Why We Need Climate Crises To Avoid Catastrophe

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cartoon of 'sun' labelled 'CLIMATE ISSUE' and politician in stovepipe hat facing away, clutching a paper headed 'election', thought bubble 'don't look at it directly'

Cartoon by Tom Toles of the Washington Post

Here are three fundamental political truths relevant to many campaigns: first, politicians aspire to be in charge and remain in charge.

Second, it is universally recognized that the first duty of government is to maintain public safety – from the integrity of the nation down to the safety of the individual.

Third, little sharpens the political mind like being held responsible.

The climate is now plainly lurching into a state of dangerous extremes: record floods are followed by record droughts, storms, heat waves and fires. Seasons are warping and nature, farming and cultures are impacted. Livelihoods and lives are threatened.

People have noticed it is changing, and they don’t like it. For instance the recent post Climate Change, Energy and Values: Surveys from Five Countries and the paper Climate Change, Energy and Values reports that 87.4% of Brazilians and 88.8% of Indians agree ‘I have noticed that the climate seems to be changing’ and 92.6% in Brazil and 85.1% in India agree ‘pollution should be controlled to limit climate change’.

No Crisis of Responsibility

Yet the impacts created by the new climate extremes tend to remain ‘disasters’ not crises. Why? Because there is no crisis of responsibility.  Scientists may inch towards closing the gap on attribution – being able to say that this or that disaster, hurricane, flood, heat wave etc, was caused with X% likelihood by human-made climate change as a whole – and that is all well and good but it will not make a big difference until politicians (or others, eg coal company shareholders) are held responsible for climate impacts.

Of course there have been attempts to attribute social and legal responsibility for climate impacts, for example to oil companies, going back to the early 1990s.  More recently leading climate scientist Myles Allen proposed it in 2005, and there have been campaign experiments like Climate Justice, but by and large the climate itself is too big to connect to individual events and individual politicians. Attempts to find a legal locus for victims such as low lying island states to sue emitters of greenhouse gases, such as the work of FIELD (Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development) are noble and desirable but beset with problems, such as, in the words of Edward Cameron a former Maldives adviser, ‘Which court? Which case? Under which law and against whom?’

Most of all these attempts make little difference to the politics. Indeed they tend to reinforce it, suggesting that victim states may sue transgressor countries, and implying that the result will may be that Mrs Average of Pennsylvania will have to pay out for damage in a foreign country.

We need instead, to start from the other end of the politics: with domestic safety, in those countries most able to exert the biggest influence, through hard and soft power, on politics, industry, technology and even but probably last, international law.

If there was a comprehensive, inclusive, watertight international political climate regime and a universally accepted World Atmospheric Authority, things would be different. Just as in an office building where the heating system developed dangerous runaway tendencies, it would be apparent who was responsible and who needed to act. But there’s no such system, and although the UN ‘Climate Convention’ staggers on, even its most enthusiastic attendees must now realise that it is a depository of commitments, not a driver of events.

It’s Your Job To Keep Us Safe

What’s possible instead is to stimulate the politics of local and specific responsibility for safety in the face of climate impacts.

Campaigners and advocates do not need and indeed should not attempt to put forward comprehensive chain-of-causality arguments or analyses, any more than it is necessary to track down the exact source of an outbreak of measles or bird flu before a government Health Ministry feels, and society demands, that it should act to try and keep the public safe from the impacts. Upstream, there are things that can be done, and need to be done, such as vaccination policy and services, and health education, and vaccine development, or changes in animal husbandry and international trade pressures that lead to conditions which lead to animal viruses jumping species to humans.

Analogously, upstream from the hurricane swamping a shore in northeast USA, or a wildfire destroying a settlement in Australia, or sustained and unseasonal extreme cold caused by blocking highs in Europe killing livestock on European farms, there are national and international policies on energy, transport and emissions reduction which need changing, and much more.

The key to initiating the politics that demands this is a public expectation of safety, of protection against the acute impacts.  The extent to which politicians realise they cannot deliver on that from their own resources, will determine the extent of their desire to cause and contribute to higher level change.  How such demands can be articulated will vary from place to place but articulated they must be if disasters are to become crises of responsibility.

Time To Get Basic

What we need is not more of the ‘high minded’ Pioneer values politics of universalism and ethics but more of the basic Settler politics of the right to survival and safety, for us and our families, and the starting-out Prospector aspirations material improvement and a chance of ‘getting on’, of bettering themselves.

Extreme weather impacts shatter hopes and dreams and undermine lives and economies: from the integrity of the local flood defences, to compensation for crop losses to storm-hardening of essential transport links and utilities and protection of sports fixtures against weather cancellation, to provision for dealing with ‘climate refugees’ and guarantees of food and water supplies or household insurance, politicians need to be held responsible for safeguarding voters and citizens against the current impacts of climate change.

With climate impacts perceived to be occurring in real time, the politics of climate can be real-time, personal and local too. What would be the bigger political crisis, the fate of future generations, or a food shortage tomorrow? The future extinction of a third of the world’s biodiversity or a housing crisis this year?

Once they have a crisis to deal with, politicians will start to look more seriously and more quickly, for the most effective solutions.

headshot of Chris Rose

Chris Rose is an ecologist and communications and campaigns consultant based in the UK, a former director at Greenpeace, campaigner with WWF International and Friends of the Earth, author and host of Campaign Strategy, a free campaign planning website. chris@campaignstrategy.co.uk

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  1. Hi Sharon,

    I agree with Chris Rose that it is time to engage with politicians using Settler politics. However I can’t see it happening openly at the moment. To clarify, I am living in an area that was hit with flooding and tornado events in late January of this year. This was our third major flood event in four years. It is now June and many people are yet to return to their homes, and of course some never will return home because their homes were washed away. Shortly after the waters receded this year I was speaking to one of the local Councillors regarding the flood and I mentioned climate change. The Councillor’s response was that the flooding was the result of our climate returning to its normal weather patterns – not due to climate change. A one in 200 year flood event is a return to our normal weather patterns? (Really? That is even scarier than climate change! But I guess no one can be held responsible if it is just the normal course of events.)

    I haven’t seen much in the way of residents and businesses here holding local or state politicians “responsible for safeguarding voters and citizens against the current impacts of climate change.” I haven’t really seen or heard anything that would indicate that even a minority of those affected by the floods and tornadoes have connected the dots that lead from the events to climate change.

    • Sherra, I’m so sorry to hear about the impact of these events – similar things have happened in Australia with bushfires, floods. There are just some areas where we should never have built (and perhaps shouldn’t be rebuilding), but also extreme events of more intensity, and less predictability.

      What you describe is worrying, but not surprising. If I were one of the affected people, I’d be too focussed on where do I live and rebuilding my life to have any time and energy left to pursuing accountability. And you’re right – people need to connect those dots first before they can take action on it. It may well be that not seeing those connections, and being able to put it down to ‘nature’, is just easier than dealing with the ramifications of needing to take action (although not easier over the longer term, as these impacts play out).

      I’m wondering: is this lobbying the responsibility of people in affected areas, those who have lost homes, and whose immediate concerns are on meeting day to day needs, or are wider alliances being built? Are there local Transition or similar initiatives to help people understand the connections between events?

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