A personal essay on how the climate crisis is reshaping everything and why COP28 matters much more than you think
We've passed the point of no return.
Too late to save the environment.
Quit single use plastic,
My low key cocaine habit.
None of my friends are okay.
Liz Lawrence - None of my friends
I'm scared of the Santa Clarita fires,
I wish that it would rain.
Lana Del Rey - Blue Bannisters
"The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones."
John Maynard Keynes
It is the Australian autumn of 2002. John Howard has just won an election through a combination of populism, misinformation, and the stoking of anti-immigrant feeling, providing a cynicism-soaked playbook that dominates anglosphere politics to this day.
Gathered around a campfire, about an hour's drive from Uluru, we're a group of young Gen Xers and first wave Millennials from the Global North, long before any of those terms had taken on their current shape and freighted meaning. We hail from the US, Japan, Germany, Korea, Israel, Hungary, Ireland, the UK. It is a veritable United Nations, except with only a privileged subset of the global middle class properly represented, which is to say not entirely unlike the actual United Nations. Backpackers is the standard label, and we do have backpacks, but we're tourists really.
The stars look like they have been painted on an infinite backdrop and the crackling of the fire and the chatter of young people is the only noise. The conversation drifts towards politics and fear. September 11th was just a few months ago and everyone shares their memories of the hyper-real act of terror that killed thousands and already feels as if has shifted our generation's hopes and dreams on their axis. The 'long 90s' of idealism, hedonism, and relative peace is on its death bed, where it will remain until the financial crash of 2008 administers the final rites. Everyone is rightly worried about what comes next. A cycle of vengeance and pain is about to spin out of control.
One of our number knows what is coming. He is an Israeli in his mid-20s and possibly the least soldierly looking person I've ever met. He talks about his national service, the tension of wanting to protect your family and country from those who want to destroy it, and the horror of being asked to inflict violence, the moral dilemma of being pressed into the service of your nation by a government you don't fully trust.
There is a short silence, broken by the Australian tour guide. He has spent most of the evening flirting with a couple of young Brits who passed their A-levels the previous summer - an endeavour that will prove successful soon enough. "Human beings will only stop killing each other," he says, with the drawl of a practised Outback philosopher, "when the aliens arrive and we all realise we have much more in common than we think." He is clearly a bit high.
More than 20 years on and the aliens have not yet arrived. Human beings are still killing each other. The COP28 Climate Summit kicks off in Dubai today with the world arguably at its most dangerous juncture since that infamous night in 1983 when a Russian officer disobeyed official protocols that would have seen an immediate nuclear attack launched, and instead double checked the alarm that erroneously suggested US nuclear warheads were heading towards Moscow.
A cataclysm is by no means guaranteed, but seasoned historians talk of the conditions being in place for a great power conflict. Numerous low level proxy wars have been simmering away for much of the past decade. But now two major conflicts have erupted that combine ancient territorial claims, medieval brutality, 19th century geopolitical manoeuvring, and 21st century digital propaganda. As the former soldier and writer Mike Martin observed as Russia's invasion of Ukraine intensified: "This is how global wars start, right? Wars begat wars". Meanwhile, the superpower that previously sought to keep a lid on such escalation is one Presidential slip or half decent Russian disinformation campaign away from re-electing an avowed authoritarian who struggles to pronounce NATO, let alone understands what it is for. Every year that passes without a repeat of that 1983 near miss - or worse - feels like a win.
This shaking of the global order is taking place against a backdrop of a not so slow motion environmental disaster. A Marxist analysis of the current moment would contend that the worsening security outlook has economics at its root. That the levels of inequality and injustice, the reliance on an extractive, exploitative, neo-colonial model is unsustainable, and therefore it cannot be sustained. Others would counter that what we are watching is a revival of the Great Game, a multipolar world where different nations with different histories and cultures wrestle for power and resources, where, like a packed pub at kicking out time, perceived acts of disrespect spark an uncompromising response from insecure men.
Both these hypotheses can obviously be true at the same time, but there is also something else going on. Geography comes before history. When the first quarter of the 21st century is assessed, the overarching meta-narrative will surely be the spiralling upwards of global temperatures, the physical impacts on the biosphere that have come with that warming, and humanity's deeply flawed response to it. The rise of China, the muscle-flexing adventurism of the petrostates, the economic slowdown of the Global North, the decline of democracy and the march of populism - all this will feature in the history books, but each of these trends are sparked or shaped by ecosystem collapse, gathering climate-induced migration, food price instability, and the start of the world-historic transition away from fossil fuels.
Almost every challenge governments are struggling to get a grip on has a climate angle. Inflation, migration, housing shortages, energy and food price volatility, deindustrialisation, extreme weather, economic stagnation, authoritarian aggression, the populist search for scapegoats. All these issues are either caused or exacerbated by our reliance on fossil fuels and the climate impacts that result. This is so obvious that it is rarely commented upon and easily ignored. It just is. The entire global economy is made inherently unstable by its reliance on fuels where the price can be manipulated and the polluting externalities are not accounted for. The foundations of our way of life have been fracked. Climate change then becomes the economy's way of overcompensating for its rampant insecurity.
It is unclear if this cycle can be broken. The Paris Agreement of 2015 has helped transform the global economy, catalysing the development of the cheapest energy and the fastest industrial revolution in history. Over 90 per cent of the global economy is committed to achieving net zero emissions within three or four decades. Clean technologies are changing the energy and automotive industries beyond recognition; the global innovation pipeline suggests aviation, buildings, shipping, steel, and agricultural industries will soon follow their lead.
And yet, for all this progress global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, the world is on track for 3C of warming, and the Paris Summit feels increasingly like the last hurrah of post-war multilateralism.
That meeting in the French capital was the first time I spent more than two nights away from my first son, who had been born earlier that year. His brother followed two years later, and the first time I was away from him for more than a night was the Glasgow Climate Summit of 2021. When they were born, my brain flushed with the hormones that ensure you regard the bawling creature that is pushing you into near terminal levels of sleep deprivation as the most precious thing that ever existed, I promised myself I'd write only one piece a year on my darling boys. I have comfortably honoured that pledge, allowing the annual parental love letters to lapse after just three years.
The main reason for this oversight is the low-level chaos of parenthood and mid-life. At six and eight Fraser and Calum are still the world's best people, a source of never-ending joy and amusement. But there is considerably less doe-eyed affection flying around when two clouds of roiling testosterone keep battering each other over the tiniest slight. The love between siblings is the fiercest love there is. Their tussles with the anxieties and impulses that define life are a daily test of empathy and patience for everyone in their orbit - a test it is impossible to pass 100 per cent of the time. It is also the most incredible privilege to watch them work their way through the vagaries of growing up, and the most daunting responsibility to imperfectly help them find their way forward. It is a task that can't help but make you both more understanding of everyone's complexities and foibles - of how we are all just fragile balls of water, our personalities and desires beholden to our brain chemistry and formative years - and more angrily protective on behalf of a generation that from Covid to climate is being failed.
But the other reason I stopped writing about the boys is that it is hard to find new ways to articulate that nagging fear that they face a daunting future. The specific threats presented by climate breakdown and the crises and wars it could trigger loom large, but in some ways worse is the way these fears bleed into the culture, creating an ever-present sense of dislocation and gathering crisis. Even the recent Disney film Elemental had a climate migration subplot. This is the milieu for the rest of all our lives now. How could it be anything but? The need to sometimes take a breath and make peace with that fact is draining.
These fears are exacerbated in the UK at least by what is now approaching two decades of flatlining wages and stagnant productivity - an unprecedent room temperature economic disaster that leaves an entire two generations of people angry and frustrated at the realisation they will be poorer than their parents. On its recent tour, one of my favourite bands, The National, was selling t-shirts emblazoned with the words 'Sad Dad'. It is a joke, a self-knowing nod to music that is solipsistic and despondent, even when shot through with moments of quotidian beauty. But the joke hits pretty hard. The dads are sad, and so are the mums; so is everyone. Even Gen Z, who by rights should be tearing things up with a hedonistic abandon, seem to be finding the inherent optimism of youth dented by broken housing markets, fraying social contracts, and the siren calls of the populist right. Something has gone badly wrong.
If the climate is at the heart of these interlocking economic, societal, and security crises then the only solution is to tackle the root cause. Applying a climate lens improves every policy and instils greater optimism and better returns in every project. Climate action is the only viable path out of these dangerous decades.
Thankfully, since the Paris Agreement was signed this hypothesis has become an increasingly influential economic consensus. There is a widespread acceptance that clean technology delivers cheaper energy, increasingly equitable economic prosperity, and better living standards. There are reasons why President Biden called his green stimulus package the Inflation Reduction Act. There are reasons why the EU and the UK's Labour opposition want to copy him. There are reasons why China's economic plan is to dominate green industries. This is why the world's three largest markets are all rushing to embrace green growth and making the pursuit of net zero emissions their strategic North Star.
Take housing as just one example. There is already a housing theory of everything that argues that almost all the UK's economic and societal woes (woes shared by many other industrialised nations) can be tackled by building more houses. Want economic growth, improved productivity, and better quality of life? Then get building.
But this theory is subsumed by the climate theory of everything. If you are going to build more homes, you want those homes to be ultra-efficient, clean tech adorned, climate resilient, and located in walkable communities. Then you get not just economic growth, but also lower energy bills, enhanced energy security, improved health, reduced risks, lower insurance premiums, less atomised communities, greater entrepreneurialism, and lower emissions. Why would you not do this? The climate warrior the world needs right now is social media menswear guru Derek Guy who recently posited an alternative version to the 'trolley problem': "You can either pay $750/month to ride a trolley for two hours every day to work, or you can create affordable, walkable neighbourhoods where you can wear nice little outfits and walk to work in 15 mins. What do you choose?"
The same rationale applies across every industry. Greener is better, more efficient, more secure, and comes with more co-benefits. The capital costs can be higher, but that is only because of the market failure of under-priced pollution, and besides the running costs are invariably lower and the multiplier effects are greater. The net zero transition is Keynsianism for the 21st century. And if the last 15 years has taught us one thing, it is that Keynes was always right.
Growing numbers of political and business leaders get this. They understand that a green house or electric car is more comfortable and cheaper to run than a conventional house or polluting car, that clean air unlocks massive health benefits, that without sustainable agriculture a food crisis looms. Above all, they can see how an economy built on energy that is secure, localised, and predictably priced removes the shifting sands of a fossil fuel economy that is inherently unstable. Uncouple the economy from that volatility and the rewards that would flow in terms of sustainable growth, quality of life, and enhanced security are borderline panglossian. This is the only game in town. The alternative is 3C of warming and a century of rolling disasters, of food shocks and scapegoats, of walls and gun turrets.
The countries that fail to respond to this shifting reality will lose out. As former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane observed recently: "The world is facing right now an arms race in re-industrialisation. And I think we're at risk of falling behind in that arms race unless we give it the giddy up… China has been at this - green tech - for many, many years, and has stolen a march in many, many technologies, including solar and batteries. The West has belatedly woken up. The Inflation Reduction Act is throwing cash to the wall on that… The EU is now playing catch up, [and] the UK currently is not really in the race at any kind of scale." There is no alternative.
The problem is how to get from here to there. How to ensure that the clean energy revolution accelerates at sufficient pace that fossil fuel demand can fall both rapidly and in lockstep with constrained supply. How to execute such a delicate balancing act when so many states and communities remain fully dependent on the revenues that flow from the supply of the fuels that have both proudly powered civilisation for two centuries and pushed humanity out of the climatic envelope it relied upon for millennia. How to manage the economic fall out from rapidly replacing the sprawling gas power plant just down the road from the Dubai Exhibition Centre. How to marginalise the climate sceptics and convince the polluting vested interests that their risk analysis is wrong and their short termism is going to destroy everything.
This is why COP28 and the entire UN climate process matters so much. At a time when too many countries are at each others' throats, when great powers jostle for primacy and their proxies unleash horrors, this is a peace summit. It is a mechanism for multilateralism and the recognition of both shared humanity and aligned self-interest. It is a forum that seeks to tap the qualities we all try to teach the next generation, and yet too easily let slip: patience, empathy, responsibility, perseverance, resilience, trust, respect, kindness. As Pete Betts - the recently departed and much missed British diplomat and veteran of countless COPs - used to say of the UN climate talks: "We didn't always agree, but we trusted the other side enough to know that if they said something, it was because they had reasons to say it and you had to listen."
There is an understandable reluctance to speak in such idealistic terms. No ceasefires will be signed in Dubai. Utopianism invites the satirists to do their worst. The meeting could easily end in failure with petrostates clearly incentivised to talk publicly about climate action and carbon capture potential while privately lobbying ferociously to lock in decades more fossil fuel demand.
But there is also grounds for optimism. There is a deal to be done. A deal that would set new clean tech deployment goals that would empower governments as they look to turbocharge already record green investment. That would deliver the long overdue reforms that can unleash flows of climate finance into the developing economies that need it most. That would provide funding for climate-related loss and damage from industrialised and emerging economies alike. That would give businesses and investors the confidence they need to face down current economic headwinds and unleash a new wave of green investment and innovation. That would see all countries publicly recognise that regardless of whether they are 'phased out' or 'phased down', the fossil fuel era is drawing to its close and the accelerated winding down of coal, oil, and gas supplies is now the world's most pressing and most complicated policy challenge.
Deliver that and for all the immense challenges it faces, the world could be on a considerably better path in a fortnight's time. A path that makes good on the promise of the Paris Agreement and ensures emissions really do peak this year, delivering a civilisation level milestone on route to a net zero emission economy by mid-century. A path that redirects capital from the polluting industries of the 20th century to the life-affirming, job-creating industries of the 21st century. A path that reminds the world's many different tribes that what we are facing is an alien climate, and it is everyone's interests to come together to thwart it.
Keep up to date with all the latest news and updates from this year's UN Climate Summit at BusinessGreen's COP28 Hub here.