Let's Get Political

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Issue 316
September/October 2019
Listen Up!

Reviews

Let's Get Political
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Cover: Greta Thunberg 2019 © Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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Russell Warfield reviews two different approaches to taking climate action. A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow by Joshua S. Goldstein & Staffan A. Qvist. PublicAffairs, 2019. ISBN: 9781541724105 Given Half a Chance: Ten Ways to Save the World by Edward Davey. Unbound, 2019. ISBN: 9781783526598

Despite the urgency in the UN’s recent report telling us that we have until 2030 to take decisive climate action, it remains difficult to say anything original about it. The fundamentals of the situation haven’t changed in decades. We know we must act; yet global leaders remain committed to business as usual. How can we change course to avoid the worst effects of climate breakdown? Here are two books that promise solutions.

The plan in A Bright Future is simple: the only way to decarbonise the global economy at the speed and scale necessary is through massive expansion of nuclear power. In a sea of climate books that celebrate small steps in the right direction, it’s refreshing to read something with its eyes squarely on the prize – throwing aside all distractions from the goal of total decarbonisation by 2050. In the view of Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist, only nuclear power will do, and they marshal an impressive amount of evidence to challenge even the most trenchant anti-nuclear views.

However, the book has a key structural weakness, ironically presented as its greatest strength: an appeal to political neutrality and objectivity. While it’s true to say that the book hits a non-partisan tone, it is patently absurd to suggest that the energy policy of every country on Earth can be divorced from politics. And even if it were possible, why would we want to? This period of profound transformation should be deeply democratised, ensuring good outcomes for ordinary people rather than continued corporate stranglehold on one of our most basic utilities.

Ultimately, the fixation on a technocratic nuclear solution obscures the fact that at least one crucial step towards addressing the climate crisis is unavoidably, deeply political: the complete shutdown of the fossil fuel industry. Goldstein and Qvist rightly point out that while renewables have been expanding, this capacity is too rarely used to replace fossil fuels. Instead, it is often an addition to the pre-existing baseload of brown energy. A fair point, but they fail to explain what stops additional nuclear capacity from being utilised in the same manner.

They cite Sweden as a country that used nuclear to phase itself off fossil fuels, but they downplay the fact that this was necessarily the result of political will – not an inevitable consequence of building nuclear power stations. Globally, without radical political action to shut down the fossil fuel industry, gas, oil and coal will be extracted for as long as it can find a market. There is no ‘depoliticised’ response to this challenge, and solutions will be far more complex than the technical ability to provide enough clean energy to meet the needs of the global population.

In Given Half a Chance, Edward Davey takes a broader and more textured look at our current situation, acknowledging the complexity of the problems we face in the 21st century. Over the course of ten chapters, he explores 10 different but interconnected facets of ecological emergency, from soil erosion, to freshwater maintenance, to biodiversity.

The scope of this book feels more consummate with the scale of the crisis. While Goldstein and Qvist focus on ensuring that electricity is generated from carbon-neutral sources, Davey only has to get to his second chapter to point out that deforestation might have a role to play in our ability to limit climate catastrophe, and that if President Bolsonaro fulfils his desire to raze the Amazon rainforest, our ability to roll out clean energy will become something of a moot point.

Travelling the world and drinking tea with everyone from heads of NGOs to frontline activists, Davey paints a frightening portrait of a ravaged world, but he is ultimately hopeful about Nature’s ability to regenerate if we give it half a chance. However, reading this after the bludgeoning force of Goldstein and Qvist’s argument for total decarbonisation, backed up by reams of data rather than hopeful anecdotes, it is hard to shake the feeling that even a rapid scaling up of these case studies risks falling short of what this moment demands.

Taken together, these books highlight a paradox of solutions-focused responses to the climate crisis. If your prescriptions are specific and achievable – build nuclear power stations – your analysis of the problem is probably too narrow. Yet if you take a broader look at the complexity of the issues, your prescriptions are likely to be too diffuse to offer a tangible programme of action. (Davey on freshwater alone: “Ultimately, governments, companies, communities and individuals must take seriously their role as custodians of available freshwater.”)

I can understand the impulse to depoliticise climate solutions, but it is impossible to imagine in practice. Nor would it be desirable. Looking back at the 1990s and 2000s, it’s now clear that the vaunted apoliticism of technocracy masked a deeply political ideology of neoliberalism and financialisation, creating big winners and big losers. Similarly, all policy responses to climate breakdown will produce benefits and disbenefits, and there is no way to ensure that social justice is achieved in tandem with environmental justice other than through politics.

To his credit, Davey recognises the necessity of the messiness of politics much more clearly than Goldstein and Qvist, pointing to the Climate Change Act here in the UK as an example of good legislation popularly supported by both Labour and the Tories. On the other hand, he also cites Emmanuel Macron as being a good example of “what we need from political leaders on the global stage”. What we need is a truly transformational politics. If Macron is our gold standard on climate leadership, we really are in trouble.

Russell Warfield is a freelance journalist.

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