Climate – Rage, Despair and Hope

Jonathan Neale author of 'Fight the Fire' responds to the recently released IPCC report.


I read the news about climate change. Rage is the only sane response. That rage feeds despair. But if we let despair defeat hope, we are lost. So rage, despair and hope battle in my heart.

The first volume of the new United Nations’ IPCC  report on climate change has just been published. Everyone says it is a wake-up call. Yet there is a peculiar and ominous silence about action.

The annual UN climate talks will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. This year countries are supposed to agree new emissions targets for the next decade.

The environmentalist campaigns, the unions and the climate movement are not calling for specific action from that COP. The reason is Biden. Climate activists hated Trump, rightly. When Biden came to office, they waited, not just in America, but all over the world.

Biden promised to cut US emissions by just over 40% by 2030. Everyone knew that would require massive government spending. The money was there.

In 2020 and 2021, under Trump and Biden, the US will spend $4.8 trillion on Covid subsidy. That is more, in today’s prices, than the US military spent on the whole of World War Two. Austerity is over.

Biden promised $2.8 trillion on infrastructure. Climate activists hoped that would mean climate. The proposals have been cut to $110 billion a year. That includes $38 billion a year for railways, public transit, electric vehicles and clean energy. A drop in the bucket.

Biden has given in to the Republicans.

Climate campaigners are hoping Biden will face down the Republicans and conservative Democrats to make sure a massive energy bill goes through. It looks like that won’t happen.

Meanwhile, the Chinse government just repeated its promise to keep increasing their emissions each year until 2030. The US and China between them account for more than 40% of global emissions. That means their joint total of emissions will rise. Then what do you think the rest of the world is going to do?

The argument at the Glasgow COP will not be about how much global emissions are reduced next year. It will be about how much global emissions will be increased.

Climate campaigners are digesting a hard truth. We will have to fight Biden and the American government. Almost all the big organizations cannot bear to accept that yet. Hence the silence.

And there’s another reason for the silence. Politicians have set targets, made promises, talked about net zero in a distant future, declared climate emergencies. For twenty years we have waited for the market. The problem has got worse. And still global emissions rise each year.

We don’t need more promises and lies. We need government action that will cut emissions next year.

That means we need jobs. The logic is simple. We need to cut CO2 emissions from burning coal, oil and gas by at least 90% globally in the next fifteen or twenty years. We can’t do cuts on that scale by cutting our consumption by 90%. No one can take that kind of cut in the standard of living. Not in the US, or China, or South Africa.

So we need alternative energy instead of coal, oil and gas. That means we have to build enough renewable energy to provide enough electricity to power all our current uses of electricity, almost all our transport and industry, and all heating of buildings.  

I’ve just written a book about how we can do that in every country in the world. But we can’t have the renewable energy without very large numbers of workers.

Simple, really. Act to stop emissions now. Renewable energy now. Jobs now.

It’s the only way to stop climate change before it goes runaway. But that would be governments acting for the good of all humanity and all life on the planet. People, collectively, caring for each other.

Our leaders, drunk on neoliberalism, greed, capitalism and the market, fear such a solution, because it would transform what human beings can imagine.

What we need to do is clear. And scary. The campaigns, the NGOs, even the school students, are taking a deep breath. That’s the other reason for the silence.

But we need millions of voices full of rage and love screaming JOBS.

What the IPCC report says

The first thing to say about the new IPCC report is that the scientists are showing more backbone than ever before. Partly this is because they know the news is bad. Partly it’s because the school strikes have been so big, and Greta Thunberg has been so clear that all the politicians are betraying us. That gives the scientists courage. And partly because the scientists grow angrier that nothing is being done.

The report comes out every six to eight years. The headlines are:

Two years ago the IPCC published an interim report saying it was essential to keep average global temperature rises below 1.5 degrees, not the earlier goal of 2.0 degrees. They explained in great detail why more than 1.5 degrees would be dangerous.

The new report says we will probably pass 1.5 degrees in the next ten years, whatever we do. If there are no further rises in global emissions after this year (fat chance), we will pass 2.0 degrees about 2040.

The interim report two years ago was very positive on the possibility of reducing the temperature by taking large amounts of CO2 directly out of the air. This report is much more skeptical.

Unlike previous reports, the new one pays a lot of attention to the threat of feedbacks increasing the pace of warming. The one they worry about most is that the oceans, and plants and trees on land, now absorb more than half of the CO2 we put into the air every year. As the stockpile of the CO2 grows year by year, those “sinks” will absorb less of the CO2. So the same amount of CO2 emissions will heat the world more.

If we don’t get jobs

I wrote a lot in my book Fight the Fire about what human society will feel like with runaway climate change. I will not repeat that here. But let me tell you a bit about why South Africans should be afraid.

The IPCC report says that in some places rainfall will increase. But across southernmost Africa, North Africa, and West Africa the droughts will get worse. For readers in South Africa, that means the recent droughts were a warning. For small farmers, this is a stairway down to hell.

Australia, Greece and the western United States are some of the places in the world hit hardest by climate change right now. But few people in those countries live by farming. People can mostly survive and make a living.

It is time everyone knew what all farmers know. Without enough water, there is no resilience, crops will not grow and the animals die.

Across Africa, the IPCC says, in all parts, even where rainfall increases, much more of the rain will fall in torrential downpours. The soil will not absorb that kind of rain – it will just produce floods.

This will be a tragedy for South Africa. For those African countries where most people live in the countryside, it will be far worse.

Imagine a South Africa where no almost no one can make a living on the land. Where tens of millions of desperate ex-farmers from other African countries flood south. Imagine the hatred for the immigrants, the competition for jobs, the killing. Imagine what is already happening.

Imagine cities without water, far more people without jobs. Imagine how the rich in South Africa will treat the poor then.

We don’t have to imagine what the rich countries will do, Europe and the US. We have seen it with Covid. Vaccine nationalism is racist cruelty. With global warming there will be hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Look how far smaller numbers are left to drown in the Med now, or to die in the desert crossing into the US. Look how the US army will not even rescue their Afghan translators, because they are not white enough.

And all that I have asked you to imagine so far, that is with the normal changes the IPCC forsees. That is without the confluence of feedbacks that will at some point produce runaway, abrupt change. Think then of the racism, the borders, the camps, the gulags, the slums around the cities.

A final thought

Thanks to the scientists, we know what we face. Governments have the money. We know what we have to do. We can say it in two words. Climate Jobs.

I don’t know if we will win those jobs in time. I know it is possible. And if we do save each other, in the process we will transform humanity.

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Jonathan Neale is a professional writer. His books include A People’s History of the Vietnam War (The New Press, 2003); What’s Wrong with America (Vision, 2004), Stop Global Warming: Change the World (Bookmarks, 2008). He One Million Climate Jobs and wrote a report on climate jobs and transport for the European Transport Workers Federation. From 2004 to 2011 Jonathan was international secretary of Campaign Against Climate Change Britain.

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