In our current era of wildly overheated political discourse, there are few things as remarkable as the gap between people’s stated preferences (what they say they believe) and their revealed preferences (what they actually do). We see this in the recent trend for liberal Americans, particularly in the country’s northwest, to begin a speech with a preamble acknowledging that they stand on land stolen from one Native American tribe or another, without showing any intention of actually divesting themselves of their property and returning it to the tribe in question: it’s a purely rhetorical device, and surely quite insulting in its effect.
We’ve stolen your land, they say, and we’re very sorry about this terrible injustice — but we’ll keep it all the same. Similarly, when purveyors of political discourse claim that America is now a white supremacist or even Nazi state — as in this response to the Rittenhouse verdict — you wonder why they aren’t urgently fleeing to some safer location, or at the very least organising some kind of underground armed resistance movement. People say all kinds of wild things, but if they don’t follow through on the logic of their claims, then it’s very hard to actually believe them.
A similar dynamic is observable in terms of climate change discourse, particularly with the Extinction Rebellion movement and its offshoot, Insulate Britain. Both their activists and spokespeople make the most alarming claims about the imminent end of civilisation, perhaps within the next couple of decades. But their revealed preferences don’t seem to match the intensity of their predictions.
Personally, if I genuinely believed that Britain was going to become a post-apocalyptic wasteland within the next twenty years, I wouldn’t be campaigning for the Government to retrofit British houses with insulation: I’d be selling everything and fleeing to the hills in a desperate effort to keep my family alive. And yet they don’t. I have friends who go on XR demonstrations, and repeat their most apocalyptic prophecies, yet show no inclination of altering their middle-class lives in London: their revealed preferences therefore cast great doubt on their stated beliefs.
It seems that, with climate change in particular, there are only two modes of thought for most people: either nothing will change at all, or everything is about to collapse in horrible and world-destroying ways. There is a more obvious conclusion that people seem resistant to thinking about: that things will change, in many ways for the worse, but life will go on. As the Green philosopher Rupert Read asks: “why do we find it so hard to think about a world where the climate has changed massively, veering between ‘it won’t make much difference, everything is going to be fine’ to ‘it’s the apocalypse, the end of the world, there’s nothing we can do’, but refusing to think about the awful, but more middling realities?”
It would seem more productive, then, instead of continuing with the path of climate change mitigation — which is probably now too late to succeed — or of giving everything up for lost, to instead focus popular attention on adaptation: on making the best of a situation we cannot change, but which is far from an apocalypse, at least for the UK.
The issue at hand is that Britain is responsible for a mere 1% of global carbon emissions, so that even if we achieved Net Zero tomorrow, nothing will change in terms of arresting climate change. China’s increase in coal production this autumn alone is already greater than Britain’s total carbon emissions: halting this process is, in the real world, almost entirely out of our hands.
But if we can’t change what is about to happen, we can at least prepare for it. If you read the Climate Change Commission’s risk assessment for the rest of the century, it assumes that Britain’s temperature will rise by two degrees by 2100, in the worst scenario as much as four degrees. Such an outcome will be disastrous for much of the world’s population, and I am not dismissing the gravity of the situation for billions of guiltless people.
But I live in Britain, and for Britain having a similar climate to central France will not be the end of the world — but we should start planning for it now. Just as no-one now starves their families in solidarity with the hungry of the Global South, it is absurd and irresponsible to not plan a resilient and comfortable near future for our own country out of fatalism or an inchoate sense of global solidarity.
A rise of two degrees will return Britain to its climate during the Roman Warm Period, when an admittedly lower level of civilisation functioned perfectly well. The risk assessment highlights the risk of flooding in low-lying areas, the risk of drought in summer, and the risks of disruption to international trade. But its observations are all, with sufficient planning and adaptation, perfectly manageable. It even observes that there are opportunities as well as risks, and promotes a vast expansion of vineyards on British soil, which with appropriate planning could become a £50 million annual industry. In just such a way, if the British government cannot change what is about to happen, it can at least start shaping the inevitable near future in ways that are beneficial for this country. And by doing so, and by being seen to act as if they believe what they claim to believe, the Government is far more likely to convince people about the inevitability of climate change.
To understand why, consider the early days of the Covid crisis. When governments and newspapers were dismissing the severity of the coming pandemic, I was convinced to take it seriously by witnessing friends stockpiling masks (while we were being assured they were useless and even harmful) and laying in stores of food and other essential goods in case of trade disruption. Seeing people whose opinions you respect take a potential crisis seriously, and planning how to navigate the changed world that comes with it, is a convincing signal that you should take action yourself. It means far more than hearing the government warn about doom on the horizon and then doing absolutely nothing — like closing the borders — to mitigate against it. Deeds are convincing in a way words are not.
In the same way, I personally take climate change seriously. I believe in the predictions of the vast majority of the world’s scientists, and thinking through the potential outcomes of such a world-changing process, I am planning how to adapt my lifestyle to best manage what is seemingly inevitable. In the New Year, barring some unforeseen eventuality, I will sell my house and buy a smallholding somewhere hilly (and so at less risk of flooding than the coastal town where I currently live) and with enough land that I can ensure my family’s food supply in case of trade disruption or rising prices. Already, in suburban Kent, we produce our own eggs and grow our own vegetables, but I want to be self-sufficient in meat and milk, beer and cider, clean drinking water and bread. (I intend to document our progress in this column.)
It’s a way of living some are calling Doomer Optimism: I don’t believe that society will collapse within my lifetime, or that starvation will soon stalk the land. But I do think there’s a strong possibility that the cost of living will become significantly higher within the next two decades or so, just as the after effects of Covid are now manifesting, to such a degree that it makes sense to rethink my family’s way of living now to ensure a decent future quality of life in the years ahead.
The question here isn’t one of survival in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but of ensuring an atmosphere of comfort and plenty in a likely world of consumption taxes and restrictions brought in through poorly-thought out climate change mitigation efforts, the intervention of corporate interests, and occasional disruptions to international trade. The current discourse around radically limiting food consumption presents such a dystopian and wildly unattractive future that it is no wonder people reject it, especially when it does nothing to address the over-consumption of the world’s richest. I will not, as they say, live in the pod, and I will not eat bugs, and neither should you. We should demand better, and there are alternative futures.
But first we need to show that we’re tackling the problem seriously. As Rupert Read remarks in the recent book Deep Adaptation, “every time we are seen to be preparing for possible/likely hard times ahead… we are making it possible for people and politics to start to really face climate reality.” As he observes, if you act as if you mean what you say you believe, people will believe you. If you don’t, they won’t. In this way, Read argues, “it is a political act to act as if collapse is possible”, even if you don’t believe it is likely, just as you still install fire alarms even if you don’t believe your house will imminently burn down.
As with individuals, so with government. The Government’s push for Net Zero is expending a great deal of political capital on a mitigation effort that, whatever its moral worth, will do nothing to alter the risk of climate change one way or another. In doing so, it is alienating many people who appreciate, even if only subliminally, the vast disjunct between what the Government claims is about to happen, and its broader actions. If the threat is so real, people naturally think, why isn’t the nation mobilising to deal with the coming effects? The narrow focus on Net Zero, along with the attempt to prioritise individual, essentially meaningless mitigation efforts like eating less meat, is at this stage wildly counterproductive.
Instead, the Government should, like my family, say that they can’t change what is coming, but that we can at least adapt to it now so that the wrench is less painful when it comes. What would that mean on a national level? If we accept that flooding is likely on Britain’s most productive agricultural land in East Anglia, we should be planning to open up currently marginal hill pasture for crops to ensure a more stable food supply. What would that look like? It would probably be less mechanised, and smaller scale, simply due to the topography: so we should be relearning how to manage such a mid-20th century form of agriculture at sufficient cumulative scale, which we are currently not doing.
If the Thames floodplain is at risk of occasional but devastating flooding, not from the sea but from built-over inland rivers, we should discourage building in flat estuarine land — as insurers are already warning — and instead rezone hilly land in London’s outer suburbs for housebuilding, as well as improving London’s overwhelmed Victorian drainage infrastructure.
If the Government is incapable of building HS2 properly, it is surely poorly-equipped to deal with the amount of adjustment that will be necessary to maintain currently functional levels of infrastructure. We should be making railtracks more resilient to flooding, building viaducts where necessary and digging new water features and marshlands to absorb sudden deposits of water. We should be overhauling our water supply to minimise the risk of drought and prevent avoidable water losses through leaky pipes. We should be pedestrianising and planting trees in cities now to make them cool and shady in twenty or thirty years time, and building clean new transport infrastructure to take the place of cars. We should be building more houses, relaxing planning restrictions for family homes in the countryside so that more people are affordably able to take control of their personal family food supply. If we claim that disasters are on the horizon, yet do not build up the infrastructure now to cope with them, why should anyone take these claims seriously?
There is a great deal of ingenuity in this country only now being focussed on technologies such as nuclear fusion, which may soon provide clean sources of almost limitless energy, or on fast electric aeroplanes and capacious electric airships, which may be better used for freight than for human transport. The medium term may be uncomfortable, but the long-term future may be very good indeed, if only for Britain.
To manage this will take a certain frontier spirit, a willingness to make the best of and thrive in a harder situation than we are accustomed to. Instead of prophesying doom and then doing nothing about it, we should be imagining a positive vision of what a Britain adapted to climate change would look like: a country of high-speed trains hurtling across tall viaducts between new hill towns, with lush vineyards overlooking the broad new wetlands on what was once farmland. It is not too late to make the Britain of the near future not just liveable, but an improvement on what we have now. Life will go on: it is our duty to make it as comfortable and prosperous as possible, not just as individuals, but as a nation.