Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is an economic and existential issue.
Sir Jonathon Porritt is an eminent writer, broadcaster and commentator on sustainable development. He’s Co-Founder of Forum for the Future, the UK’s leading sustainable development charity, which has a presence in the US, India, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia. Forum also works with leading businesses here in NZ and Jonathon chairs the Air New Zealand Sustainability Advisory Panel.
Jonathan is a former Director of Friends of the Earth and was co-chair of the UK Green Party so it’s no surprise that in 2000 Jonathon received a CBE for services to environmental protection.
As Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission until 2009, he spent nine years providing high level advice to UK Government Ministers. In 2012 Jonathon was installed as Chancellor of Keele University. He’s also a Visiting Professor at Loughborough University and UCL and he’s a Director of Collectively.org.
He’s also an author. His most recent book, Hope in Hell - a Decade to Confront the Climate Emergency was published by Simon & Schuster in the UK on 24th June 2020 and will be published in Australia and New Zealand on 5th August 2020, so pre-order your hardback copy now!
A decade to confront the climate emergency?
Covid-19 has shrunk the 10 years the world had to address climate change to no more than 18 months, according to the United Nations lead negotiator for the Paris Agreement, Christiana Figueres. $10-$20 trillion is being spent around the world in economic recovery packages. This could be spent on systematically moving to a low-carbon economy.
Those 10 years that we thought we had have now been shrunk into anywhere between three to 18 months, because by the end of those 18 months all the decisions, and in fact most of the allocations of the recovery packages, will have been made. - Christiana Figueres
Can we rely on these recovery packages to do what is needed on climate? And how long do you think we really have to act?
According to Jonathon, it is certainly a pretty critical 18 to 24 months ahead of us. We're going to see trillions of dollars deployed now, to try and get our economies back on their feet.
He states: If those trillions of dollars simply take us back to our bad, old gas guzzling, carbon intensive, conventional development approaches, then it's too late because you lock in your economy to those carbon intensive patterns for the next 10 years. So we know that the trillions of dollars need to be deployed in such a way that they enable us to respond to the climate emergency, put our natural planet and ecosystems back into something resembling good health, and build just, compassionate economies for the future.
If governments press all the right buttons to make a recovery that’s good from a climate biodiversity and social justice point of view, then it will create the positive conditions for the next decade. From a climate point of view, we've got a decade to do what we need to do. Jonathan reminds us that we can't be too precise about this decade as "We've never cooked a planet before." But it is certainly the critical period of time that we're going into right now.
"We can't be too precise about whether we have a decade, as we've never cooked a planet before" - Jonathon Porritt
Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is an economic and existential issue.
Jonathan points out that the problem of identifying climate change as an environmental issue rather than a business issue or a societal issue goes right back to the 1980's when it was environmentalists who first noted the problem about climate change and said this is a really big deal, and we're going to have to address it. So it became an environmental issue.
"In the last 40 years we've had politicians in most countries all over the world putting the environment in a little box all of its own, which they don't treat seriously, they've never really cared about. It's never got politicians the votes that they think they need to get themselves into positions of power. And therefore, it's been a second order issue. So that was a mistake."
Climate change cannot possibly be seen as anything other than a massive economic issue.
The absolute consequence of us abusing the environment, and our climate is that our economies are now in fundamental disarray. We're seeing breakdown at every count in every country because of climate-induced disasters, because of collapsing ecosystems, all the sorts of things that we've seen emerge now.
The Coronavirus crisis is a consequence of our abuse of the natural world in terms of continuing deforestation and humans reaching into those parts of the world which were once the places where the rest of living life used to survive and thrive. Now we've encroached into those areas, the consequences of zoonotic diseases will plague us for the foreseeable future.
We have to see climate change, as in the first instance as a huge challenge to our conventional economic orthodoxies. And secondly, we have to see it in a much deeper way, in that it actually threatens the very existence of humankind on this planet.
It is that bigger thing if we don't get it right. If we don't address runaway climate change. If we leave it too late. Then we will see massive dislocation and the collapse of human societies all over the planet.
The disease of short-term thinking
The reality is that politicians are now going to have to be mindful of future generations as well as this generation for those who can't yet vote as well as those who can vote. There are only a couple of nations anywhere on the earth that have actually put that into their legislature. Jonathan points out that Wales, in the UK, has enacted the ‘Wellbeing of Future Generations’ Act which means that every time they have a new legislative proposal, whatever it might be, they have to take account of the interests of future generations as they make those decisions. It is an incredibly important reminder to politicians in the here and now that every single decision they take will affect people in the future.
Jonathan would like to see government's the world over enact the equivalent of this concern for future generations so that our legislatures and our democratic processes can reflect the interests of those generations as well as people here and now.
He notes that we need future thinking embedded in our decision-making because otherwise politicians will always default to the thing that is causing the most pain at the moment, the thing that is most likely to win them votes for the next election, the thing will secure favour with those in positions of power in business or the media. Short-termism is endemic in our systems. And we absolutely have to find a way of countering it.
We have indigenous wisdom to steer us in New Zealand, with the concept of inter generational thinking meaning that some of our Iwi (Māori tribes) have a thousand year strategy. The three-year political cycle in NZ pales in comparison. So building regenerative societies and economies that underscore long-termism is sorely needed.
When New Zealand decided to give legal rights to the Whanganui river, it was a defining moment to recognise the precious relationships between us, human beings and life on earth. It is simply not acceptable to go on destroying the natural world in order to make short -term profit. The voice of indigenous people around the world is absolutely fundamental to this and campaigns such as Stop Ecocide. (Jonathon supports the campaign to make ecocide - the mass damage and destruction of nature - an international crime was the life’s work of UK barrister and visionary, the late Polly Higgins.)
With COVID-19, we've seen a rapid technological acceleration: digital transformation has accelerated by three to five years in some cases. What are the opportunities to accelerate climate action from a cities perspective?
Jonathon notes that transformation for cities goes beyond just smart cities. What we see now emerging and accelerated by COVID-19, is a realisation that the future of cities is now going to be transformed over the course of the next four or five years. And that's because we have to not just decarbonise our transport systems, not just reduce our dependence on the internal combustion engine, petrol or diesel vehicles, but we have to move away from the pattern of personalised transport that we're still completely dependent on.
Moving to electric vehicles is a good thing. But it's not the end goal. The end goal is liveable cities, where we've massively reduced the number of vehicles, of any kind, on our streets. And we have done that by prioritising the interests of people using public transport. And using cycling, walking, scooters, whatever other mechanism we have available to us. This is happening now all around the world in a lot of cities that have been closed down. People don't want to go back to that congested hellhole of a place that they used to live in. In five to ten years time we may actually eliminate the use of private cars from city centres! And farsighted governments could drive those changes through right now, all the technology is there to do that right now. So that that is a big one for the world. A really big one.
In Doughnut Economics the environmental elements are based on the nine planetary boundaries of which climate is one. We asked Jonathon if he thinks climate is the most important issue or does he think that we need to be working on everything simultaneously?
According to Jonathon, climate needs to be addressed differently from other planetary boundaries. Because if you look at all the other boundary conditions, it is possible to envisage a situation in which nature would heal all the stupid things that we've done wrong. So one of them, for instance, is the build-up of nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment through intensive agriculture. And it's causing dramatic, horrendous damage to our natural systems the world over, including hundreds of dead zones in the oceans and seas. But that could heal itself in time: if we changed farming practice, those nitrogen and phosphorus systems would come back into some kind of balance. With climate, it isn't like that, because there is a level at which we reach certain tipping points. And once we go beyond those tipping points, you can't turn back.
The need for civil disobedience in a time of crisis
Jonathan started writing Hope in Hell - a Decade to Confront the Climate Emergency in the middle of the summer of 2019, which to him seems like a different era. He says the incredible upsurge of new energy from young people in particular and from movements like Extinction Rebellion was inspiring to him. He saw that there was a phenomenal opportunity now to move the climate debate into a different space with dire urgency because the science tells us that it's not going to be ‘not too late’ for much longer.
In the book, Jonathan has ended up with the disturbing conclusion that our politicians are not going to do what they need to do unless they come under massive additional pressure.
He says "I've talked in the book about the need for a different kind of politics, much more radical politics, including the use of very significant civil disobedience, to force politicians to do what they're currently reluctant to do. And that's going to be hard. But honestly, without that, I think we could see this decade just slip away with a lot more sub-optimal, very modest, conservative, inadequate solutions to the problems, rather than doing what we absolutely need to do, which is treated as the emergency that it is."
We've just learned what it takes to deal with an emergency from a pandemic. We need to learn some of those lessons and address them in dealing with the climate emergency.
Climate is different because it doesn't have reversibility built into it. We have still got a chance to reverse the damage that we've done, but we will reach a point where that damage becomes irreversible. - Jonathon Porritt
In his new book, Johnathan discusses a myriad of topics related to our climate emergency that include:
- Why we must feel a sense of hope about runaway climate change – it is NOT too late, but it soon will be – we must encourage people to act rather than make them feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem
- The role of young people and how they have ‘changed the game’ in terms of climate politics
- Why we need to be investing in innovation –further exploration into the chemistry around CO2 (carbon capture, farming carbon), efficient management of plastic waste and geo-engineering practises
- What lessons we can learn from history in order to fight climate change – it will be an endeavour similar to the anti-slavery cause and the women’s suffrage movement, both slow-burning campaigning that resulted in a change of ingrained ideology
- What we can learn from the COVD-19 crisis when fighting the climate emergency – unified action against a global threat, government sanctioned restraints, money invested in scientific research.
Buy or pre-order Jonathon's book here
Listen to our conversation with Jonathon on the Moonshot:City Podcast here
Join the Stop Ecocide campaign here
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