As temperature records topple and the 'Hothouse Earth' we were warned of looms, it's long past time to admit we're scared
The UK may be a particular basket case at the moment, but the global picture is not much better. As George Monbiot expertly documented, Angela Merkel's high profile green intentions are thwarted at every turn by her willingness to appease the fossil fuel lobby. In Canada, Justin Trudeau plots a similar course of combining eye-catching rhetoric on climate action with literally nationalising tar sands pipelines. Australia's Malcolm Turnbull describes the country as "the land of droughts", but still can't bring himself to back a functioning climate policy. China and India long for the mantle of 'climate leaders' and are fast emerging clean tech powerhouses, but their green investments struggle to offset the growth-fuelled pollution that chokes their mega-cities. The EU soldiers on with a broadly impressive package of policies, but still struggles to get coal-rich members to honour their decarbonisation promises and appears to be flirting with a US appeasement trade policy that would further undermine green progress. All the while the US President remains such a black hole of reason and basic human decency that his climate denialism is just part of a patchwork of pathologies.
And then there is something else, looming just over the horizon of our comfortable lives.
There's that photo.
Thanks @washingtonpost writer Richard Cohen for his kindness to my work on #familyseparations and the potential political impact. Moreover, he writes of the enduring power of pictures and how we are moving the world with images. @gettyimages https://t.co/PxDiZvsGfP— John Moore (@jbmoorephoto) June 19, 2018
You've all seen it. John Moore's image of a tiny young girl crying inconsolably at the US border, an emblem for a deliberately brutalising and inhumane immigration policy from the reality TV star in the White House that the media caravan has already moved on from with a speed the young victims will never be able to match.
The Honduran girl in the photo and her mother may have been kept together, but I am still haunted by that photo. Haunted by the obvious uncaring monstrousness of the policy it illustrates and the later stories of separations and lost files, of mental torture and drugged children, of administrative indifference and outright cruelty, of children in cages and a response dominated by an argument about the definition of the word 'cage'. Haunted by the impossibility of not envisaging the twist of fate and geography that could have placed the boys in the same real life horror story. And haunted by something else, something bigger.
Perhaps it is just the heat, but the past year or so since Trump's election victory and the Trumpification - or even worse, the Bannonification - of British politics is starting to feel like the complete betrayal of the promises made to my generation.
Those under 30 may be unaware of quite how reassuring it is when the defining narrative underpinning a society is one of progress. I was born in the first month of 1980, which means that depending on your definition I am just too old to be considered a millennial, but was only 11 years old when Generation X was published. I was one of the first of 'Thatcher's Children' and can remember the riots on the news and the buckets that collected the leaks in the classroom, but I also came of age in the 1990s when the dominant narrative was one of mildly hedonistic revival.
It was far from perfect, of course. No historical period is and there are plenty of ways in which life is materially and culturally richer for billions of people now. But there was a broad belief, instilled in the economic and political narratives that shaped society, that when crises and tragedies occurred the multilateral tools existed to fix them. From Berlin to South Africa to Northern Ireland walls, metaphorical and physical, came down. Domestically, school roofs were fixed along with the ozone layer and the acid rain we were taught about in lessons. We were told of climate change, but the unspoken assumption was that we could fix that too.
If you want to know why so many of my generation are currently so confused, so politically homeless, so scared, then you have to go back to the Napoleon quote: "To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was 20." When I was 20 we built the Millennium Dome just for larks, fixed the Millennium Bug because we could, and firmly believed Al Gore was "the next President of the United States of America".
And now here we are. The generation that told us to "have fun like we did in the Sixties, we've got this" has screwed us over beyond belief. They stopped building houses, they stopped investing in the future, they disproportionately embraced climate scepticism with a complete disregard for how others would have to deal with the consequences of their intransigence. They cut their taxes and sat on their capital, and when the globalisation they had largely benefited from came with cultural change they couldn't cope with they used their outsized electoral and financial muscle to elect extremists and nick my EU passport.
This is, of course, not true of the entire generation - sorry Mum and Dad for the intergenerational rant, like millions of others you did none of these things - but as a generalisation for a generation it is true enough. And it is certainly true of the leaders who through a mixture of arrogance, incompetence, and ideological fundamentalism got us here. They were warned in 2008 that the system was failing and vulnerable, and they responded by patching it back together and stalking back into the casino.
The values of steady progress, of careful nuance, of basic kindness, that we were taught were sacrosanct by our Boomer parents, our idealism-infused education, and our guileless 90s TV shows, are being torched before our eyes - and no one knows what to do about it.
This is what climate change looks like
And here's the real kicker. It could get a lot, lot worse.
Because the other reason that photo is so haunting is that this is what climate change looks like.
The politics of the past few years are defined above all else by migration, our fear of it, our inability to manage it, our reluctance to consider the human tragedies that go with it. If there is one thing we can surely agree on it is that we are not navigating this challenge particularly well. The Trumpists are angry they can't build their walls quickly enough, the liberals are angry their reasoned arguments about human rights and net economic benefits can't cut through, the socialists are just angry. No one is happy, least of all those whose circumstances have become so desperate they feel no alternative but to take the huge risks migration entails.
The reality of climate change is many more people will be forced to take this life-wrenching decision. There are virtually no climate scenarios where migration does not increase. Desertification, drought, flooding, rising food prices - all will serve to fuel migration risks, either indirectly through resulting conflicts, breakdowns in governance, and economic recessions, or directly through the destruction of homes and communities.
Under the worst case scenarios - scenarios that are entirely plausible - new climate extremes in the Tropics will trigger wave after wave of migration towards cooler Northern states that are themselves battling to implement the resilience measures to cope with their own increasingly intense storms and heat waves. Managing these interlocking risks will require an unprecedented level of full spectrum infrastructure investment and multilateral co-operation. One of the many tragedies of Trumpism is the reminder that we are as likely to respond to this shared challenge with a nationalism defined by anger and hate, as we are with the era of co-operation and mutual interest the Paris Agreement promised. The fear, the very real fear, is we are entering an era of higher walls and ever more brutality.
Our politics is in danger of being hijacked by those who would simultaneously argue climate impacts aren't happening while supporting the harshest possible response to the impacts they insist aren't actually happening. This political tribe holds my fears in utter contempt, a feeling that is more than reciprocated.
From the hole in the ozone layer and Y2K to Brexit and climate change, the life's work of these Pound-shop Pinkers is to insist everything will be fine, mock those working hard to ensure dangers are averted, and then, when others' labours have paid off, boldly claim: 'look, we told you there was nothing to worry about'. Except this time the crises they insisted would never happen look like they are happening, and so with a crushing predictability they scour the landscape for others to blame. One of the only silver linings of Trumpism is that the indecent haste with which some (many?) climate sceptics have rushed to flirt with a President with such authoritarian, racist, and proto-fascist tendencies, sure does confirm a lot of prejudices.
The worst of these self-styled sceptics deploy a distorted reading of welcome recent global progress to justify a cavalier insouciance towards the risks we all face, but which thanks to a combination of age and wealth they are more insulated against than most. At the same time they tout a marginal and extreme definition of 'freedom' that prioritises their freedom to pollute over my sons' freedom to enjoy a stable future climate. Their willingness to cherry pick data and deploy bad faith arguments in pursuit of their goals is as transparent as their self-interested tribalism. On some days the temptation to declare they should just get in the sea is overwhelming.
A brighter future?
Essays like this are meant to close on an uplifting note, to insist none of what went before is inevitable, that there is still time to avert a climate crisis and the related crises it would trigger. Is such optimism justified? Well, sort of, and yet not quite.
I write a lot about the possibility of a brighter future, but the utopia and dystopia presented by climate action and climate impacts are not mutually exclusive. The most likely path forward, at least in the short term, looks to be a disorientating mix of rapid green economic progress and a similarly rapid escalation of climate breakdown that amplifies the risk of stalled development and political extremism.
In the medium to long term the way climate risks cascade provides an opportunity to interject at every point in the chain in the hope of averting the 'Hothouse Earth' that basic physics dictates will eventually otherwise result. The 360-degree pursuit of a net zero emission economy could stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases; rewilding and the development of negative emission technologies could eventually bring rising temperatures under control; a long-overdue revolution in agricultural innovation could inject climate resilience into the food chain; a similarly overdue revolution in buildings, infrastructure, and governance could help mitigate the worst climate impacts and the migration that would go with them.
All of this could happen, but it requires real and concerted political and corporate leadership driven by the realisation that the construction of a sustainable economy is a defining priority for all. And that only becomes possible if the forces of reactionary nationalism that would block this progress at every turn are defeated once more. In the midst of this divisive summer of extremes it feels like a long shot, but what else is there?
And that is the flicker of optimism on which to end. The hope that by the time Calum and Fraser are 20 we have engineered a combination of clean tech innovation and a resounding backlash against the narrow self-interest and self-defeating short-termism of Trumpism. An economic and political transformation that means they too come of age when society's over-arching narrative is defined by progress.
In the interim I heard a nice line the other day about the current state of American democracy, for which I can't remember the source but which can be usefully adapted to the climate crisis: When your child has a fever it is difficult and it is exhausting for the parents, but that doesn't mean you give up and stop caring for them. You do everything you can to help and protect them until the fever breaks.
As sources of optimism go, my darling boys, it may not seem like much. But, as we listen to the parakeets together, here we are.
Update: Peter Jones has kindly pointed out on Twitter that the quote described above is from former George W Bush speechwriter and arch-Trump critic David Frum. The full quote is: "If your child is feverishly ill, it can be very fatiguing to... take care of her. But it's what you do, because that's your duty... [And] if your country is ill, you have the same responsibility."
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