The world is finally beginning to react to “natural” disasters as human caused, but we need this to translate into real action worldwide, argues Renew’s Henry Bettley.
Since August, more than 6 million hectares of land across Australia - an area equivalent to 3 times the area of Wales - has been engulfed in flames. Tales from the frontline of the firefighting effort have been hard to bear. Over 2,000 homes have been destroyed, and 25 people have been recorded dead. But the effects are being felt by more than just humans. Over 8,000 koalas are thought to have died, and this makes up just a minute fraction of the half-billion total toll of animal deaths. Farmers in the most affected areas are reported to have run out of bullets being used to end the suffering of animals dying from heat and flames. Recently, authorities announced that more than 10,000 camels will be shot from helicopters as a measure to reduce water consumption.
Many would like to brand these fires and their consequences a natural disaster, but the term “natural disaster” is defunct. Every event that has to do with weather systems occurs within the altered environment that we have created through pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and mass environmental degradation. Whilst there have always been fires, flooding and tornados, the scale of these disasters we see now cannot be separated from the impact that human activity is having on the planet. The responsibility for these fires lies with inactive governments and unscrupulous corporations, and if we continue down our current path and let these entities continue unchecked, expect events like those in Australia to become the norm.
It might seem strange to talk of silver linings whilst the fires still rage and the dust is not yet settled, but we have to look for them. We can see the generosity of individuals that was lacking when similar, although smaller, blazes tore across the Amazon, Siberia and Greenland earlier this year. For once we can see the press covering the fires as what they are - a terrifying consequence of decades of human activity. Sadly, much of this is down to the human cost involved in a first-world country. We are used to disasters happening in the global south, but when it happens in white, English-speaking countries it suddenly becomes harder for people and the media to ignore. But regardless of the reasons, we’ve seen Australian PM and long-term climate inertia advocate Scott Morrisson accept the link between climate change and the fires, and Piers Morgan (yes, Piers Morgan) berating an Australian MP for denying any relation between Australia’s inaction and the current situation. This shows a real step forwards.
The concern is whether this will translate into real action. Whilst we are likely to see more people making well-meaning but ultimately insignificant lifestyle choices and sharing more videos grieving the losses of the fires, the question remains whether this will lead to people demanding real action from the government. Don’t expect to see the Conservatives doing anything to fundamentally redesign our economy and industry to fit a sustainable model without serious pressure from the media, pressure groups, opposition parties and mass movements of people. We can hope that more people than ever before will be talking about the climate crisis and making it a core feature of their political identity, so that come the next election, the climate will be at the top of the agenda where it belongs.
Renew's Kitty O'Hara questions Brazilian President Bolsonaro's role in the Amazon wildfires.
The volume of wildfires in the Amazon rainforest have recently drastically increased, with over 72,000 outbreaks this year alone.
The Amazon is home to around three million species of plants and animals, and one million indigenous people. The damage will have an irreversible effect on the Earth’s climate. The Amazon’s abundance of freely growing vegetation absorbs CO2 and produces oxygen and carbon, facilitating increased plant growth. Scientists warn the forest is in danger of degrading into a savannah, diminishing its capacity to absorb carbon in the atmosphere.
President Bolsonaro has been accused of contributing towards the 88% increase in deforestation, after cutting Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency’s budget by $23 million. Further accusations have been directed towards his agenda to erase the presence of indigenous people from the rainforests. In turn, using the space and natural resources to boost Brazil’s economy. He has retaliated and counter-blamed NGOs for causing the blazes.
The first half of July 2019 alone had 68% more fires than July the previous year. Bolsonaro accused the INPE - the Brazilian institute for space research, including atmospheric sciences - of lying regarding the extremity of the crisis. He then fired their director, Ricardo Galvao, after the institute published figures revealing the soaring levels of deforestation. The government slammed the report as “sensationalist” lies. The far-right President dismissed concerns about the fires, informing one news agency that the smoke was normal for the “season of queimada” - when landowners illegally set fires for cattle ranching known as “fire days” to take advantage of the authorities weakened protection of the forest.
It is deeply troubling that Bolsonaro adopts opposing plans to the global drive to slow carbon emissions. The Amazon is home to expansive carbon stocks, widely understood to have an integral role in climate change mitigation. As a result, global environmental organisations often pay greater attention to Brazilian policies towards it.
Bolsonaro has a strong anti-indigenous people rhetoric, one notable quote being in 2017, when he stated: “minorities have to bend down to the majority… either adapt or simply vanish.” He has compared the indigenous people who inhabit the Javari Valley to animals in zoos, and vowed not to leave “one square centimetre” of land for such groups. A leader from Javari’s Matés tribe, Kevin Mavoruna, has accused the current government of attempting to exterminate indigenous people and take the land they inhabit, which is reflective of Bolsonaro’s aims for tribes across Brazil.
Recently, Bolsonaro mocked Macron, Merkel and head of the WWF Amazon Programme, Ricardo Mello, for challenging his policies. Other international critics include Norway, who followed Germany in suspending donations to the Amazon Fund, in response to the fires. Norway has been the fund’s biggest donor, giving around £985 million over the past decade.
However, is this enough? The UK continues to trade with Brazil, and directly profits from deforestation through imports of Brazilian soya beans. In 2017 alone, we were solely responsible for 220 million square metres of deforested land.
So what can we do? An international response, whether in the shape of a boycott of Brazilian trade, or pressuring international companies to cut trade links with Brazil, would reduce the power Bolsonaro holds over the lungs of the Earth. Whatever we do we need to act fast.
We must take responsibility for the role we play - regardless of how far removed we believe we are from such issues.
Capitalism is “very much part of the solution” to the climate crisis, Bank of England governor Mark Carney said in an interview yesterday. Perhaps he's right, says Gwen Jones in this Renew Long Read.
For a long time, those leading the charge against climate change have branded capitalism – responsible for the oil economy and prioritisation of instant growth over sustainability – as the planet’s greatest adversary. The Green Party, and their contemporaries Extinction Rebellion, have rallied against free markets as working in opposition to their cause.
And many experts agree. The line? Capitalism and environmentalism are mutually exclusive, and the effective mitigation of climate change will necessitate the end of capitalism in favour of a more sustainable economic system.
In response to Carney’s Channel 4 appearance, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson told the Guardian, “We are destroying our planet, and business as usual is not going to save us. We must question any system that has led us to this path of mass extinction and look to more sustainable economic models that are not based on resource depletion and increasing emissions.”
But Carney is confident in his convictions. According to the economist, who has previously worked for Goldman Sachs, the opportunities associated with tackling climate change are growing rapidly - and so are the costs of failing to do so. In a system predicated on the exploitation of opportunity and an aversion to risk, capital will move naturally in the direction of sustainability. In his strident defence of capitalism as a solution to the climate crisis, Carney argues that companies who continue to ignore the issue “will go bankrupt without question.”
Is he right? Like many things in life, the answer is not cut and dry. Capitalism won’t solve the planet’s problems, at least if it’s acting alone.
Being a climate capitalist
Taking this leap from traditional to sustainable business practices requires sizeable investment, and, for the meantime anyway, the majority of green energy sources are still more expensive than their conventional counterparts. This hurts a company’s bottom line and means that prices may have to rise in order to maintain profits.
In a competitive market, this has some important implications; businesses are forced to make a choice, between refining practices at their own expense or sticking to their traditional process (even if this means running the risk of worsening climate change). In an ideal world, all polluting corporations decide to cut their emissions simultaneously in the name of the climate. This comes at a cost to each business, but gives no business a comparative advantage over any other, meaning all maintain their share of the market.
However, no business can be sure of what the others will do. It’s a dog-eat-dog world after all, and they have no reason to trust each other. If Business A decides to cut its emissions but Business B does not, Business B can take advantage of lower operating costs and price A out of the market. The same is also true the other way around.
Carney is right – the economic costs of ignoring climate change are rising, and the costs relative to opportunities to mitigate it opportunities of mitigation are shrinking, fast. But money talks, and until we reach a point where the costs outweigh the benefits in the short to medium term, no business will be willing to blink first.
The solution most likely lies with a radical rethink of the role the state plays in creating markets and driving innovation. In the liberal economic tradition, the state is portrayed as a clumsy, bureaucratic obstruction to the actions of the dynamic free market. This is as damaging as it is misguided. The state, with its plentiful resources and capacity to take risks (that private actors often cannot and will not take), is able to defy common barriers to innovation.
Historically, governments have played a critical role in funding some of the most influential developments in tech to date. The internet, GPS, voice recognition, biotech and countless pharmaceutical breakthroughs have come out of US government agencies DARPA and NIH respectively. The Green Revolution is next – ARPA-E, the US government body responsible for energy production and innovation – is already having an impact.
Market forces are notoriously unreliable when it comes to advancing the good of society. Markets don’t have morals, but states are unique in their ability to create new markets and shape existing ones towards a socially productive end. Financial viability is key to private action – the state can incentivise innovation in desirable areas through grants and subsidies, the likes of which benefitted Apple in the early stages of its development. Governments should also be prepared to take a lead in certain areas, investing in high risk, high return strategies to secure this new role within the economy.
This is not to undermine the value of private actors in driving innovation and wealth creation. But markets are not infallible and failure is commonplace. Up until now, the advancing climate crisis driven by the quest for growth has been an excruciating example of this. The right conditions must be set before the private sphere can drive us forward in a direction we actually want to be travelling in.
Watching the Tory leadership contenders battle it out last week could only heap despair upon despair, says Paul Gerken.
The magnitude of cognitive dissonance required when you state that schools, health and green energy must be better when you’ve spent the last decade tearing them to shreds, is incalculable. Yet here we are, standing amidst the ashes of a country that is, only for want of time, merely metaphorically burnt to the ground, listening to the ones holding the matches. We must accept that it is their next bright idea that will be inflicted on the nation. The lightbulb that shines brightest? That if we just convince the European Union that we’re crazy enough to do this no-deal, somehow we won’t have to do it.
Let us unpack the logic. Here it’s pretty simple; you can’t get the best deal unless you’re willing to walk away. We’ve all been there – you’re desperate for flip-flops after you lost on them on lash last night down the Khao San Road, but unless you’re not prepared to swivel on your cut and muddied feet and walk away, that street vendor is never going to give you a dirt cheap price. Precisely the same logic can be applied to negotiating with the world’s largest economic entity. We never actually convinced them we would walk away, Johnson and Raab argue, and therefore they’ve completely done us over with that peace in Northern Ireland bit - that would’ve never been an issue had they known we were sufficiently bonkers to destroy every trade relationship we have with the world.
Now, apparently, the £2 billion of our money that was spent precisely on no-deal contingency planning wasn’t anywhere near convincing enough. We should have actually spent more! (I guess?). However, don’t get Raab wrong, he does want a deal, and apparently stating that on TV doesn’t undermine your resolution to leave without one. So, what to do, Dominic? Do we ramp up again the contracts to ferry firms with no ferries, in this great deceit? It remains unclear. What is clear is we need the gun to our own heads, stat, starting with teary bloodshot eyes directly into the resolutely calm face of Michael Barnier.
But please, let’s take a brief moment to look at this from the other side of the table. If you’re the EU, what do you gain from planning completely, with certainty, that no-deal is going to happen? As in, not just a tactic to box the UK into a corner, but planning like it’s the best outcome? Sadly, Brexiteers, they gain everything. Let's think about this:
- The EU gains absolute certainty that it can manage any outcome.
- The EU retains the respect and solidarity of its members, proving its importance.
- The EU has learnt how to manage the withdrawal of any member correctly and efficiently so that the threat of any other member leaving is less of an existential threat to the entire organization.
- The EU cannot be threatened by the UK’s no-deal threat, rendering it completely and utterly useless.
- Considering the above, their money spent on no-deal will never be wasted, but the UK’s will.
The EU has repeatedly stated they are prepared for no-deal, and seen in this light, they would absolutely be best to. They are prepared for a no-deal, not because of our threats, but because it’s in their best interest. They are not preparing as a charade but as a reality. It is us who want the deal, and these threats to Europe are so feast-eatingly embarrassing that it does make you wonder if we have, in any corner of Westminster, the brainpower to get us out of this.
One final point of reflection on the no-deal threat to the EU: If it happens, both sides will lose something, but who loses what?
- UK loses – the terms of every single trading relationship it has with every single country in the entire world.
- EU loses – its trading relationship with the UK.
And what’s more, they’re prepared for this to happen, whilst we are simply pretending to be prepared.
And with that thought, I am seriously not sure who can help us now.