By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg
The very laissez-faire approach with which most people greeted the news that July was the world’s hottest month on record, and possibly the hottest in 120,000 years, should concern us as much as the fact itself.
Instead of adopting an increased sense of urgency and prioritizing strategic planning, it was treated by most as if it was a story from another planet and not one that directly affects the only one that we have. This is a suicidal act of denial and stubborn refusal to change our behaviors and habits, which threatens to inflict a cataclysm on humanity and the planet itself.
At a time when the world needs something reminiscent of what the British call the old “blitz spirit,” and leadership that leads from the front on climate change, the general reaction more resembles the last days of Pompeii.
What defies logic is the fact that by now we know exactly what threat we face from climate change. We have long recognized who and what is causing it and what needs to be done about it, and we are also rather confident about what the outcome will be if we do not take the necessary steps to combat global warming.
It is also the case that despite a summer during which temperatures in southern Europe reached 45 degrees Celsius and sparked fierce wildfires in Greece, Italy and Spain, there have been similar wildfires in the US and Canada. These also resulted in the loss of lives, property, and livelihoods and the displacement of many people, but governments still rarely focus on climate change. And when they do, it is usually not in a constructive manner.
At this rate, it is feared that global average temperatures have already exceeded — even if temporarily, even if partly because of the El Nino phenomenon — the target of the dreaded 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
While climate change affects us all, it is of course the most vulnerable in society — the elderly, children, those who are ill or disabled, and the poor — who are the worst hit. Yet the political-social-economic debate around global warming continues to remain detached from the mountain of indisputable evidence.
In the West, which is responsible for a large proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions, it remains a highly contentious party-political issue, which is cynically exploited by some to win votes or hijacked by others for ideological reasons, including religious ones.
Some elected officials are not courageous enough to present voters with the full and worrying picture, nor a coherent and convincing vision of the genuine opportunities that could come from tackling the issue head-on.
In two recent British by-elections, in which climate change did not play any significant role during campaigning, the Conservatives decisively lost both seats. Meanwhile, in the run-up to a by-election in an Outer London constituency they put all their efforts into attacking London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan for imposing a policy that penalizes drivers with cars that do not meet low-emissions standards. As a result, they just managed to hang on to the seat by the skin of their teeth.
This signals that climate is going to be a major battleground in the general election due next year in the UK, with the Conservatives perhaps accusing Labour of waging a war on motorists — even though they are well aware that the Ultra Low Emission Zone, which was introduced by former Conservative leader Boris Johnson when he was London mayor, is improving air quality and will thereby save thousands of lives every year.
However, it is important for Labour not only to introduce climate-related policies that are punitive, especially during the current cost-of-living crisis, but also to introduce affordable alternatives and subsidies.
One of the EU’s main efforts for achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, replacing gas boilers with heat pumps, has proved to be badly planned and executed and has therefore resulted in a political backlash that has divided opinion.
In the US, meanwhile, during what is one of the worst eras of adversarial politics in the country’s history, Ron DeSantis, a Republican who aspires to take up residence in the White House, launched his presidential campaign by stating that he rejects “the politicization of the weather.”
In doing so, he conveniently ignored the adverse effects climate change is already having in his home state of Florida, where as governor he has presented bills that ban cities from adopting 100 percent clean-energy goals.
Even in the more progressively minded Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is struggling to deliver on his far-reaching plans for achieving net-zero.
As time runs short for our chances to contain climate change, it becomes increasingly apparent that there is no more room for incremental adjustments, or even to try to build consensus between deeply entrenched politicians — instead, it has become an imperative that we mobilize all those with integrity and a sense of responsibility to put aside their party-political differences. Their model should be similar to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic or to the war in Ukraine.
History teaches us that in democratic states, in times of peace it is almost impossible to reach a consensus on major issues, however urgent or crucial they might be, with pandemics perhaps an exception.
Painful sacrifices and the ability to mobilize all of society to overcome a severe threat or other crisis requires that we adopt a warlike footing, lest we find death staring us in the face.
Because humanity has neglected sustainable development for more than a generation, the situation has indeed now become warlike in nature and needs to be treated as such. Governments and oppositions must find common ground and get their acts together.
Tragically, the exact opposite is happening, which is what is making it so difficult to find and implement solutions that are cost effective and affordable for as many people as possible. The environment has become a tool for scoring cheap political points among those more interested in winning elections than saving the planet.
Countering climate change should not only be about taxing people and scaremongering, but about building a new, global, sustainable agenda.
Of course, the primary mission is to prevent a global catastrophe. But in parallel to that we must also present an exciting vision of a new, green economy and society in which new and better-paid jobs are created and in which our air, land and oceans are cleaner. And so that quality of life and life expectancy is improved, people are not forced to abandon their homes due to fires or floods, and biodiversity is preserved. There are plenty of examples to demonstrate that this is not only desirable but also possible.
The late British Labour politician Tony Benn once said that he divided politicians into two categories: “signposts” and “weather vanes.” The former remain loyal to their values, principles and worldview. The latter “hasn’t got an opinion until they’ve looked at the polls, talked to the focus groups, discussed it with the spin doctors.”
In a crisis of such importance as climate change, we need our leaders to stand tall and lead from the front with purpose but, unfortunately, there are too many weather vanes, blowing around in the wind. This makes it all the more crucial for all of the signposts to show up, speak as loudly as possible, and show us the way.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.