Fear and loathing on the climate beat

James Murray
Fear and loathing on the climate beat

As temperature records topple and the 'Hothouse Earth' we were warned of looms, it's long past time to admit we're scared

'The horizon is a beltway, and the skyline's on fire'

The horizon is a beltway - The Low Anthem


'I have only two emotions
Careful fear and dead devotion
I can't get the balance right
Throw my marbles in the fight'

Don't swallow the cap - The National


It was the summer of the northern hemisphere heat wave. It sounds like the first line of a 1960s sci-fi potboiler that has just been remade into a mediocre Matt Damon vehicle, doesn't it? But here we are.

I was hoping it would be a good few years before I wrote this piece. That it would be another decade or so before the visible, fever-inducing realities of climate change combined with the stalling of the Paris Agreement's promise of a concerted multi-lateral response to this unprecedented global threat. That we'd have made a little more progress before we had to ask ourselves - sleepless and sweltered at one in the morning - 'what will it really be like when the kids are my age?' But here we are.

When my first son Calum was born back in 2015, nine months before that historic, life-affirming night in Paris, I promised myself I'd only write about him once a year. I've stuck to that rule on the grounds that without it I'd bore everyone to death with the latest on how he gets all self-conscious if you say you are proud of him, how he says he wants to watch the 'Stat-due of Liberdee' Go Jetters' episode yet again, how he falls asleep listening to the parakeets. And then I'd bore you some more about how his baby brother Fraser revels in grabbing his toys, how he is so desperate to join in the conversation he is already trying to talk, how, in the room next to his brother, he too falls asleep listening to the parakeets.

In 2015 I wrote about the mix of joy and fear that comes with those first few weeks of parenthood (which I've now realised never passes) and how it is so redolent of the inherent tension between loss and life that defines environmentalism. A year later I wrote about what parenthood had taught me about building a greener and healthier economy. And last year, just before Fraser arrived, I wrote about Father John Misty and how a full spectrum response to climate change might generate much needed optimism.

This year is different. This is the first year since the boys were born that the projections suggest global greenhouse gas emissions are rising again. Like their parents, they have never lived through a year where annual temperatures were below the 20th century average, but the temperature record is now being turbo-charged. We are going to have to invent new colours for the heat maps. This has been the first year of the boys' lives that has been defined by the heat waves and freezing cold snaps of climate breakdown, when their lived experience has tallied with the predictions climate scientists have been making for decades. Some mornings on the walk to nursery, Calum stops and says, with the faultlessly dramatic delivery only a three year old can muster, 'it's sooooo hot, Daddy'. He's right. It is.

So this year I'm writing about the all-consuming fear that so many of the people who work on environmental issues share, albeit in snatched private conversations or sometimes, more coded still, in the universal language of a sigh, a shaked head, a raised eyebrow, a nervous laugh. It makes for difficult and depressing subject matter, but here we are.

'It's sooooo hot'

The recent temperature extremes have briefly forced a slumbering global media to break its self-imposed climate omerta. There has been reporting on the clear and present links between rising global temperatures and deadly weather extremes. Even The Sun's front page declared "The World's on Fire". Today's highly effective attempt to rebrand the already well-established risk that warming of over 2C could trigger irreversible tipping points has 'Hothouse Earth' trending on Twitter. Meanwhile, the calls have gone up for more investment in the ruggedisation and resilience measures that this Hot New World necessitates.

And yet, with a few admirable exceptions such as Stephen Bush's brilliantly succinct assessment of the heatwave's political implications for the New Statesman, the reluctance to join the dots, to map out what this could mean, not just for meteorological records, but for everything - for food and water supplies, for insurance premiums, for energy generation, for security, for migration, for governance, for politics, for our sense of ourselves, for war and peace - retains a strangling dominance.

Thankfully more and more people are starting to wrestle free of the grip of self-censorship and break this self-defeating silence. As I've noted before, you will search long and hard to find someone writing more beautifully about the terrors and tragedies of climate change than Dr Kate Marvel. US journalist Eric Holthaus has publicly admitted how psychologically debilitating the climate beat can be in a disarmingly candid thread that acknowledged how "I struggle every day". BNEF's Jenny Chase spoke for many recently when she noted: "I think lots of us working in the clean energy industry don't want to express how afraid we are of climate change, because we'll be seen as alarmist and self-serving or at least unhelpful".

She's right. To put it far less eloquently, I'm fucking terrified, and I don't mind admitting it.

Defeatism or realism

The knee jerk reaction to such honesty is to trot out the tired lines about how despair is counterproductive to the mission of tackling climate change. It's a comforting argument, but I'm not sure it stacks up anymore, if it ever did.

Like the allegation the main thing stopping Brexit turning into a roaring success is some people on Twitter worrying that it's going be a train wreck, the suggestion the occasional online admission climate change is genuinely scary is what's stopping us building a functional sustainable economy is patently absurd.

It would be nice and neat to think optimistic messages motivate people and pessimistic messages fuel inaction. But the whole field of behavioural economics is littered with too many broad brush generalisations and infinite fine point variables to take any conclusions about what motivates people as gospel. This is a field where the various theories can be useful, but ultimately the Goldman Paradigm applies: "no one knows anything". 

Much of the global environmental movement has spent a decade highlighting the optimistic, sunlit uplands of a healthy, clean, net zero emission economy - personally, I've dedicated my career to it - and yet the results have been decidedly mixed. Yes, this optimistic narrative was critical in delivering the Paris Agreement and nurturing political action to tackle climate change all around the world. It has fuelled multi-billion dollar green industries and fuelled a 65-fold increase in wind and solar capacity since 2000. Best of all it has demonstrated that a decoupling of economic growth and carbon emissions is possible. But at the same time it has failed to instil the sense of urgency that is required to avert dangerous levels of climate change. It has failed to mobilise the scale of economy-shifting investments that are so desperately required. It has failed to actually cut global greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps it's time to change the approach. Perhaps it is time for a little unvarnished honesty. Yes, it is scary, but here we are.

The reality is that an optimistic narrative built around clean technologies and sustainable economic models is not incompatible with an alarming narrative about the truly devastating and potentially catastrophic impacts climate change will wreak, or more accurately, is already wreaking. In fact, they can and should be mutually reinforcing. We should be capable of holding two seemingly competing concepts in our mind at the same time. Indeed, we must. Dialectics gonna dialectic, as the new generation of Marxists say.

The hottest years in human history

Why admit to this gnawing fear now? Why do you have to ask?

The weather is obviously part of it. It's hot. Dangerously so. As Al Gore likes to say, the news looks like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation. The toppling of temperature records all around the world should make us as uncomfortable as a commuter train with broken air conditioning. From Japan to Spain to California to the Arctic Circle we are seeing extremes that the latest developments in climate attribution are increasingly happy to link to climate change. My first son has been alive three years and has lived through the three hottest years in recorded history. He is on track to maintain that unwelcome record. This is not normal, even if it precisely as predicted.

These extremes have highlighted another reality that we were warned about but largely ignored: the impacts of climate change are varied, interconnected, and contiguous. As the mercury rises, buildings overheat, exacerbating health risks already amplified by the pall of air pollution. People are admitted to hospitals that are themselves overheating. Death rates jump. Power demand for air conditioning spikes, just as soaring temperatures force nuclear power plants to shut down. Tinder-dry landscapes are always a spark away from conflagration. At the same time, crop yields fall and food prices rise, while farmers unable to feed their livestock in parched fields eat into reserves that had been intended for the winter months.

All this is happening at barely 1C above pre-industrial levels and before we consider a global picture where worrying early evidence from the UN suggests climate impacts could already be throwing recent progress at tackling food insecurity into reverse. Add in further warming and the rising sea levels and resulting infrastructure damage could trigger asset losses and financial crisis. What happens at 1.5C of warming? What happens at 2C? What happens if the 'domino effect' explained today gets underway? Do we really want to find out?

Emissions rising

But it is not just the weather, is it? I'd be writing this essay even if temperatures were closer to the norm, or rather the 21st century norm that we no longer recognise as unnervingly hot. Because the biggest story of this year, bigger than Brexit or Trump or even killer heatwaves, should be the traumatising news that global greenhouse gas emissions are rising again.

The data is - and there is no way to sugar coat this - terrible. BP reckons global greenhouse gas emissions rose 1.6 per cent last year, driven by emerging and industrialised economies alike. The Global Carbon Project says much the same. The IEA warns energy-related emissions were up 1.4 per cent. And the early data from China and the spike in power demand caused by this extreme northern hemisphere summer suggests emissions could rise again this year. The flat-lining of global greenhouse gas emissions in the years since the Paris Agreement appears to have ended.

It is too early to tell whether this is an unwanted blip before the serious business of deep decarbonisation gathers pace in the 2020s with the full enactment of the Paris Agreement, the hoped-for departure of President Trump, and the plummeting cost of mass market clean technologies. But it could also simply be what it looks like: further evidence we will plough through our global emissions budgets within a matter of decades, unleashing a litany of worst case climate scenarios.

There are reasons to be optimistic, fuelled by the many inspiring green businesses and entrepreneurs that are striving to unlock the game-changing technologies that are so urgently needed. But it would be delusional to ignore that the odds are now against us. The IEA also confirmed recently that renewables investment fell last year, as fossil fuels saw their share of energy investment rise for the first time since 2014. Yes, coal is under intense pressure in many of its core markets, and yes plummeting renewables costs means capacity is rising even if total investment levels fall. But, like total emissions, these are still metrics that are moving in the wrong direction.

A technology-ignited step change in low carbon infrastructure deployment may be imminent, but it better get a move on. We are now at the stage where even by the most generous estimates meeting the Paris Agreement goal of keeping temperature increases below 2C means every single year that passes represents over two per cent of the time allotted to build a global net zero emission economy.

The reality is that while the green economy is making genuinely impressive strides and providing ever more evidence deep decarbonisation is technically and economically feasible, this progress is too disparate and too easily undermined by countervailing forces. You can make the case the foundations are being laid for a rapid transformation fuelled by plummeting clean energy costs and the realisation amongst investors that if they fail to deflate the carbon bubble it will ultimately burst. But equally, there is the very real risk the more concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases spiral upwards the more this progress looks like consolation goal territory. It's celebrating a 50 when you are about to lose by an innings. It's Dunkirk but without any guarantee D-Day will follow.

Something feels broken

None of this would be quite so dispiriting if there was any real sense our political leaders had even the faintest grasp of the seriousness of the situation we find ourselves in.  

Perhaps it has been ever thus. Fraser William Murray takes his second name from his great grandfather, who in his later years turned complaining about the UK's political elite into something of an art form. Perhaps the ultra-transparency and digitised misinformation of the internet age has served to make the current generation of political leaders look more incompetent than they actually are. But at the same time something feels broken, potentially irreparably.

The challenges presented by Brexit coupled with a decade of austerity that has finally forced critical public services to the point of collapse has left British governance looking woefully threadbare. Meanwhile, the political elite engages in the most blatant and despicable of displacement activities, indulging in racisms both overt and covert, wilfully fuelling an epistemological crisis that is infecting every corner of the public square, and gambling with the national interest with a recklessness that is utterly antithetical to once-sacred British political sensibilities of stability and small c conservatism .

A second lost decade now looms during which a host of inter-locking social, economic, and political crises threaten to create the prime conditions for the short-termist disaster capitalism many of the Brexit elite nakedly long for - a capitalism and form of minimalist governance that has precisely zero time for addressing the complex challenges presented by climate change, automation, and an ageing population.

Those who would supposedly protect us from such an outcome look hopelessly out of their depth. The one upside of Brexit should have been the opportunity for a recalibration, or even better a rejuvenation of British politics. A chance to rethink defining policies, to forge a new relationship with our neighbours, and to properly address the groundswell of anger and dislocation that gave us the Brexit vote. The opportunity to make climate action central to this 'new deal', to deliver cleaner more affordable infrastructure that improves peoples day to day lives was obvious. That opportunity is being squandered.

I recently watched a sizeable chunk of the Prime Minister's appearance before the Liaison Committee (even when it is your job there has to be some EU workplace directive that guards against anyone having to watch the whole thing). It was truly wretched. From Theresa May's utter inability to answer Yvette Cooper's repeated questions about her own Custom Union plan, to her inability to understand Neil Parish's simple questions on dieselgate and her refusal to engage with Mary Creagh's questions about post-Brexit environmental governance, here was a nominal world leader living up to her caricature as a malfunctioning automaton at every turn. It was a crushing reminder that our Prime Minister is basically terrible at any part of her job that involves speaking.

The result is a void where the government's post-Brexit vision should be. Michael Gove says some interesting things about Green Brexit and Greg Clark and Claire Perry loosen the binds the Treasury has tied around their hands just enough to sketch out some sort of low carbon industrial strategy. But our Brexit-consumed Prime Minister remains unwilling or unable to provide any sort of meaningful narrative. The direct consequence is plummeting clean energy investment, a train network subject to perpetual failures, a rolling housing crisis, rising transport emissions, an illegal air quality plan, and a growing fear the green light for Heathrow and fracking, combined with policy inertia on numerous other fronts, means the UK's position as a global leader on climate action is under a threat like never before.

In contrast, the one clear post-Brexit programme on offer from the right is the 'Britannia Unchained' crowd and their vision of a regulation torching, jobs jeopardising, Hard Brexit pollutocracy and all the devastating economic and environmental consequences it would bring. With Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg on summer manoeuvres, it is possible to envisage how these self-styled lovers of democracy could end up enacting such a vision without anything as cumbersome as a meaningful mandate.

Meanwhile, the opposition supposedly wants to offer a compelling post-Brexit vision of a burgeoning green economy, but can't stop arguing over whether it is definitely racist to say racist things quite long enough to present its case.

Labour's low carbon infrastructure investment plans may be excessively statist, but at least they look like a concerted attempt to grapple with the true scale of the climate crisis. The problem is that at a time when the UK has never needed a credible government in-waiting more, these proposals are being presented by a party that appears confused, dysfunctional, distracted, and bristling with a hostility that seems purposefully designed to alienate progressives who would otherwise like to broadly agree with much of its agenda. The man charged with bringing order to this in-fighting oscillates between provocation and inaction, all the while demonstrating communication skills that make May look eloquent.

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