I’ve said it before and I will say it again: panicking won’t solve the climate crisis.
Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate activist who has now been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for sparking the worldwide school strikes against climate, deserves credit for having guts. But she only tells one side of a complicated story. In a viral speech delivered at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, Thunberg told the world to panic. Under no circumstances should policy decisions be made in a panic. This is bad business.
I have spent the past months researching how people feel about climate change and the sentiment of the pack is clear: we are scared. I do not wish to follow the lead of a frenzied herd.
Which demons will be brought into the world in the name of sustainability and at the expense of whom? Already, toxic waste from the lithium batteries used in electric cars is clogging up landfills and polluting water sources. Children are forced to labour in cobalt mines in some places to fuel the panic-buying of zero emissions mobiles in others. Climate change is scary, but so is the prospect of job insecurity if you work in oil, aviation, or fast fashion. Climate change badly alienates many. If we are not careful, then systems of inequality could be as much maintained by climate change as by other dominant forces.
Imagine walking into a therapist’s consultation room in a state of high agitation, flapping and blubbering about the end of your world as you know it. In your uncontrollable fear, you will loop your thoughts endlessly in a bid to find a solution to the wrong problem. There is nothing humans hate more than uncertainty. If the therapist is good at their job, they will calm you down before guiding you towards a reassessment of your situation.
Fear is powerful within the individual, but its driving force is almost unstoppable once it grips the masses. The narrative of fear and panic surrounding climate change is a mighty force—one which we must stop for a moment to consider the matter with a little wisdom.
There are aspects of the situation, beyond impending doom, that people should understand, particularly when it comes to expert climate knowledge. Climate change is already a politicised and institutionalised beast. We need to get a better grip on how climate change plays out in the hands of experts and leaders. I am sorry to tell you that they have some answers, but not all of them. Thunberg railed against world leaders and climate experts for their inaction, yet scientists and politicians have been working their arses off for decades trying to better understand the problem. It must feel a little unfair.
Many in our modern society rarely question scientific knowledge. Ideas like consensus and uncertainty might need to be better understood by those of us who don’t generate climate models on a daily basis. We cannot expect models to be certain, because no one on this planet (to the best of my knowledge) has ever lived the future. To gather a deeper understanding of expert scientific climate knowledge, I asked researcher Scott Bremer, an expert on experts at the University of Bergen, what exactly scientific consensus on climate change is.
Bremer, who studies the way we produce science on climate change, thinks that scientists need to get smarter at communicating the uncertainty around their climate knowledge. I do not remember ‘Climategate’ a decade ago because I was drunk at my first year of university, but Bremer reminds me about the email leaks from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU). The leaks led to climate sceptics roaring about climate change conspiracy theories across the internet. The sceptics had seen words like ‘uncertainty’ flying through the documents and had got fired up. They were misguided, but then, perhaps it is only fair to expect confusion from people who do not speak the language of climate science. Few of us do. Bremer patiently explains uncertainty and consensus within climate science to me like this,
“Science should be open and honest about what it’s doing, what it knows, what it doesn’t know. That is a pillar of modern science. If we start to see [uncertainty] being hidden from the public, then that erodes credibility. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, uses peer review and consensus to establish credibility. I believe in the consensus model, in some ways it’s probably the best we can do, but some people think it hides the uncertainties or opens up opportunities for political games.”
Bremer is right, we do not need to be babied about climate change any more than we need to indulge blindly in climate martyrdom. What worked so well with Thunberg’s speech is that it woke us up from our sleepy dependency on expert culture. In many ways, I applaud her approach. There is always value in sticking your head above the crowd and speaking up, it just doesn’t need to be synonymous with a sustained state of panic.
Climate change is caused by human activity, it is happening right now, and is a huge threat to lifestyles and lives around the world. We do need experts who work hard to make the world a safer place, but we also need to understand better how they work and why. Realising that climate scientists and politicians cannot do all the work for us is like that moment when you realise your parents are people too. Most of us are just doing our best. There are no easy answers, climate change, like life, is hard. But you know what’s harder? Trying to solve a massive problem with your knickers in a twist.
After years of pinning the responsibility of preventing the worst excesses of climate change on the individual—use paper straws, recycle, don’t use plastic bags, and buy an electric car—people are finally starting to see the existential threat of climate change for what it is: a crisis of capitalism. That nearly a third of England is being hoarded and kept in the firm clutches of a staggeringly wealthy elite—one that’s been able to spend centuries ensuring their land is passed on from generation to generation with minimal intervention—is, to put it simply, obscenely wrong. So, what are we to do and how does this fit into the question of climate change?
Though many are still reluctant to accept that the only way to fight the impending crisis is ultimately by overthrowing the unsustainable yet all-consuming might of global capital, with its devotion to perpetual growth on a planet with dwindling resources, there is still hope to be found in the fact that people are actually talking about the need for systemic change—even if it sometimes doesn’t quite go far enough.
In April we saw Extinction Rebellion mobilise thousands on the streets of London protesting against the government’s lack of action, engaging in disruptive direct action across the city for nearly a fortnight. All the while, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg continued her global tour with seemingly every European media outlet in tow as she passionately rallied against the politicians who are responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. Although arguably a somewhat empty gesture, the U.K. parliament even officially declared that we’re now in in the midst of a ‘climate emergency.’ Despite any reservations you may have about the effectiveness of all, or some, of the above, it is still a testament to the fact that the public consciousness has become increasingly attuned to the severity of the problems facing us and the urgency with which we need to fight back.
That’s not to say the radical anti-capitalist critiques and strategies we desperately need aren’t being made though. Whether it’s AOC’s ‘Green New Deal’ in the U.S., Labour’s calls for a ‘green industrial revolution’ or the emergence of think tanks and campaigning bodies such as Labour for a Green New Deal and Common Wealth, the argument that decarbonisation has to be at the heart of any transition beyond capitalism (and vice-versa) has been picking up steam; highlighting the need for radical state intervention and a whole new political and economic way of life if we truly stand any hope of preventing the crisis.
But despite the increasing popularity of these ideas, the same question always rears its head: how are we meant to pay for it? After all, the work we’ll need to do (first and foremost, investing massively in renewable energy and public transport) will, of course, require huge amounts of money. Though, contrary to what we’re led to believe, there are a multitude of ways in which we could fund the action we urgently need to take—the choice being a political, not economic one. And yes, that means we need to remodel taxation in a way that sees the richest people and corporations make a far greater contribution.
Perhaps perfectly articulating the need for a new system that’s both environmentally sustainable and curbs the unequal distribution of wealth under capitalism—as well as opening a vantage point in which we can begin this process—could be the first step towards change.
Some new research by the author Guy Shubshole for his book Who Owns England? found that half of all land in England is owned by less than 1 percent of the population. Without even unpacking those statistics they go a long way in showing the need for radical change but what makes that especially clear is the fact that 30 percent of that land is controlled by the aristocracy and gentry.
Well, first, it’s clear that we urgently need to remodel taxation in such a way that’s heavily weighted towards those with excessive amounts of land. Whether it’s by reforming inheritance tax or introducing some sort of land value tax—a form of taxation based on the market value of the land itself, not just the property that sits on top—the money that could be raised through such measures would be hugely valuable if invested in green technologies and infrastructure. Better yet, on top of this, through incentives—or, you know, force (desperate times call for desperate measures)—we could just straight-up expropriate some of the vast rural land that’s hoarded by the aristocracy and use it for wind and solar farms or even rewilding, which would not only help us on our mission to decarbonise but, in the case of the latter, actually reduce some of the damage we’ve done already.
Obviously, the above strategies simply won’t be enough on their own. The task ahead must be rooted in the local, national and, most importantly, international. Even if England alone manages to decarbonise, our efforts won’t be enough if similar commitments aren’t made worldwide. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though. Despite the fear that ‘overpopulation’ being the problem, the richest 10 percent of the world’s population is responsible for half of all CO2 emissions and just 100 corporations are responsible for 71 percent of emissions.
So, it seems only right that the first order of business for any sort of left-wing environmental project should be turning to the super wealthy first. Taking the problem of land hoarding by the elite and turning it into an opportunity to tackle climate change would not only be slightly satisfying, given they are the ones that have created this mess, but also, in the long run, be a huge benefit to not just the environment, but people and communities too.