Time for politicians to get real about the anthropocene

Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton argue that we can’t afford to keep investing in a high-carbon economy when the world is on the brink of disaster

July 2, 2018
8 min read

Hurricane Maria wreaks havoc in Puerto Rico.

We are currently living through an era of global environmental collapse. Resources are being consumed at around 1.5 times the Earth’s ability to regenerate them. The continued reliance on carbon to power our economies means that we are highly unlikely to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, increasing the chance of severe climate disruption. Meanwhile, the global food system has destroyed a third of all arable land and, at current rates, global top soil degradation means that there may only be 60 global harvests left. Ours is the age of the sixth mass extinction – the last being the dinosaurs – with nearly two-thirds of all vertebral life having died since the 1970s.

In all, human activity has pushed environmental systems into ‘unsafe’ operating spaces, threatening the conditions upon which life can occur and societies flourish. This has led scientist to suggest we live in a new age, the ‘Anthropocence’, in which humans are the decisive, destructive influence on the natural world. We have irrevocably changed our planet, ultimately threatening its ability to support life as we know it. This is the context in which MPs voted to approve Heathrow’s third runway. It seems that the short lived cycles of electoral politics means that politicians chase short-term goals, rather than tackling problems such as climate change which require long-term, global thinking. The test of a capable politician in 2018 is whether they take a stand against cavalier resource extraction.

Most obviously, a third runway places our climate change obligations under severe threat. Every nation on earth has an obligation to avert planetary crisis by reducing carbon emissions, a responsibility enshrined in the Paris Agreement. In the UK, a law called the Climate Change Act sets a legal target of reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent below 1990 levels. The Committee on Climate Change, the independent body that monitors progress toward the target, estimates that emissions from the UK aviation industry must not exceed 37.5 million tons (the level seen in 2005). Yet the Department of Transport’s own analysis suggests aviation emissions will hit 43 million tons by 2030 as a result of the expansion, threatening our ability to meet our decarbonisation target. All over the world, countries suffer from infrastructure ‘lock in’, where new coal power plants, roads or runways are built and, over lifetimes often spanning decades, condemn the planet to absorb millions of more tons of CO2. Let us not make the same mistake.

What’s more, the UK has signed up to the Paris Agreement’s ambition of reducing carbon emissions completely by the middle of the century. This is a challenging ambition but one that is essential to avoid catastrophe. Heathrow expansion could mean we fall at the first hurdle. Closer to home, air pollution levels are expected to increase, from more air traffic and vehicles moving to and from the airport, providing a basis for the legal challenge being taken against the government. Air pollution is attributable to 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK and action to stop climate change will reduce air pollution, improving all our health in the process.

In general, the actions needed to mitigate climate change are also those that can transform society for the better. These include reductions in household bills through higher efficiency, improvements in health from lower air pollution and increases in active living, more affordable and secure energy, reductions in waste and inefficient resource use, and resilient, more efficient infrastructure. Realising these benefits could produce a profound social and economic transformation, radically enhancing the sustainability of the economy while improving lifestyles for all citizens.

Our ability to realise these benefits is a function of how we resist powerful vested interests. Fossil fuel companies, car manufacturers and purveyors of unsustainable consumption goods profit from the collapse of the environment, their attentions focussed on quarterly returns at the detriment of all. These interests are entrenched in the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) procedures of existing and planned international trade agreements, many of which could be used to block environmental regulation. British consulates around the world are being taught the post-Brexit mantra of ‘trade, trade, trade’; any  future left government will have to prise the right of corporations to sue sovereign nations in private courts out of their cold, dead hands. In attempting to do so, they will be encumbered by the  current government’s breathless race to the bottom on regulation and trade standards as it bungles through the process of Brexit.

Back at the global level, we need to realise that we no longer live in a stable world. Instead, we are entering a permanent era of compounding environmental crises. A warming climate, a reduced ability to grow food, and depleting water supplies – to name but a few – exacerbate existing problems and create a raft of their own. Take the civil war in Syria. Alongside a raft of complex factors, more droughts and rising food prices resulting from extreme weather ruining harvests around the world fed into already tense political and economic circumstances – all of which eventually led to war, a migration crisis, and political repercussions across Europe. The world seems destined to warm by more than 1.5C and deplete much of its soil by the 2040s. The millennial generation will be in their late forties and early fifties by this point. Over what horrors will they preside?

The UK bears greater responsibility than most for crises present and future. Industrial capitalism took root here and the British Empire contributed to its spread and entrenchment across the world, gunboats and all. Later, neoliberal capitalism and its penchants for financial collapse and consumerism-at-all-costs gestated on these shores.

While the perfect storm of environmental collapse will impact those who can least afford it and who contributed little to its awakening, the forces unleashed by unsustainable destruction of the natural world mean that no nation is safe. Last night’s decision was a terrifying signal of the complacency of our current political class to this reality, and a blindness to the effects of climate and other environmental change. This is not about polar bears and feeling bad while watching Blue Planet II; this is about war and social collapse. The Anthropocene really does change everything.

The scale and pace of environmental disruption brought about by human activity requires two concurrent responses.

The first is nothing less than a global socioeconomic transformation that brings our impact to within safe limits over the lifetime of the millennial generation. This is not guaranteed. A neoliberal Anthropocene could win out, hierarchical and undemocratic, imposing unevenly shared costs, operating beyond safe planetary boundaries, and looking to the anti-political technological ‘moonshots’ of Silicon Valley for salvation. Instead, we require a politics committed to democratic negotiation of environmental challenges, capable of collective restraint where necessary, while mobilising for shared abundance where possible. It will need to be attentive to global and intergenerational equity, capable of remaking economic institutions at scale, and rooted in new models of production and consumption, ownership and governance.

The second is a concerted effort to ensure resilience to environmental shocks within and between nations as the impacts of environmental change begin to mount. Natural system breakdown is already feeding into societies and economies around the world. Risk in this new world is non-linear, compounding and systemic. Without resilient governments, markets and leaders, global cooperation could be threatened as countries turn inwards to protect themselves or lash outwards in order to gain advantage over resources. That’s what collapse looks like.

Inaction is no longer an option. To do nothing risks the natural foundation upon which all human society rests, and unjustly robs generations of a healthy, secure future. The challenges of the Anthropocene must consequently be a trigger for new ideas and new ways to organise economy and society. Tinkering has no place here and the politics of Thatcher and Blair are as inappropriate as that of Attlee and Roosevelt – systemic risk implores systemic change. The growing movement to shift our political economy away from the failures of extractive and unequal neoliberalism should put this at the core of its development. 

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