The British scientist and creator of the Gaia theory, James Lovelock, who recently passed away at 103, noted dismally in an interview for the Guardian several years ago that “the biosphere and I are both in the last 1 per cent of our lives”. He said that, “Up until now, the Earth system has always kept things cool on the Earth, fit for life, that is the essence of Gaia. It’s an engineering job and it has been well done.”
Variations of his doomsday scenario have appeared repeatedly this summer, as heatwaves, heat warnings and record-breaking temperatures become increasingly normalised. Activists like Bill Maguire have warned that today’s temperatures will seem cool to future generations and that heat levels will wreak havoc on public health services, energy infrastructures, and transportation and ultimately upend the way we lead our lives, where we live them and what we can expect to achieve.
Regardless of how accurate these predictions eventually turn out to be, governments will have to prepare their citizens to adapt and respond to the short- and longer-term impacts of climate change. This preparation goes beyond infrastructural investment such as retrofitting houses to planting trees for shade to include developing the skills and resources of citizens themselves. How governments go about this may differ between “liberal” and “illiberal” democracies and autocracies, but only liberal democracies possess the tools necessary to truly enable citizens to become more resilient in the face of the inevitable upheaval that will accompany climate change.
Recent struggles to pass and implement climate legislation in Ireland and the US would seem to contradict this argument. In Ireland, the agreement on sectoral emissions ceilings provoked frustration and disappointment across the board. The 51 per cent carbon emissions target for 2030 will supposedly not be met, various sectors have protested their higher targets to compensate for the voluntary 25 per cent target for agriculture and, particularly, small farmers have contended that the targets will undermine what is already an industry under threat. In the US, the Inflation Reduction Act only passed after Senators Joe Manchin and Kirsten Synema received the add-ons or omissions to the Bill they wanted, and despite the Bill’s unanimous rejection by Republican senators.
However, policies and projects pursued by autocratic regimes – and often right-wing and far-right politicians within democracies – tend to avoid resilience-building measures altogether. Liz Truss has reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to net zero while emphasising the importance of cure-all tax cuts over emissions reductions.
Truss also puts her trust in innovation and technology, when she affirms “we need to do things better”. Trust in technology allows political leaders to avoid considering how their societies – and their expectations of governments – will have to change as temperatures and weather events become more extreme.
Prince Muhammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia’s Neom project represents probably one of the most egregious examples of an autocratic regime placing faith in innovation while willfully ignoring the need for social and political transformation. An intended model for cities of the future, the project, called “The Line”, will be built on 34sq km to reduce its infrastructure imprint and rely entirely on renewable energy to maintain an “ideal” year-round climate. It will not have cars, roads or emissions, and residents will be able to access whatever they need on foot or by rail.
Residents will also live under both the direct rule of the prince and constant surveillance, as the structure will require substantial data-gathering to function. Unsurprisingly, the project has received criticism not just regarding its viability and displacement of the indigenous population, but also its potential to create a dedicated space for the rich to protect themselves against climate change.
Disruption and disorder
Projects like The Line do not address the need to build social resilience because they are essentially promising continuity, or even a better quality of life, with technological advancement. But these projects cannot escape their social dimension. Even their success will hinge on citizens accepting disruption and disorder if anything goes wrong.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines resilience as “not just the ability to maintain essential function, identity and structure, but also the capacity for transformation”. Enhancing the capacity to do this relies on intra-government co-ordination around policymaking and implementation, government accountability and transparency, and social mobilisation, or raising public awareness and promoting public engagement, including social movements. In other words, the political context matters, especially with regard to how human rights are protected in law and practice.
Perhaps the best models for building society’s capacity for transformation have little to do with our experience of the impact of climate change to date. In Ireland and the US, citizens have mobilised for the right to have an abortion. It has been done through the dissemination of information and is based on an understanding of their rights and how they will be affected by new policy and legal decisions. Social networking and organised protests have played a part.
Resilience in the face of climate change will depend on citizens of different backgrounds possessing the same knowledge of policy, climate change and their individual rights, as well as the ability to have their voices heard. In Ireland, where public information can be hard to come by and the government bodies closest to citizens, or at a local level, have little power, the Government has a way to go.
Shana Cohen is director of Tasc, the think tank for action on social change