The climate crisis requires a wartime footing

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“I wish,” a longstanding US Democrat and environmentalist said to me recently, “that we’d never politicised global warming.” Even as extreme heat is demonstrating that no country will be immune from climate change, the politics are becoming more treacherous. 

Parts of the right are mobilising to slow down the path to net zero, as inflation bites and the fossil fuel industry comes under pressure. In the US, Ron DeSantis has rejected “the politicisation of the weather” — despite having had to grapple with the effects of its extremes in Florida — and House Republicans are lobbying to overturn a tax on methane pollution within the Inflation Reduction Act. In Britain, Conservatives who fear annihilation at the next election have decided to use green policies as a wedge against Labour. Even Canada’s premier, Justin Trudeau, is struggling to deliver what was a radical plan on decarbonisation. 

I have the eerie sense that some of the old tunes of the 1990s are being replayed. Although outright climate denial is now patently delusional, rightist politicians are quick to claim that the west has already done enough, or that new technology will save us. There have also been some bizarre attempts to distract from the main issue. When the skies in New York State turned orange in June, Rudy Giuliani tweeted “Is it due to wildfires, climate change or something more sinister?”. In Britain, the former Tory minister Lord David Frost recently declared that we shouldn’t worry because more people die of cold than heat. Meanwhile the hard end of the oil industry continues to lobby for projects that would be stranded assets under net zero. 

The dilemma is how to balance climate action with the preservation of livelihoods. This can feel frustrating to those of us who fear we may soon reach planet tipping points which will wreak their own economic havoc. Extreme weather has already made some US homes uninsurable. Canada has lost more land to wildfires this year than any other on record, and its Climate Institute estimates that extreme heat will threaten half a million jobs by 2050. Meanwhile Greece, Italy and Spain, which are sweltering in 40C heat, must fear for the future of their tourist industries. 

Nevertheless, it is legitimate to ask which solutions will be most cost-effective, and where the costs should fall. The path to net zero demands that governments pull off the equivalent of a new Industrial Revolution in only three decades. Politicians are reluctant to move ahead of where they think public opinion is — and the public dislike blank cheques. 

The answer is surely to invoke a wartime spirit, and make the fight against climate change a joint endeavour against a common enemy. If the public and political will is there, human ingenuity can prevail, with remarkable speed. In the second world war, America transformed its manufacturing base to produce tanks and ammunition. The Covid pandemic resulted in the discovery and development of vaccines at scale, saving millions of lives. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has finally prompted Germany to free itself from its dependence on Russian gas

What do all these cases have in common? A determined focus on a single objective, a sense of national unity and leadership by the private sector. For this to happen with climate, the political conversation has to mature. The left is correct in believing that getting to net zero will require a bigger state to mobilise resources and frame objectives. But the right is also correct that only markets are nimble and innovative enough to deliver. In Britain, some Tories are disingenuously trying to elide an unpopular tax on polluting vehicles in London with entirely separate climate policy. But many Green parties have committed similar sins, merging ‘green’ policies with ‘red’ ones — like wealth taxes, shrinking the military or, disastrously for Germany’s carbon footprint, opposing nuclear power. 

The story that voters need to hear from political leaders cannot be ideological. Long before Al Gore spoke so eloquently about the Inconvenient Truth, Margaret Thatcher warned of the growing peril of carbon emissions, and called for a framework convention on climate change in her speech to the 1989 UN General Assembly. Some modern Conservatives who consider themselves Thatcher’s disciples hate being reminded of her words that “we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort” — but she was right. 

In two decades of writing about climate change I have learnt that it provokes deeply emotional reactions. People are quick to dispute any suggestion that they should change their lifestyle, or that the world they inhabit might change. They are understandably concerned about who is going to bear the costs of decarbonisation, and whether it is fair. Many would rather not think about it too much. Individual political leaders are navigating a very complex situation, a global tragedy of the commons in which no one population wants to lose out to any other.

My American Democrat friend was right: the issue is too important to be held hostage by any one group. If we are to tackle the warming climate, we must take the heat out of the politics.

camilla.cavendish@ft.com

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