Futures: A world to win
Much as generational politics are often reactionary, climate change asks us to re-examine the case for the political cleavage of age.
Many communities – particularly in the Global South – are already facing its devastating impacts, there’s no denying that global heating will materially effect under-40s on a different scale to our elders.
While there is likely less of a generational gap in popular opinion than often stated, across the world 69 per cent of 14 to 19-year-olds recognize the climate emergency, compared to 58 per cent of over 60s.
Younger generations are worried for good reason.
Ahead of COP27 last autumn, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research director Johan Rockström warned that the world is coming ‘very, very close to irreversible changes … time is really running out very, very fast’.
Earlier in 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that around 3.3 to 3.6 billion people ‘live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change’.
Although we are seeing many impacts already, the IPCC emphasized that particularly after 2040, ‘climate change will lead to numerous risks to natural and human systems’. Moreover, there is a strong likelihood that ‘multiple climatic and non-climatic risks will interact, resulting in compounding overall risk and risks cascading across sectors and regions’.
In the face of such a bleak forecast, it is easy to despair. In a survey of 10,000 children and young people across 10 countries, more than 45 per cent said their feelings about climate change ‘negatively affected their daily life and functioning’.
This impact was significantly higher in the four Global South countries included in the study: Brazil (50 per cent), Nigeria (66 per cent), the Philippines (74 per cent) and India (74 per cent). There is mounting speculation that the climate is increasingly a consideration in choosing whether or not to have children – although the evidence base for this seems limited.
So much environmentalist discourse, moreover, remains grounded in the notion of individual responsibility. But concepts like the ‘carbon footprint’, as brilliantly explored by the Australian journalist Jeff Sparrow’s recent book Crimes Against Nature, were explicitly invented by the world’s biggest polluters in order to let themselves – the real climate criminals – off the hook.
It’s fundamentally correct that recycling and turning down your heating by one degree will do precious little for the planet on an individual level – but to suggest there’s nothing we can do as individuals is a disempowering message, unless a clear alternative is offered. As too are the warnings from Rockström and others that escalating international conflict will make it so much harder to take action on the global stage.
New Internationalist celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
The question of whether we will reach our 100th birthday is not limited to the future of print media or even the persistent challenges of sustaining an independent magazine: it is also one of whether, in 2073, human society will still exist in its current form.
The answer to the latter question is that surely it can’t. If we keep going on our current trajectory, there will be suffering of genocidal proportions. If, on the other hand, we are living in a world that has adapted to some increase in temperature and stemmed any further escalation, it could be the product of two possible courses of action – both of which would signal that the world has fundamentally changed.
The first of these options would be a rapid transition to post-carbon capitalism. While it remains unlikely, given the vast amounts of wealth tied up in fossil fuel extraction, if it were achieved it would be capitalism’s greatest victory – a demonstration that greed can survive its own self-cannibalism.
The confidence which this would instil in our ruling class would likely unleash a wave of violence against the poor and dispossessed, and bring about new hierarchies which would make the current world seem equitable.
Alternatively, we could have brought about – in the intervening years – a single and irreversible shift away from profit, extraction and imperialism and towards a socialism that delivers a truly global justice.
That can only happen if we reject both the narrative of individual responsibility and the nihilistic shifting of responsibility to those who will never take it.
Instead, it is incumbent upon all of us to build and sustain global movements – across generations and borders – to make system change the only option.
In order to do so, we need to have the confidence not only to discuss what needs to change, but to believe it is possible.
As was more apparent when New Internationalist was founded in 1973 – a time of rapid decolonization, rising industrial militancy and falling income inequality – change can be brought about when there is a collective will to do so.
And that will come, not from businesses and governments, but from ordinary people and the mass movements they build.
This magazine does not have all the answers, but it does take seriously the existential threats to our future, while showcasing the strengths and weaknesses of some of the practical steps already being taken. It will make the case not just for the world’s existence in 2073, but for a world worth fighting for.
What becomes clearer by the day is that there is no time to lose.
While understanding that a 1.5 degrees celsius increase in temperatures risks catastrophic impacts, the IPCC has found that an increase of an additional 0.5 degrees would monumentally increase these risks. Whether we can limit such rises – and avoid the tipping point impacts that they could bring – depends on the action we take in the next decade.
We must be prepared to talk about tactics, as well as the ideological and class characters of the social movements that emerge to take on the challenges at hand.
Just as struggles around the cost of living, tax or conflict can be shaped by different ideological currents and social forces, so too can environmental campaigns – which will in turn affect whether they attract the broad appeal they require to succeed.
Of course, we should not turn in on ourselves or seek ideological purity when the pressing need is for unity. But we must still be prepared to constructively challenge one other and take criticism from our comrades in good faith, as the interests of the many – material comfort and environmental preservation, for instance – inevitably clash with each other as well as with those of the few.
A pressing deadline requires us not only to work fast, but to get it right – for we may not get another chance.
‘The crisis,’ as Antonio Gramsci put it, ‘consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’
Confronting the threat to our future is scary, but we can’t let ourselves be scared off.
Caroline Hickman et al., ‘Climate anxiety in children and young people…’, The Lancet, Vol 5, No 12
Jeff Sparrow, Crimes Against Nature, Scribe Publications, 2021
This article is from
the March-April 2023 issue
of New Internationalist.
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