This piece was written for The Guardian by Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation in Britain.
Ten months have passed since pointing out that we have, at best, 100 left before a new, far more dangerous phase of global warming begins. The “chatter” of concern is getting louder. But at the same time, the political system in Britain has been wracked and absorbed more by its own inadequacies than by this fundamental threat to civilisation.
The fall of the Roman Empire was due to a large extent, writes the historian Adrian Goldsworthy, to a system of government that became inward-looking and weakened by internal dissent. Gone was the singular focus from the golden days of the Republic, when a small, trusted coterie of around 1,000 administrators ran the whole empire efficiently.
In its place was a bloated, inefficient and suspicious bureaucracy of 35,000, seeking power and personal advantage. Worst of all, gripped with self-obsession, they took their eyes off the Goths at the gates, and paid a devastating price. Any similarities to actual people alive today and current political circumstances are, of course, entirely unintended and circumstantial. Goldsworthy points out that every age can project its own experience onto the Romans, which just goes to show how much they did actually do for us.
In the last ten months, support for needing to take radical action over countdown period has been far and deep. Nobel prize winners from Rajendra Pachauri of the IPCC to Wangari Maathai of the Kenyan Green Belt movement have leant support, thousands of individuals have too, along with groups whose memberships run into the many millions. Even “spiderman”, in the form of French free climber Alain Robert, has risen, literally, to the cause.
Yet, in spite of the support that investing in the great transition could give to a weakened economy, the new and additional resources being made available are paltry compared to the support given to the financial sector. Around the world, as states become more acutely aware of the threats to food and energy security stemming from our ecological overreach, they are taking action. But they are just as likely to be eyeing the natural resources of other, weaker states to meet their rising consumption, as they are to be changing consumption patterns to live within their environmental means. Land grabs for food and biofuels seem to hit the news with growing frequency.
Technological optimism is all around us. “You cannot predict the future and unimagined solutions come along; they always have done,” we are reassured. Whenever there is a great problem, human ingenuity finds a techno-fix. Who could have predicted the chemical fertilisers for our food system, which thwarted Malthusian pessimists? The problem is, with the timeframe to act on climate change, those solutions that are meant to allow us to carry on as usual should have arrived years ago and be in place now. Now, with at best 90 months left on our clock, we have a challenge that will be a bit like the first time a child jumps from the top diving board into the swimming pool.
Both terrifying and thrilling, we need to brace ourselves for the fastest descent in the use of fossil fuels that a society like ours will ever have faced. It will need technology, behaviour change and regulations to ensure fair shares and equity on the way down. We don’t know everything that will happen on the way down. But if we get it right, I suspect that we will rediscover several important things along the path that have been largely lost or forgotten: something about the importance of community, about our own ingenuity and ability to do things for ourselves, and something also about how deeply connected to, and ultimately dependent on nature, we really are.