Averting catastrophic climate change will require system-level change, not the light touch, ‘gradual transition’ approach our government is taking.
“You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to.”
These were the words of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old who inspired the global school strikes movement, in her emotive address to UK Members of Parliament last week.
There is something deeply distressing about her words. They touch on the painful truth that young people today face an uncertain future. We once dreamed of travelling the world, careers with unlimited potential, or maybe even just the simple act of having a family. Now a looming shadow makes it feel almost foolish to hold onto such dreams, and the future feels increasingly out of our control.
The world has been given an ultimatum by scientists: 10 years to cut emissions in half, and another 20 to stop them all together. Even these deadlines depend on technology that can take carbon out of the atmosphere on a scale that doesn’t yet exist. There is very little time to bend the curve on climate change and ecological breakdown, and the world is so far failing to heed the warnings.
In 2017, I took the New Zealand government to the High Court to challenge its inadequate climate targets. The case helped lay the foundations for legal actions to come, but it was ultimately dismissed – in part because the elections intervened, bringing with them a new government signalling more ambitious plans.
Before being elected into power, Jacinda Ardern declared that climate change is our generation’s “nuclear-free moment”. Her message promised a government that would fight to do what is right, even if it meant fighting tirelessly upstream against the resistance it was bound to encounter. It promised a government which understood the urgency of the crisis we face, and would act accordingly. But, as Greta told the UK members of parliament, if we want to know whether our government has fulfilled its promise, the only thing that we need to look at is the emissions curve – and that curve is still going up. The climate minister recently conceded that New Zealand’s emissions are expected to keep rising until around 2025, making the prospect of halving emissions by 2030 almost inconceivable.
We still have time to pull through and prevent the worst impacts, but we don’t have time for the light touch, ‘gradual transition’ approach our government is taking. Non-interventionist, market-based solutions, such as putting a price on carbon, might have been viable policies two or three decades ago, but won’t suffice now. Greta is right that the only way to turn things around now is to start behaving as if we were in an emergency – which we are. “Humans are very adaptable: we can still fix this.”
Averting catastrophic climate change will require system-level change. The current economic system is built on economic theories devised in a time when materials and energy were abundant, and the limits of “perpetual growth” were yet to be realised. Politicians still hold onto the idea that it is possible to grow GDP at historical levels while keeping warming below 1.5°C or 2°C, but this is not supported by any empirical evidence. A blueprint for an economic system based on our new reality is urgently needed; one which aligns the goals of the economy with the goals of humanity, and measures quality of life and the health of our planetary ecosystem as indicators of success, rather than how much we consume.
To build the political will to implement change on this scale will be no small feat. Our government must tell the truth about the dangers of overshooting 1.5°C, and the scale of change needed to stay below it. We as citizens must also make it clear there is the mandate for change. This is possible if we start to see that we all have more in common than we think – that environmental and social issues such as inequality, injustice and poverty can, and must, be solved together.
What binds us most tightly to the status quo right now is our belief in what can and can’t change. If we let go of our prejudice that humans are primarily self-interested and believe that we can rise to the occasion to achieve a common goal, we have a chance of succeeding. At the very least, we will make the world better trying.