Leading environmentalist, Jonathon Porritt, believes there are genuine reasons to be hopeful about our ability to tackle climate change. Here he summarises his views, set out in more depth in his new book Hope in Hell.
On June 20th this year, the temperature hit an astonishing 38C in the Siberian township of Verkhoyansk – 18C above the average temperature over the rest of the month. Not surprisingly, June in the Arctic was the hottest June ever, at least 1C higher than the two previous ‘hottest Junes’, in 2018 and 2019. Arctic scientists have been struggling to find the right words to express their consternation – again, hardly surprising, given that all their models indicated that temperatures in this range wouldn’t be seen until the end of the century.
I was following this story very closely. I started writing my new book, Hope in Hell, in July last year, at which time the Arctic was on fire. A smoke cloud the size of the whole of the EU was drifting over Siberia. Nearly five million hectares of forest were burned. One year on, I launched Hope in Hell a few days after those literally unbelievable temperatures were recorded – a controversial moment to be trying to make the case for ‘authentic hope’ in the face of accelerating climate change.
And so it proved. Two days after the launch, I found myself being berated by a colleague on the grounds of ‘offering up blatantly false hope – are you not following the news from the Arctic? We’re screwed – and, deep down, you know that’s the truth of it.’
That hurt, not least as that’s exactly why I wrote Hope in Hell! First, to ‘Tell the Truth’, one of Extinction Rebellion’s three demands back in 2019, to capture what the science of climate change is really telling us, however uncomfortable that may be. And then to explore the potential of all the different solutions already at our disposal to address that inevitably depressing scientific reality.
Neither objective is as easy to deliver as you might imagine. Having once heard the truth, some immediately push back, confident that new technology is all we need to get us out of the mess we’re in (it isn’t), and that it can’t possibly be that bad (it is). By contrast, others sink instantly into the deepest despair, perversely comforted at the thought that it’s now too late to do anything about it, so why bother? I have to admit that these two extremes – shiny, reality-denying optimists on the one hand, and lazy fatalists on the other – irritate the hell out of me, more or less equally. It’s the contested territory in between those two extremes that I’m really interested in – as in what do we really mean by ‘too late’?
Everybody agrees that it’s already ‘too late’ for some things. It’s too late, for instance, to avoid massive climate-induced disruption over the rest of the century, in pretty much every corner of the world, through worsening floods, droughts, wildfires, heatwaves, hurricanes and typhoons, melting ice and rising sea levels. And this is the principal reason why young people should be absolutely incensed at the horror story that we have already inflicted on them.
However, the majority of climate scientists believe that we still have a reasonable chance of avoiding what they call ‘runaway climate change’, when natural systems start shifting so fast (in critical parts of the world like the Arctic, for instance) that we suddenly find we can’t do anything to reverse those processes in any realistic timescale. I stand with them: too late to avoid massively damaging, climate-induced disruption. But not too late to avoid the inconceivable horror story of runaway climate change.
Young people should be absolutely incensed at the horror story that we have already inflicted on them
Pinning one’s hopes on that frail distinction may seem deluded – not least because it won’t stay ‘not too late’ for very much longer. But that’s where all the reasons to be authentically hopeful kick in. As I said, technology alone cannot possibly rescue us from the Climate Emergency, but it sure as hell can provide some critical breathing space. Today’s renewable energy technologies (particularly solar and wind) are already revolutionising the world of energy, and will go on doing so, month after month, in terms of both efficiency and falling prices. Were governments minded to bring the same sense of purpose and urgency to bear on today’s Climate Emergency as they have (in most countries) on the coronavirus crisis, then 100% of the electricity the world needs could be sourced from renewable, completely emissions-free energy sources by 2030. Not 2040, let alone 2050. But 2030.
All the other solutions (which is what Hope in Hell is mostly about) can then build on those revolutionary foundations. Pretty much all the technology we need is already out and about in one way or another (in terms of manufacturing, infrastructure, transport, land use, heating and cooling, food and farming), and there’s no shortage of capital to drive forward those solutions.
It’s easy to condemn the last 30 years of climate activism as a complete failure. But what has happened during that time is that more and more ‘constituencies of concern’ have gradually been won over. Not just the NGOs, activists and academics, but most progressive multinational companies (check it out for yourself at The Re 100; Science Based Targets; The Climate Pledge), an increasingly influential cohort of investors and asset managers (who can at long last see that the ‘end of fossil fuels’ should be planned for in terms of years not decades), more and more concerned citizens the world over (and not just in the rich North), most faith groups and major religions, and practically every single young person on Planet Earth.
We are beginning to see real glimmers of hope
Which just leaves us with today’s ‘political class’ – the vast majority of whom are still stuck in the past, either wilfully ignorant or up to their self-interested eyeballs in today’s fossil fuel incumbency, totally detached from the twin crises of the Climate Emergency and ecosystem collapse. The centre of gravity in democratic politics today (let alone in countries dominated by different varieties of populism and autocracy) has not yet shifted in any meaningful way. ‘Accelerated incrementalism’ is the best we can hope for from today’s politicians, and that represents a hopelessly inadequate response to what is already a full-on Emergency. Cut it which way you will, that means the collapse of human civilisation before the end of the century.
What I’ve tried to do in Hope in Hell is to be completely logical about this. We have all the technological and financial resources we need to avert such catastrophe. The principal problem is the politicians standing in the way of this happening. So we simply have to shift those politicians – and that means much more radical climate politics, including non-violent direct action and mass civil disobedience.
That’s our harsh and uncomfortable reality – if and when we start to emerge from the coronavirus crisis. But we are beginning to see real glimmers of hope on that front too, as governments think of ways of reviving their economies that simultaneously address the Climate Emergency. We’re going to need a lot more of that over the next few months.