For those paying attention to the science of climate change, it might seem counterintuitive to talk about hope.
To some it might even seem in bad taste, given that the future impacts include the melting away of the Himalayan glaciers that provide fresh water for 1.3 billion people in Asia and the possibility that many low-lying island nations may become uninhabitable.
Perhaps some would say hope is becoming irrational, given that the world’s top ocean scientists said in a major report last year that a “mass extinction event may already be underway”.
But there are still sound reasons to be hopeful about the future. However, any hopes we hold must be based on reality. False optimism, grounded in semi-magical thinking about the capacity of our unfair society to reform itself or the merits of mere technological change, is as dangerous as it is widespread. A liberating and sustainable hope is simply not possible unless we first recognise that the climate reality is almost indescribably perilous.
For example, take the newest report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released last week, which describes our current course in categorical terms. The report predicts “severe, widespread and irreversible impacts” without drastic emissions cuts. 350.org’s Bill McKibben quipped that this language, coming from traditionally conservative scientists, “falls just short of announcing that climate change will produce a zombie apocalypse plus random beheadings plus Ebola”. On top of this, the IPCC report, without doubt, understates just how advanced the crisis is.
The flip side of this crisis is the refusal of the world’s elites to accept that the science means we should change anything at all. Here in Australia, the political environment is particularly bleak. On November 5, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared coal is “the foundation of prosperity” for “now and the foreseeable future”. It’s a bit like saying eating chocolate bars for dinner is the foundation of a healthy diet.
A few weeks ago he said “coal is good for humanity”. That’s worse than saying asbestos is good for humanity. Direct Action — Australia’s new climate policy — is, I suppose, aptly named. The government will direct $2.5 billion of taxpayers’ money to Australia’s biggest polluters. In return, the polluters will take swift action to pocket that money. Not much else is going to happen though.
The truth is that the previous policy — the Labor/Greens carbon price — was also insanely generous to the companies that are fouling the planet. In its first six months alone, the policy gave away $1 billion to the dirtiest power generators. And despite this “compensation”, the same firms still raised prices by more than what the carbon price cost them.
So if you are not at least occasionally fearful or despondent about the science and the politics of climate change then you are probably not paying close enough attention.
FINDING HOPE IN A WARMING WORLD
I recently finished reading Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything and was struck by her argument about finding hope in a warming world. It is a particularly good book, not least because it seeks to follow the climate science and the political science to its conclusion. Climate change, she says, is the best argument the left has ever had to pursue fundamental social change.
Climate change does mean we have to change everything: how we live, how we meet our needs, how we organise our societies, how we relate to one another and how we relate to nature, how we look out for and care for one another, and how we envisage making these changes in the face of opposition from the most powerful, destructive and vengeful ruling class in human history.
Early in the book, Klein describes her own transition from someone who knew climate change was a problem but tended to avoid thinking about it deeply. Part of her reasoning is that it is OK to be fearful and pessimistic in the face of the facts. It’s a problem only when it becomes the sole or dominant reaction.
Klein says: “Fear is a survival response. Fear makes us run, it makes us leap, it can make us act superhuman. But we need somewhere to run to. Without that, fear is only paralysing. So the real trick, the only hope, really, is to allow the terror of an unliveable future to be balanced and soothed by the prospect of building something much better than many of us have previously dared hope.
“Yes, there will be things we will lose, luxuries some of us will have to give up, whole industries that will disappear. And it’s too late to stop climate change from coming; it is already here, and increasingly brutal disasters are headed our way no matter what we do. But it’s not too late to avert the worst, and there is still time to change ourselves so that we are far less brutal to one another when those disasters strike. And that, it seems to me, is worth a great deal.”
CARBON TRADING IS NOT THE ANSWER
This is not a rosy message, but it is hopeful. It is a far more grounded hope than that of those who are holding out for the self-interested investment decisions of enlightened billionaires to save us. It is better than those who hope, against mountains of evidence, that privatising and trading carbon molecules will save us.
It is better than the hope that incremental political reform, which does not begin to confront the rich elite who really make the decisions, can make a big difference. It’s more hopeful than those who believe a sensible response to climate change is to become planet-hackers, gambling on industrial geoengineering projects to alter the chemical composition of the sky and the oceans.
It is better than those who think the best option is to reduce the number of people on the planet instead of the number of gas wells and coalmines. And it is more hopeful than those who think the best way to campaign around climate change is to present a happy story of relentless forward progress — the “bright-siders”.
Klein says the climate crisis is disastrously bad timing — coming as it has in an era of capitalist triumphalism, the neoliberal ascendancy. But this is precisely what the climate movement has to tackle and defeat because grow-or-die capitalism is at the root of climate change. She says: “The culture that has triumphed in our corporate age pits us against the natural world. This could easily be a cause only for despair. But if there is a reason for social movements to exist, it is not to accept dominant values as fixed and unchangeable but to offer other ways to live — to wage, and win, a battle of cultural worldviews.
“That means laying out a vision of the world that competes directly with the one [presented by corporate-backed climate deniers] and in so many parts of our culture, one that resonates with the majority of people on the planet because it is true: that we are not apart from nature but of it. That acting collectively for a greater good is not suspect, and that such common projects of mutual aid are responsible for our species’ greatest accomplishments. That greed must be disciplined and tempered both by rule and example. That poverty amidst plenty is unconscionable.”
Klein says a hopeful strategy “also means defending those parts of our societies that already express these values outside of capitalism, whether it’s an embattled library, a public park, a student movement demanding free university tuition, or an immigrants rights movement fighting for dignity and more open borders.
“And most of all, it means continually drawing the connections among these seemingly disparate struggles — asserting, for instance, that the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps and health care before increasing taxes on the rich is the same logic that would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapours of gas and the last drops of oil before making the shift to renewable energy.”
CHALLENGING CORPORATE RULE
It’s not uncommon for people to dismiss this kind of argument as fanciful — if we are running out of time to prevent runaway climate change then surely we don’t have time to change the whole system too? But this objection misses the point. It’s not the case that we have to first perfect a new social system before we can act decisively on climate change. It’s that challenging corporate rule and responding effectively to global warming are part of the same, intertwined process. If there ever was a time when action on climate change and action against capitalism could be meaningfully separated, that time is long gone.
Klein puts it this way: “Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis — embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.
“That is required not only to create a political context to dramatically lower emissions, but also to help us cope with the disasters we can no longer avoid. Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakeable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilisation and barbarism.”
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