Today, I’m feeling sad and reflective.
Partly because I’m going to a funeral, and partly because of the horrific attack on Westminster yesterday.
I’m sad for the victims and their families and the witnesses, and I’m shaken because of the powerful symbolism of the target: our Parliament, the seat of the UK’s democratic power. I’m also fearful of the aftermath, that this could lead to more prejudice and authoritarianism in our society. And I’m looking at the bigger picture too. How political extremism of all hues is preventing us from collectively dealing with the deeper issues of our time.
It’s too early to know exactly why a man drove into pedestrians before leaping out and stabbing people, killing a policeman and two civilians and hospitalising 29 innocent Londoners and tourists. The police are apparently working on the assumption that the attacker was a ‘lone wolf, but was ‘inspired by’ international terrorism. They’re treating it as a terrorist attack.
Whether this was a political terror attack or whether this unhinged man just went berserk for some other reason and just happened to be at the gates of Parliament at the time, we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that terrorism is a part of our lives these days. London has been on ‘severe’ risk alert for years.
(UPDATE: Since writing this an hour ago, Daesh have apparently claimed the attacker was their ‘soldier’. But they’re hardly a trustworthy source and police don’t think they planned it).
The rise of Daesh (aka ISIS – but I prefer not to call them that) and their original brand of terrorism is undoubtedly terrifying. What I find even scarier is how in tandem a different kind of extremism has grown, and they seem to have emboldened and fertilised each other. Throughout Europe and America, far-right extremism has been on the rise. Donald Trump and the “alt-right”. Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. UKIP, Britain First, the EDL. (The leader of which actually jumped on the first train to Westminster yesterday to film himself giving an anti-Muslim rant at the crime scene).
All these people and their hordes of followers would be shocked and outraged to see themselves placed in the same paragraph as the Daesh terrorists. They think they are the opposite. They hate the terrorists so much they will hate anyone who happens to share their nationality, race or religion. But really, far-right fascism and Islamist terrorism is not that different at all. Both are based on hatred. Both are based on fear. Both are authoritarian. Both think violence is justice.
The real opposite is the kind of open multiculturalism, social liberalism and civic freedom that both extremist groups hate.
You may be wondering: how is any of this relevant to the politics of climate change? That is, after all, what this blog is about. It’s a good question. I’ve been thinking a lot about the levels of urgency and how humans respond to risk.
We have evolved to respond very effectively to acute risks. Running away from a lion. Grabbing a baby before it falls off something. Stopping a knife-wielding lunatic from dashing into Parliament during Prime Minister’s Questions. That kind of thing. By contrast, we are not well equipped for dealing with chronic risks. Climate change is always being shunted down the to-do list because of its comparative slowness compared to other challenges.
(Of course, in planetary terms the climate crisis is unfolding at break-neck speed: changes that would usually happen over tens of thousands of years during natural climate change are happens in decades. That’s insanely fast. But we don’t see it like that).
Climate change requires us to act on a different timescale than we’re used to. It also requires unprecedented levels of cooperation. That’s always been hard. But cooperating over long term challenges is made all the harder when the political mood is one of increasing nationalist isolation.
The UK is leaving the EU, meaning less cooperation on climate action with the other 27 states. Donald Trump is determined to put ‘America first’ (aka Trump first) and cut away from treaties and international agreements as much as possible. Whether it’s NATO or the UN’s climate efforts, he just doesn’t like international cooperation. This is precisely the wrong direction. The Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals call for more cooperation, not competition. Bridges, not walls.
It makes perfect sense that we focus on the immediate dangers first. It’s human nature. But I do worry that with all the focus on terrorism and the alarming authoritarianism of Trump and our own Brexit shambles, that climate change and the wider environmental crisis will continue to worsen without the focused attention it needs.
And climate change isn’t even the end of it. There is an even deeper systemic issue that the world needs to deal with but keeps putting off.
The fact that our global economic system is entirely based on the assumption of an ever growing economy forever. That we can keep on extracting more and more resources and emitting more and more waste forever and the economy will just continue to grow. That assumption is fundamentally mistaken and at some point in the non-too-distant future we have to come to terms with that. And completely redesign our global economy.
But climate change is so much more urgent than that, and we have to cut carbon drastically now, we don’t have time to do a whole global systemic redesign first. We’ll have to do that along the way. Otherwise there’ll be no economy to redesign and no humans to do the redesigning.
And yet, just as we really should be engaged in an all-encompassing race against time to get the excess carbon out of the sky before it breaks our world, we are distracted with a seemingly even more urgent crisis: political extremism.
Imagine you’re a wannabe entrepreneur. You finally sit down to write your business plan, which you’ve been procrastinating over for years. As soon as you start brainstorming, you realise that the deadline for your tax returns is tomorrow and you’ve been putting it off for months and now you really have to do it. But as soon as you open the form, you smell smoke and realise your kitchen is on fire.
That feels like the situation we’re in right now. Extremism is the fire. Climate change is the tax returns. And the need to evolve to a postgrowth economy is the business plan.
Where this analogy breaks down is that these crises are interdependent and we cannot just deal with them in a simple 1, 2, 3 in order of immediateness. They’re not linear.
Climate crisis is likely to increase levels of poverty, conflict, refugees and extremism – both of the far-right fascist and Islamic terrorist varieties. Failing to redesign our economy will hinder and impede climate action. Failing to counter the spread of nationalism, Islamophobia and terrorism could destroy the unity we need to transition to a post-carbon society and stop dangerous climate change. We urgently need to foster connection and cooperation both with our society and between countries – not just because that’s a nice thing to do at any time – but because our future depends on it. No climate safe future without cooperation.
As today’s Guardian editorial puts it:
“Terror’s purpose is to spread hate and division. The first protection against it must be solidarity.”
We have to address all of these issues at once. And we have to do this together. We must not be divided and we must not give up our freedoms. We can’t let immediate shocks distract us from forging a path forwards.