Only bold political vision will prepare the public for climate change

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Shana Cohen05/08/2021

The recent climate catastrophes and human cost, the revelations about Pegasus cybersecurity, and the billionaires’ space race all reflect the pernicious impact of inequality and the global failure to act against climate change.

They also evoke a dystopian future. One where the wealthy have disproportionate access to the resources needed to survive, like water and energy, and the rest of the population is monitored through surveillance tools for how they use what’s left. The truly rich look to jumping planet, justifying the extraordinary expenditure on space travel as being for the public good, if not billions in profit.

More to the point, however, the level of technological sophistication available to governments spying on opponents and billionaires seeking space glory contrasts alarmingly with the poor planning and inadequate protection that made the recent floods in Germany so dangerous for average citizens.

When academics, activists, and policymakers fight to control climate change, they concentrate on altering individual and corporate behaviour, like reducing household waste or energy consumption. They lobby governments and international organisations to enforce behavioural change.

What’s missing, though, is the transformative vision needed to counter the growing evidence of what will happen if too little is done, whether by deliberate choice or inability to reach political agreements.

If we had this type of brave and unequivocal vision for Ireland, we could describe a country 15 years from now where wind energy exports are set to drive economic growth; boat and train travel are far more common, short-haul flights are banned except for emergencies, and city centres are pedestrian-only. We would speak of a future where supply chains for food and clothing are more localised, creating jobs, revitalising small farms, and regenerating rural and coastal communities; where food choice itself has altered significantly, as vegan options are increasingly sophisticated and dependent on sea and land farms, as well as lab production. We could envisage a country where water and energy costs and use amongst households and businesses are publicly regulated but also sustained through investment in infrastructure and R&D; where recycling clothing, electronics, appliances, and furniture is commonplace and a sought-after skill; where urban gardens and bee farms are popular and widespread; and where the rights to clean air and water are fiercely protected by the public.  

Critically, in this vision for Ireland, individual responsibility for collective welfare will have become normalised as a political idea and policy framework. Irish researchers, NGOs, and government representatives likewise participate in global networks of universities, civil society organisations, companies, and government and international agencies whose collaboration has not only advanced innovation but also highlighted the importance of democratic participation in climate action and reducing inequality between and within nations.

This vision may seem unrealistic (and way too progressive for some), but at least it offers constructive, comprehensive guideposts to the upheaval and reformation required in lifestyles, aspirations, the labour market, and business opportunities.

Instead, climate action is often presented in piecemeal fashion and within an economic narrative. Consumers are encouraged to adopt an affordable suite of lifestyle alterations, politicians debate a range of punitive measures and incentives aimed at influencing individual and business behaviour, and businesses alter their investments and behaviour while shifting attention to technological innovation that will both help the environment and earn profits.

Correspondingly, the 2021 National Climate Action Plan in Ireland stresses the importance of cost effectiveness in policy implementation and the obligation to protect competitiveness and maximise employment. The narrative of the European Green Deal also largely refers to economic concerns and market-based mechanisms, namely moving away from a fossil fuel economy and pushing the adoption of carbon pricing. In recent (July 14) remarks, President Ursula von der Leyen explained that the Deal “shows the value that this transformation will generate and how public and private investment can – and will, of course – work together to make it a reality.” She emphasised the success of the existing Emissions Trading System in incentivizing innovation and reducing emissions, and its potential across new sectors like construction and transport.  Ultimately, it is market-driven measures combined “with the right social balance” and investment that will allow the EU to “build for our future by design and choose a better, a healthier and a more prosperous way for the future.”

In contrast, critics of ambitious climate action ground their arguments in familiarity, with the world they know and like and the market economy they wish to protect. Their vision of the future is the present, albeit with more unpredictable weather and collateral damage. Unburdened by an unknown future, they argue for relying on technology to compensate for global warming rather than dramatic shifts in behaviour. The right-wing American Cato Institute, founded by the Koch brothers, who earned their fortune in oil, sums up this position: “contrary to much of the rhetoric surrounding climate change, there is ample time to develop such technologies, which will require substantial capital investment by individuals.”

Certainly, the EU and national governments should adhere to policies that lead to reduced carbon emissions and strengthen resilience to more extreme weather. But they must go further, and visualise a new way of being. Despite the devastation in their country, the Greens response to the floods in Germany exemplifies the management and mitigate, rather than the transformative, approach that could help both better prepare the public for future weather events and engage in climate action.

This hesitation to be visionary, whether in Germany or elsewhere, will hinder confronting the climate crisis. It will prevent politicians and the public alike from imagining an alternative and positive future - a vision which would light the way forward for us all, not just those able to escape to bunkers in New Zealand or the stars.  

Posted in: EnvironmentInequality

Dr. Shana Cohen

Shana Cohen

Dr. Shana Cohen is the Director of TASC.

She studied at Princeton University and at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a PhD in Sociology. Her PhD analyzed the political and social consequences of market reform policies in Morocco for young, educated men and women. Since then, she has continued to conduct research on how economic policies have influenced political and social identity, particularly in relation to collective action and social activism.

She has taught at George Washington University, the University of Sheffield, and most recently, University of Cambridge, where she is still an Affiliated Lecturer and Associate Researcher.  Her areas of teaching have included global social policy, globalization, and human services.

Before coming to TASC, she was Deputy Director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge. In her role at the Institute, she became engaged with interfaith and intercultural relations in Europe, India, and the Middle East.

Beyond academic research, Shana has extensive experience working with NGOs and community-based organizations in a number of countries, including Morocco, the US, the UK, and India. This work has involved project design, management, and evaluation as well as advocacy. She has consulted for the World Bank, the Grameen Bank Foundation, and other private foundations and trusts.


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