Media coverage of Russia's invasion of Ukraine is drawing focus away from the political turmoil elsewhere in the world caused by climate change. The war has also allowed richer democracies to renege on their climate change policy targets. But, cautions Ian Budge, the world's affluent nations must not turn a blind eye
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is rightly described as a watershed in international relations. Yet events in Ukraine are dwarfed by the political and social ramifications of a much bigger issue: climate change.
Climate change is not only bringing fires, floods and famine in true Biblical fashion. It is also causing wars in the Sahel and Middle East, in every country between Nigeria and Afghanistan. People's homelands are becoming arid and uninhabitable, triggering mass migration. This, in turn, is prompting brazen land grabs under spurious religious pretexts.
Increased violence follows from climate change as surely as fires, flood, famine, mass migration, mass extinction, and more. The UN predicts that all will hit us full scale in 2030
We tend to overlook the increased political turmoil and fighting that are the consequences of climate change. But they follow on as surely as fires, flood, famine, droughts, killing heat, starvation, mass migrations, unpredictable weather events, pandemics, mass extinctions... All are predicted to hit us full scale in 2030, according to the latest UN assessment.
Much of the contemporary violence is within arbitrary state boundaries inherited from the colonial era, thus partially masking its extent. Inefficient and corrupt governments have resigned themselves to losing effective control of much of their territory. This partly explains the absence of media coverage of events relative to those in Ukraine. Violence and political turmoil in these countries fails to capture the imagination in the way that war on Europe's doorstep does.
It is not, however, simply a matter of media coverage. Putin's senseless invasion of Ukraine also gives governments a welcome excuse to divert attention from the major impending catastrophe of our time. And it has the additional ‘bonus’ that governments can now default on their COP26 commitments. It means increasing coal and oil production in the face of an energy crisis cynically stoked by multinational oil companies, and abetted by national governments.
Putin's senseless invasion of Ukraine gave governments a welcome excuse to divert attention from the climate catastrophe
One need look no further than the UK to see the extension of existing North Sea concessions and even coal mining. Poland’s brown coal electricity stations resisted contraction previously, and are hardly likely to reduce output now. Meanwhile Indian, Chinese and US coal production is likely to increase in spite of fires, pandemics, killing heat and increasingly erratic monsoons.
We will go into the catastrophic breakdown of world order in the 2030s with all fires blazing. By that time, our present leaders, like Emperor Nero, will be blaming somebody else for fiddling while Rome burns. But we know ways to ameliorate it. Home insulation, solar and onshore wind power, stopping methane emissions from neglected rubbish dumps, along with marine conservation and rewilding; all are highly effective but unspectacular responses to the enveloping catastrophe.
The key question, therefore, is what we can do politically. Demonstrations, symbolic sit-ins and conventional political campaigning have not prompted effective governmental responses. Campaigners must organise populist parties which offer people security (in the shape of a minimal income guarantee), along with jobs for all, in a massive environmental clean-up. Thus, they will forcibly turn governments’ attention on to the real crisis of our time. As the economist Maynard Keynes said, ‘Anything we are able to do we can afford to do'! But we need to do it now. We must strike at the roots of wars and conflicts rather than tinkering with the consequences.
We must call a truce in the other (largely unpublicised) major war in the world today: the War Against Nature
My recent book identifies the major policies the world must adopt, and describes how people can organise to get them implemented. This is not too complex. The quickest and most effective response is just to stop much of what we are doing now: coal mining, oil extraction, chemical agriculture, large-scale commercial fishing, extended supply chains. In short, we need to call a truce in the other (largely unpublicised) major war in the world today: the War Against Nature.
Merely stopping this and leaving the land to itself would demonstrate nature's amazing powers of recuperation. Trees and shrubs would re-emerge after fifty years of pesticides, weedkiller and chemical fertilisers. Moreover, new wild vegetation would start absorbing carbon dioxide immediately and, indeed, flourish the more for it.
Seas will take longer to restore. However, a first step is to banish large-scale commercial fishing altogether, and to allow only traditional small boats in conservation areas extended along all coasts.
In all this, the thirty or so richest democracies are the key. Their internal freedoms allow populist environmental parties to campaign for votes and new policies with the offer of a minimum income guarantee for all. Such freedoms also allow mass ethical tax avoidance to direct money into environmental causes. We must do this until governments capitulate and take up these policies themselves.
Rich democracies can put pressure on exporting countries which are destroying their own environments and exploiting their labour force. To do so, they must reduce long supply chains and create a level playing field for domestic industry, thus raising standards for imports. If such standards are not observed, governments can impose equalising measures like the EU’s proposed Border Carbon Tariffs. What governments certainly not should be doing is lowering international standards – as the UK government is currently doing with its Free Trade Agreements.
Analyses of climate catastrophe generally end by saying 'We know what to do. Now we only have to do it'. But that, of course, is the problem: getting effective governmental action from those rich democracies able to undertake it. We have to do this in the next five years. We must call a truce in the war on nature before natural processes reverse themselves irrevocably and the effects – social and climatic – really hit us.