Climate is not just changing – it is breaking down

Danger and destruction of global warming must trigger real modification of behaviour

Climate change or climate breakdown? Growth or wellbeing? Growth as development? Degrowth? Prosperity without growth? Climate capitalism or ecosocialism?

It matters hugely how this week’s news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is framed in public debate. The most authoritative scientists tell us that unless global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial times, the world faces extreme weather events, food shortages, wildfires, dying coral reefs, droughts, floods and poverty for hundreds of millions.

To avoid this outcome, the world economy needs a transformation of unprecedented speed and scale, involving far-reaching changes in society. We have only 12 years, they say, to achieve it by making huge strides towards eliminating greenhouse gases arising from fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. The report underlines the qualitative difference between the 1.5- and 2-degree reductions previously seen as less stark. The case for radical action is reinforced by its finding that on present trends we are heading for more than a 3-degree increase by 2100 – catastrophic territory.

Climate change is an anodyne and demobilising way to describe such urgent tasks and prospective disasters, according to the ecological writer and activist George Monbiot. That’s why he calls his online movement #climatebreakdown. He makes a powerful case for the more dramatic word, to get more people talking about it and media to take the threats much more seriously.


Failure on both counts is readily seen in the tepid Irish public and media response to the IPCC report. Behaviourally, Ireland is hurtling towards the 3+ warming, whether measured by the rampant consumerism driving up our global ecological footprint; our meat-intensive agriculture and diet; the budget’s failure to implement a carbon tax; and the uncritical commitment to economic growth of markets as the only guarantor of wellbeing, development and prosperity.

Steady state

Climate breakdown on this scale poses huge conceptual, ideological and political challenges alongside the physical and technical ones. Herman Daly, whose book on steady-state economics in the 1970s pioneered modern environmental economic analysis, explains in a recent interview that steady-state comes from the realisation that “the economy is a sub-system of a larger system, the ecosphere, which is finite, non-expanding, materially closed”.  We now “convert too much of nature into ourselves and our stuff, and there’s not enough to provide the biophysical life-support services that we need”.

Market and consumer capitalism predicated on unlimited growth is in conflict with these planetary limits. That’s why Daly and similar thinkers sharply distinguish growth, a quantitative concept with no limits, from development, a quality which does not need to get bigger to get better. Such intellectual and analytic decoupling is necessary, they argue, if humanity is to escape the perils of ecological disaster heralded in the IPCC report.

Such alternative ideas are badly needed in these dangerous times

Wellbeing should not be automatically bracketed with growth defined as progress and development. Prosperity Without Growth is the title of a book by Tim Jackson which explores these issues. Its second edition in 2017 is subtitled Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow and investigates how social organisations and companies can adapt to these new realities. He discusses post-growth and degrowth strategies to achieve wellbeing without breaking ecological limits.

Growth dependency

Jackson’s work has inspired social and environmental movements throughout the world. He is one of the signatories of a letter from 238 social scientists and economists to the European Commission last month calling on the EU to end the growth dependency. They propose a special commission on post-growth futures in the European Parliament, the use of alternative macroeconomic indicators emphasising wellbeing, renaming the stability and growth pact, and establishing a ministry of economic transition in each member state.

Another signatory of the letter is Peadar Kirby of the University of Limerick, the author of several books on these themes. His latest work poses the question of pathways beyond the optimism underlying climate capitalism, which claims it will be possible to make the low-carbon transition by technical-scientific means, including large-scale geoengineering. Not so, says Kirby, because capitalism’s commitment to indefinite growth cannot be reconciled with a sustainable future for humanity.

In that case, he argues, we should draw inspiration from the Austrian socialist economist Karl Polanyi who argued in the 1940s and 1950s that capitalism disrupts social relations so profoundly as to provoke periodic movements to counter and reconstruct market power. We are living through such a period, he suggests. Ecosocialism, combining local sustainable initiatives with worldwide analysis and action, is his preferred way forward.

Such alternative ideas are badly needed in these dangerous times.