We must transform our lives and values to save this burning planet

(The Guardian, 15 Jun 2019) In decades to come we must rethink our agriculture, our love of consumption and our short-termist priorities. It won’t be easy.

The case for action to tackle the climate emergency, on a scale far beyond anything that has yet been attempted, is increasingly widely understood. Almost three decades after the first UN climate treaty was agreed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and despite the commitments thrashed out among nation states at every summit since, global carbon emissions last year rose to a record 37.1bn tonnes.

In October, UN scientists warned that within 12 years a target of 1.5C of global heating would be out of reach. Above this level, temperature increases are predicted to cause colossal disruption: 10 million more people displaced as a consequence of higher sea levels; greatly increased risk of fires, drought and extreme weather of all kinds; shrinkage of plant and insect habitats with massive effects on agriculture as well as nature; the extinction of coral.

Thankfully, and due to efforts by activists as well as scientists, in some parts of the world the climate emergency is finally receiving some of the attention it deserves. Last month’s elections to the European parliament saw Greens win nearly 10% of the seats. For a week in Britain at the end of April, when four sites in London were occupied by Extinction Rebellion activists, and the Swedish school striker Greta Thunberg met party leaders in Westminster, the story dominated the national news. This was a stunning achievement by campaigners, and appears to have had an effect. An opinion poll last week showed the environment overtaking every other issue apart from Brexit and health among voters’ priorities. As one of her final acts as prime minister, Theresa May this week committed to a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

But the danger remains. For decades, our attitude to the climate crisis has combined complacency and denial, while the number of people (and politicians) firmly committed to action on anything like the required level has struggled to climb above a tiny minority. With attention focused by recent, alarming temperature rises and emissions increases, as well as by the prospect of a series of crunch meetings at the UN, serious attempts are at last being made to frame a policy response.

The Green New Deal embraced by leftwing US Democrats and elsewhere is the best chance we have. Economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote recently that we should think of the response to climate change as a “third world war”. It is helpful to have a historical analogy on which to draw, when thinking about the transformation that is needed if we are to avoid a descent into chaos and dystopia. To be paralysed by panic would be a disaster. But there are also big differences between the situation human civilisation faces now, and any we have ever faced before.

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The Guardian, 15 Jun 2019: We must transform our lives and values to save this burning planet