPR, we will look at various policy areas over the course of 2019 – including critical systems, politics, economics – to see how the UK can transform in this way.

The challenge we face appears overwhelming. Environmental campaigners have historically used urgency and optimism, urging us to ‘act now, while we can still solve the problem’. Those who advocate this approach point to the need to avoid ‘turning people off’ with an ‘apocalyptic’ story, and being accused of ‘doom-mongering’, especially when uncertainties in forecasting appear to ‘disprove’ warnings.

A more honest message, however, both about the situation we’re in, and the emotions it triggers, might be more useful. A catastrophic prognosis and a call to action may feel incompatible (why try to resolve something that is already so disastrous?), but to do so reflects the conflicting emotions which environmental breakdown inspires – despair, followed by grim determination.

This framing offers people the opportunity both to face up to and process the bad news, and a sense of agency to address it. For example, the Extinction Rebellion movement simultaneously emphasises grief in response to environmental breakdown, and uses civil disobedience to make radical demands for democratic oversight of reducing UK emissions to net-zero by 2025.

This is a move from optimism to courage and hope – an understanding of hope not as blind faith, but as a commitment to a cause, without knowing whether it will come to pass. We must be open-eyed that some disaster is inevitable, but that the costs of inaction are also the benefits of action – “wars will break out, the planet will heat up, species will die out, but how many, how hot and what survives depends on whether we act.”

As Sir David said last month, “What we do now, and in the next few years, will profoundly affect the next few thousand years”. There is no time to waste.

Lesley Rankin is a researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). This is a Crisis: Facing up to the age of environmental breakdown, by Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Lesley Rankin and Darren Baxter, is out today.

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