Collaboration needed at a global level

Date: Monday 13th May 2019

IN the last week, voters in Eden elected their first Green councillors, the UK Parliament became the first in the world to declare a climate emergency, Rory Stewart offered an unequivocal recognition of that emergency (“Word from Westminster”, 4th May) and 10 of the signatories to the letter (Herald, 29th April) pledging to call for a climate emergency motion in Eden became members of Eden District Council.

Those of us who are campaigning for recognition of the crisis can feel there is real progress. But our optimism needs to be tempered by the acknowledgement that recognising a crisis is only the start. What will count is effective and sustained action.

The rational and essential response to crisis is to face the challenge, avoid denial of its gravity, ensure that we critically analyse its character and dimensions and deploy our skills and resources to respond as effectively as we can. Only this will offer hope of a solution.

In this context the recognition by Mr Stewart that we cannot “dwell on what we have done” and that “we could do much more at national level to reduce our carbon emissions” is welcome. But he does not put any time scale on the urgency of action.

To have a realistic chance of averting the impending catastrophe of runaway global temperature rises, the International Panel on Climate Change sets a target of 87 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. Parliament, on the other hand, while claiming to have recognised the crisis, seeks only 80 per cent by 2050. What is the timescale that Mr Stewart has in mind?

His calls for an eclectic “range of policies” and “moral courage and grinding common sense” are also welcome. As publications like the Zero Carbon Britain reports from the Centre for Alternative Technology demonstrate, we are far from being without knowledge and technology to address the crisis.

But as Mr Stewart is acknowledging, the problem is also one of human values. However, when he says “it will require a unique philosophy of action that is unashamedly modern and romantic, individualistic and international, idealistic, popular and practical”, I wonder exactly what he means. I can absolutely concur with the commitment to modern, international and practical, but I am less convinced by romantic, individualistic, idealistic and popular.

My most serious doubt arises from the term “individualistic”. If what he means by it is simply that we all have individual responsibility that is fine, but individualism as an ideology is antithetical to the kind of world that will be capable of tackling the challenge.

To be individualistic in this sense implies each person is acting for themselves in a competitive world that encourages exploitation of opportunity for personal gain, irrespective of the consequences for others.

It is precisely this kind of approach that, as other correspondents have pointed out (Herald, 4th May), has justified exploitation of the earth for perpetual and unsustainable economic growth. Mr Stewart aspires to lead his party, but it is the party whose revered past leader, Margaret Thatcher, in defence of individualism, offensively declared “there is no such thing as society”.

What is needed is not individualism but collaborative and joint action, ultimately at a global level, to ensure the wellbeing of life on the planet. In a democracy, radical policy needs consent of the people, and the indications are that that may be emerging. However, with the threat of climate change combined with the equally urgent one arising from our decimation of the natural environment, highlighted in the UN Global Assessment Report this week, some of what needs to be done may not be popular.

We need leadership from all parties that is cognisant of the facts and brave enough to challenge and persuade when proposed actions meet opposition. Our life support system is at stake.