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Can anyone stop climate change?

Perhaps the delegates at COP26 are asking all the wrong questions

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November 12, 2021

In the early months of the pandemic, children were neither seen nor heard. Amid the eerie silence of padlocked playgrounds and empty town centres, those earnest appeals to ‘the voice of youth’ that were prominent in every big political debate of the last decade were quickly forgotten. Gripped by an emergency that threatened adults’ health, all that mattered was managing the crisis of today; tomorrow, it seemed, would have to take care of itself.

But now the kids are back in the public domain, in the form of Greta Thunberg and her ageing entourage. The future is back on the table. Our 95-year-old monarch has urged world leaders at COP26 to make sacrifices “not for ourselves, but for our children and our children’s children, and those who will follow in their footsteps”. The wrinklies gluing themselves to roads for Insulate Britain claim they want to “protect future generations everywhere”, while their nihilistic godparent Extinction Rebellion says its goal is “creating a world that is fit for generations to come”.

Yet none of this talk about future generations is really about children, or the future. Rather, it is better understood as a highfalutin form of presentism; the projection of a state of emergency into the years ahead, to provide moral cover for political and economic decisions made by global elites above the heads of their citizens. Forget the present day, and the choices of the current demos. All that matters is action — and the only people who can act are those with the power to do so. Otherwise, as Greta says, it’s all just “blah blah blah”.

Such rhetoric might be widespread. But it cannot mask the fact that questions such as what to do about climate change are ripe for democratic decision-making — particularly because they involve weighing up the costs and benefits of policy measures in the context of our lives today and our children’s tomorrow. Indeed, rather than engaging electorates in a long-term debate, we see a global elite hell-bent on wrapping up international commitments in a two-week conference, egged on by protesters demanding that they “talk less and do more”.

Unfortunately, this call to bypass citizens in the project of ‘the future’ has some appeal — not least among young people, who have been socialised into the idea that that democratic power counts for little, and that if they want change to happen, they need to look to those with the power to bring it about. “We can’t be the ones that will make that change, we can just show that it needs to happen,” a participant in the COP26 ‘school strike’ protests told the BBC, speaking to the infantilised assumption that meaningful solutions can only come from the top down.

Implicit within this, climate activists express the sentiment of living in a ‘risk society’, in which human experience is framed by a magnified sense of threat and uncertainty, and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. The concept of risk society was theorised by sociologists such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens in the late 20th century, to capture an ‘end of history’ situation in which globalised modern threats render human agency obsolete. From this perspective, the problems confronting our society are insurmountable. When confronted with the threat of a climate emergency, to which the only possible solutions presented are swift, global, and significant measures, democratic decision-making by citizens in separate nation states seems ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst.

And yet our current state of crisis has exposed a contradiction in this denial of human agency. During the Covid pandemic, and now with the climate emergency, a fatalistic accommodation to the survivalist mentality of the risk society has accompanied a fantastically hubristic narrative offered by world leaders in politics, science, Big Tech and other globalised entities. An insistence on the unprecedented, super-infectious deadliness of Covid ran alongside proclamations that humanity could eradicate this virus; that, as in a war, we can win. With the climate emergency, however, overwrought claims of standing on the brink at “a minute to midnight” are offered as excuses for the idea that we can, in a few short years, stop the warming and turn the whole thing around.

What is offered, in this vision, is a ‘new normal’ starting from actions made today, designed to undo the damage caused by actions of the past and start again. It is a form of techno-survivalism that can only be achieved by citizens, acknowledging their powerlessness and demanding that elites use their power to make a change.

This situation was elegantly anticipated by Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish sociologist, in his 2011 book Collateral Damage. Discussing the “divorce between power and politics”, Bauman noted that “the discrepancy between available means and postulated objectives of action takes the form of a perpetual confrontation between politics afflicted by a chronic deficit of power, and power freed from politically imposed limitations”.

Bauman suggests that in our perpetual state of global emergency, the nation state is written off as insignificant, with national democracies either unfit, or incapable, of enacting the change that needs to happen. Voters are consigned, by their chronic deficit of power, to shouting at each other on the sidelines, while global elites enjoy the freedom to do whatever serves their interests according to the mandate of saving tomorrow. While consent is marshalled, or manufactured, through the spectacle of campaigners demanding that political elites do whatever it takes, techno-survivalism offers an enormous opportunity for the powerful to exercise their interests.

And yet it also creates significant problems for the elites themselves. Take the interminable sleaze scandal dogging our Tory government. With a majority of 80, Boris Johnson’s lack of opposition, both in terms of its size and its ideas, combined with its extraordinary power grab over the course of the pandemic, has handed the Executive huge latitude to do whatever it likes — something for which it is now being punished with unflattering newspaper front pages every day.

If Bauman is right, and politics has ceased to count for anything meaningful, what does that mean in practice? Ultimately, in detaching themselves from the demos, our political elite has detached themselves from the means of working out what they should be doing. And this could ultimately be their downfall. As Christopher Lasch noted in The Revolt of the Elites, by isolating themselves from their societies, elites undermine the foundation of their legitimacy.

As much as they benefit from wielding their power, an untethered elite also finds itself buying into the fantasy that the world will keep turning without human agency — of any sort. But it clearly won’t. During the pandemic, initial ‘work from home’ orders were swiftly counteracted by a swathe of exceptions, as governments were forced to acknowledge that ‘essential’ jobs required people to do them; while later attempts to cajole the WFH crowd back to the office was met with a sullen resistance. Likewise, the ‘green revolution’ planned by COP26 can be imposed from above, but will require a buy-in, with people choosing to replace their cars and boilers while calculating what this means for the quality of their lives.

As trust in politics declines, people find other means to exercise their interests; and these are less susceptible to mediation and control. For elites, legitimacy is the thing that enables them to retain authority. And that requires building a relationship with the past and present, rather than annihilating it in the name of ‘the future’.

Edmund Burke — hailed as an inspiration by the ‘intergenerational equity’ crusade — explained this rather well in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Society, he argued, should be understood as a “contract” to be looked upon with reverence, because it was not only about the needs of the present day. It is a “a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection”, which transcended the contribution of any particular generation, thus becoming “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”.

Yet today’s modern conservatives are guilty of a spectacular misreading. For them, the intergenerational contract can only be honoured by ripping up the past and legislating on behalf of the future. This free-wheeling power-grab might yield some short-term gains; but at some point, the wheels will come off. It won’t just be the future generations of the apocalyptic imagination that will bear the consequences, but those of us who are living with them right now.