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Whence Leadership on Climate Change?

carbon footprint graphic

The latest news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) could hardly be more stark and urgent. 

The contrast between the impact of rises of 1.5deg C and 2deg C in global temperature over pre-industrial levels (after 17th century) is so dramatic, the choice is obvious.

To have any chance of achieving this, the IPCC is clear; we need to cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 45% below 2010 levels within the next 12 years; we need to reach ‘net-zero’ by around 2050.

A piece in the Washington Post described this as “transformation of human civilization at a magnitude that has never happened before.”

A visual representation of the journey that lies before us reveals powerfully the scale of the challenge. The IPCC report makes it clear that a failure to achieve emissions reductions on the scale proposed will likely lead to mass immiseration – economic impoverishment - and widespread ecosystem collapse.
In the words of American writer Rebecca Solnit in the Guardian newspaper:

We are deciding now what life will be like for the children born this year who will be 82 in the year 2100, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren. 

They will curse the era that devastated the planet, and perhaps they’ll bless the memory of those who tried to prevent its destruction. 

In short, this is a moment for heroism, for inspired and courageous leadership, for the building of the mother of all legacies. Wartime metaphors are being invoked – mass mobilisation around shared concerns, pulling together in the face of seemingly insuperable odds. 

Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, for one, calls for the introduction of resource caps, a form of rationing that would set clear and enforceable limits on energy and resource use. He points out almost 50% of global carbon emissions arise from the activities of around 10% of the global population, increasing to 70% of emissions from just 20% of citizens. 

“Impose a limit on the per-capita carbon footprint of the top 10% of global emitters, equivalent to that of an average European citizen, and global emissions could be reduced by one third in a matter of a year or two”, he asserts.

And so, the stage is set for the heroic response, the epoch defining break with failed past policies, the act of courageous leadership that shifts public policy unmistakably towards the achievement of the Paris and post-Paris targets.
An obvious and relatively easy place to start is with food.  We know that high consumption of animal products – especially beef and lamb are associated with especially high carbon footprints

In response to increased public awareness on this front, there has already been a surge in the popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets.  This is an area, in short, in which the public is already aware and responding.

Given this, it is nothing short of shockingly irresponsible for the UK’s climate minister, Claire Perry, to say that it is not the government's job to advise people on a climate-friendly diet, nor even to show some modest leadership by saying she herself would eat less meat.

When asked whether the Cabinet should set an example by eating less beef, she said: "I think you're describing the worst sort of Nanny State ever.” 

This puts the spotlight on core beliefs around the role of the state, a crucial question when it comes to how we respond to the potential perils associated with climate change and biodiversity loss. 

Over the last thirty years or so, the ‘self-hating’ state – especially within the Anglo-American model of capitalism – has abdicated ever greater responsibility to markets and to the corporations that rule them. 

However, the challenge that now lies before us demands long-term, strategic thinking of a type that markets are simply not designed for. 

The transition from fossil fuels to renewables, from agro-industry to agro-ecology, from energy-expensive to energy-light housing and transport systems requires strategic planning and resource mobilisation that only the state can provide.