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Why Can’t Governments Solve the Climate Crisis?

Calls to build back better after the Coronavirus has provided hope now is the time we'll deal with the climate crisis. We won't, here's why

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I remember it like it was yesterday. The day the Paris Climate Agreement was announced felt like a momentous occasion. 195 countries had come together to agree on commitments to fight the climate crisis. Many considered it the world’s greatest diplomatic success. My masters class celebrated the occasion wildly. There were cheers, hugs, tears of joy that this time everything would change. It felt different, it really did.

Four years later and the USA has withdrawn from the agreement. Many countries commitments aren’t going far enough in helping to achieve targets, and the agreement is at risk of falling apart altogether. It seems that time wasn’t the time everything changed.

But with the outbreak of the Coronavirus, this time does feel different. The pandemic has flung the world into a maelstrom, we’re still not quite sure how to get out of. Lockdowns that ground society to a halt gave the environment a break. The air became cleaner, waterways became vividly blue, animals started to wonder where we had gone. We got to see a world without humans, and we liked it.

A recent YouGov survey has shown in the U.K only 6% of people want life to return to normal. There are calls, which have become louder and louder to build back better. To create a stronger, fairer, greener economy that works for everyone.

So could this time be the time where we change paths and start taking appropriate action to deal with the climate crisis?

How can we build back better?

We can’t build back better if we don’t know what building back better looks like. So a good starting point is to think of the problems we have now, and what we can do to find solutions to help build back better.

One of the biggest challenges we face is our dependence on fossil fuels to provide the energy fuelling the economy. By lowering emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels we’ll increase the chances of avoiding drastic changes to the climate system.

Pinpointing who emits lots of fossil fuels would be a great starting point. It turns out we don’t have to look far. Since 1988, 100 oil and gas companies have emitted 71% of global emissions.

The issue at present is the cost of emissions aren’t factored into prices. Meaning these companies can continue to produce products that are debilitating the climate, and face no obstacles in doing so. In fact, because fossil fuels are a core foundation of our economy, governments subsidise fossil fuel companies through tax breaks. Making it cheaper to produce the very products destroying the world.

The US government gives $20 billion per year to the coal, natural gas and crude oil industry’s, while EU subsidies amount to €55 billion. Governments encourage the status quo by funding our demise with taxpayers money.

So how can we build back better? Well, the only way to internalise the cost of emissions is to create a global carbon tax. A carbon tax would add a cost to the user of fossil fuels. If set high enough a carbon tax “becomes a powerful monetary disincentive that motivates switches to clean energy across the economy, simply by making it more economically rewarding to move to non-carbon fuels and energy efficiency.”

A carbon tax would transform behaviour leading to a rapid shift towards a green economy by pricing fossil fuel companies out of the market. The money earned through a carbon tax could then be reinvested into a renewable energy infrastructure, creating jobs fit for a future green economy.

A carbon tax would allow us to build back better. But realistically, do you think that’s going to happen?

Why we won’t build back better

Radical economic or social change is the last thing governments want right now. What’s needed is stability, to allow the economy to recover. A radical shift in policy seems unlikely when we’re in the midst of an economic crisis. It would be like taking the air supply away from a sick person fighting for their lives. It is quite literally, the last thing you would do.

What the economy needs to recover is an injection of business as usual, because the known path brings certainty. The path of build back better is an unknown entity reducing confidence in a return to a healthy economy.

On top of the economic climate, a global carbon tax would be a success of diplomacy up there with the Paris Climate Agreement itself (which as it turned out wasn’t that much of a success). Implementing a carbon tax would involve getting every country to agree with it. When you consider lots of governments are corrupted and influenced by the oil and gas companies creating the problem this seems unlikely.

Politicians are jumping on the build back better bandwagon as it’s great PR. But, as soon as we have a vaccine, things will go back to how they were before.

Another obstacle making radical reform unlikely is it would transform the way we do things. Placing a massive risk to the wealthy elite who gain their power from the system as it is. What would they have to gain from transformative change? Only the risk their power will dilute as the structure of the system changes around them.

Those who have the power to change things, don’t want anything to change.

Day to day problems

This time, won’t be any different from all the other times, for the same reason nothing changed then. So why are there wild proclamations we can build back better? Because what other option do people have other than to hope this time is the time things change?

I’m all for optimism, but when we keep on making the same mistake, over and over again, that optimism is bordering on delusion.

We need to remember governments tend to react to problems, rather than proactively create radical reform. And herein lies one of the greatest challenges in dealing with the climate crisis.

For the majority of people, the climate crisis isn’t that high up on their list of priorities.

Yes, we’re already in a crisis. A problem of breathtaking proportions. But does it feel like a problem? Not really. From the perspective of people who have bills to pay, screaming children, stressful jobs, how does the climate crisis impact their lives?

I think about the problem every day. But I don’t assume that my problems are the same as everyone else’s. For the majority, the climate crisis isn’t in their range of problems, as it doesn’t impact their lives in an obvious way.

Only when the climate crisis starts to impact people directly will they demand change. It’s frustrating, but what’s the point of living with a false sense of optimism? That won’t get us anywhere.

People aren’t interested in the temperature increasing by X degrees in X amount of years. It’s as simple as that. And if it’s not going to be a deciding factor in an election, then political parties aren’t going to make it a core policy to centre an election around. Because it won’t attract voters.

Patience is a virtue

Extinction Rebellion is just about as radical as it gets in demanding transformative change. The movement argues for peaceful rebellion in placing pressure on the government to implement change. This strategy is questionable because if governments are complicit and intertwined with creating the problem, how can they be responsible for bringing about radical change?

The climate crisis movement is misdirecting its time and energy into the wrong set of demands. Cut the sanctimonious arguments and be realistic. Nothing’s going to change while the current economic, political and social structure is in place.

What we need to do is create a compelling vision of the future and wait for the system to collapse in on itself. Because things are going to get real bad. Once they do, governments will become overwhelmed by a tsunami of problems that will overwhelm society.

The social instability caused could create a power vacuum, a moment in time providing the opportunity to change things. We need to prepare for that moment by creating the ideas, solutions and infrastructure so that when the shit does hit the proverbial fan, we’re prepared to forge a new path.

That will be a moment to build back better. Not after a pandemic which has left people with uncertainty. What people need right now is the certainty their job is safe, they can pay their bills, that loved ones aren’t at risk. What they don’t want to hear is about the environment. Hoping we’ll build back better after the pandemic is to live in a dream world.

Things are going to have to get really bad for people to take notice. It’s only when the climate crisis starts to feel like a problem affecting peoples lives that they’ll start demanding change. At that point, it will be too late for governments to do anything about it. The climate movement needs to wake up to the uncomfortable realisation that we need to be patient and let the system implode. But be damn sure to be ready when it does.