The failure of the recent UN summit in Poland to reach an agreement reflecting the urgency of the accelerating climate crisis is, sadly, no surprise. World political leaders clearly lacked the courage and vision to take adequate action. But why should they, when most of them are under so little pressure from their societies to do so?
Environmentalists often agonise, with good reason, about the lack of traction their ideas find among the general public. And with the elections of Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil, it has become evident that there is a new mass trend of active hostility to almost any environmental regulation.
The increasingly rapid advent of climate collapse makes this trend especially alarming, for those who have listened to what science is telling us. Indeed, one might have expected the high-profile drama of the climate change narrative to mobilise more people, and not fewer, to embrace environmental issues. After all, this is not a story about the extinction of some obscure owl or ugly tree frog. It is, quite conceivably, about the extinction of human civilisation.
But despite the compelling evidence scientists have amassed, many citizens remain sceptical. And even among those who accept the science – think IFA, think Bord na Móna – the attitude is “Lord, make us climate compliant, but not yet”. There is very little popular enthusiasm for painful measures, even when they are designed to avert catastrophes that will have an impact on us all.
If we want a clue to this failure of environmental imperatives to engage voters, we need look no further than a telling slogan, used by the “yellow vests” during their protests in France. Their insurgency was sparked by the forthcoming introduction of a carbon tax on diesel, now postponed and possibly abandoned. President Macron had justified this tax, often advocated by environmentalists here, to disincentivise the use of fossil fuels, and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
So you could argue that the protesters are acting directly against their own vital interests, and the interests of future generations, in resisting this measure.
But the gilets jaunes are unmoved by this argument, and their slogan neatly explains why. "Macron talks about the end of the world," they say, "but we are talking about the end of the month."
It is far too easy, for those of us who have no great difficulty making our personal monthly accounts balance, to say that this slogan is irresponsible; that it puts short-term economic concerns above the future of humanity.
This response misses two key points underlying such protests. The first point is one that environmentalists, who are supposed to know something about natural history, should grasp at once. If an animal is under immediate threat from a predator, it will not pay much attention to a distant fire, though that fire may be a very real threat to the habitat it needs to survive.
Many human animals today face a mounting series of real and present economic dangers that make daily life miserable and frequently end in homelessness. They are not going to listen very attentively to warnings of future dangers from a financially insulated elite.
The climate crisis has been created, to a massive extent, by the richest countries, the richest corporations
The second point is closely tied to the first. The experience of the 2008 economic crisis has taught working-class and squeezed-middle-class people worldwide one brutal lesson: in our era, the people least responsible for crises pay most for them, and the people most responsible for them pay least; or rather, the latter often double their money.
Centrist and social democratic parties, which used to offer their constituents some protection from economic storms, have abandoned ship to join the new deregulating capitalist elites. Starting with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, they have acquiesced in the removal of almost all the bulwarks that used to shelter skilled and unskilled workers from the harsh winds of the markets. And when economies have been shipwrecked as a result, these parties have embraced austerity regimes that hit the poor hardest. Meanwhile, the transfer of wealth to the super-rich has become a flood.
So trust in the political class – and in the kind of “experts” who gave us subprime mortgages and bogus derivatives – is at a historic low, at the very moment when there is an unprecedented need for politicians to gain support for painful reforms, guided by scientific expertise.
It is true that some green parties have espoused socially conscious, and even leftist, economic policies, at least in opposition. But despite some very honourable exceptions, the environmental movement has often failed abysmally to engage effectively with social injustice and inequality issues. Some environmentalists still give the impression of caring more about polar bears than about unemployed neighbours.
In government, our own Green Party had no distinctive voice when the banking crisis hit. Despite John Gormley’s claim to have subsequently brokered a “progressive” form of austerity with Fianna Fáil, the party had caved in to the establishment’s insistence on protecting bankers, bondholders and developers, and had abandoned the little people.
Small wonder few people listened to the Greens when the little people finally fought back, and that the unfortunate trigger for that rebellion was an environmental tax in the form of water charges.
Unless the environmental movement learns to link social justice and equality directly to its own legitimate concerns, it will never gain the political traction these concerns urgently merit.
But this linkage does not have to be invented out of nothing. It is already evident in so much of what we know about the climate crisis. It has been created, to a massive extent, by the richest countries, the richest corporations, and the richest individuals.
A global green movement should campaign for those most responsible for the crisis to pay for it, in proportion to the damage they have done. That would revolutionise our prospects of stabilising the world’s climate. And such a campaign would also reverse the upward redistribution of wealth, that perverse hallmark of our overheated age of greed.
Paddy Woodworth is the author of Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century (Chicago 2015)