Surviving Climate Change: Hope Lies With The People. (Part 2)

Why are we so slow to mobilize?
Feb 11, 2020 10:00 AM ET
Wildfires in Australia trapped 4,000 people on a beach on New Years eve. This cannot become the new normal. Photo credits: Medium

This article was originally published on Medium

As we welcome in a new decade it’s time to recognize that “we the people” will need to be the ones to solve the climate crisis.

In Part 1 I explored the likelihood of business or government being able to deliver us to a “climate stable” future. The conclusion was that often for reasons that interconnect with each other, it doesn’t look promising.

According to The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report, released late last year, our planet is headed toward a catastrophic warming of 3.2 C in less than 100 years. And while no one knows exactly what this will look like, it’s safe to assume that it will devastate our food system, flood our coastal cities, set our forests ablaze and send hundreds of millions on the move looking for new sources of food and fresh water. With a potential future this dire, you would think that our current “leadership”, both business and government, would be making better decisions on how to protect us, but alas, the status quo prevails and our emissions continue to rise. 

Government Failure

The basic summary of government failure is that power is intoxicating and campaigns are expensive. Most aspiring leaders must rely on fundraising to run a campaign and this constant need for money has proven to be toxic for democracy. Politicians that once campaigned on bringing greater fairness into the “system”, soon find their viewpoints softened to better align with the neoliberal wishes of their wealthy donors. In time, politicians become addicted to the cash and quickly learn that a little “quid pro quo” in the form of favourable tax policy and regulations can keep the money flowing. Structural remedies that were once central to their platform become little more than talking points and unfulfilled promises. The end result is that the flawed system that degrades our environment and that enriches the corporate elite and billionaires, remains largely in place. 

Corporate Failure

To summarize corporate failure we need to clearly state that corporations are in business to maximize profits and not to enhance societal wellbeing and when business comes up against these two conflicting interests, they will always choose profits. So when a slow moving global crisis like climate change, that runs beyond a company’s scope of operations and that mainly affects “others”, presents itself…most companies will do little more than monitor the situation. And even if individual companies are able to find a business case, and that’s a big if, a single company or even a single sector doesn’t come close to having the financial leeway, nor the ability to scale a solution in the same way as government.

The notion that business could play a leading role in addressing climate change was an ill-conceived fantasy from the start. It came during a time when it was fashionable to downplay government success in favour of win-win market solutions. The concept of doing well by doing good captured the imagination of millions of people who wanted to make the world a better place — but in the end it was a hollow promise. Rather than being a win for corporations and a simultaneous win for either the environment or social issues — it turned out to be two wins for corporations. The initial win when they profited by selling a product or service and legally externalizing the societal harm, and then again when they went “looking” for a solution (with an acceptable ROI) to solve the problems that their companies created in the first place.

The win-win fairytale that business could find a profitable way to solve the biggest problems of humanity was nothing but a clever hoax by the corporate elite that didn’t want to lose control of their fortunes or miss out on an opportunity to add to their wealth. The unexpected prestige that came with trying to solve big problems was a useful bonus when it came time to distract regulators and journalists from taking a closer look at how they accumulated their wealth in the first place.

This darker side of philanthropic giving is best explained by Anand Giridhardaras, author of Winners Take All, in this podcast interview titled, “How Philanthropy Lets Rich People Off the Hook.” (Anand begins at 2.35)] 

It’s Up To Us

So now we’ve reached the last line of defense — ourselves. How do we dislodge the cabal of global corporate leadership that’s sacrificing the planet for their own maniacal quest for wealth — a leadership that uses politicians to protect a predatory business model that maintains their position of royalty. 

The Problem

We know that burning fossil fuels is destabilizing our climate and that we have a decade to drastically reduce emissions to prevent runaway climate change — and yet, we fail to act. For the most part we continue to live our lives with only minor changes. So the big question is, why aren’t humans united behind the need to aggressively address this challenge?

Is humanity in a universal state of denial or is it that our ape brains can’t comprehend the magnitude of the required action or is it something else? 

The Truth   I know this might sound strange, but I don’t think we’ve really come to terms with our predicament. We correctly call it a climate crisis or emergency and that part is true but it’s only part of the truth. We’ve failed to accurately diagnose the problem.

Much of the talk around climate change has been hijacked by corporate interests and politicians. It’s been framed as an energy, resource and technology problem that can be solved by allowing business to find more efficient and environmentally sustainable ways to facilitate our way of life.

They tell us that we could move faster towards solutions if only consumers would voluntarily forgo convenience and adopt more sustainable behaviours; if only we recycled more and supported more expensive “green” products and services — then, we could entice, mostly unregulated business, to operate differently. 

It Was A Mistake to Focus On Emissions

The world has been duped into believing a fairytale about climate change. Instead of delving into the root cause of the problem, making a clear diagnosis and mobilizing a response, we’ve been fed a story that does little to address the destructive underlying system that continues to drive up emissions and deliver vast fortunes to the corporate elite at the expense of ordinary citizens.

We’ve wasted valuable time talking about the symptoms. We must wake up and say what needs to be said, humans have a problem in the way that we live our lives and it’s impacting the planet’s ability to sustain us. 

It’s Everything

We’ve lost sight of the concept of wellbeing; whether it be planetary and ecosystem wellbeing, societal wellbeing or the wellbeing of the other species with whom we share the planet. Our species has created an economic system that’s attacking our biosphere like a virus. The truth is that we’re not contributors to the problem — we are the problem.

It’s everything about us; how we heat and cool our homes, how we travel, the clothes we wear, how we grow our food, how we access information and the pace at which our species multiplies. We are at the centre of a wasteful consumer culture that is fueled by relentless advertising that equates needless consumption with status and success. 

A Vast Media and Political Network

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg — beneath the culture lies the operational backbone of a system of deregulated capitalism. A corporate and billionaire backed system that has tentacles into a vast media and political network that shapes our values and norms. A system that talks the talk of societal wellbeing while simultaneously dismantling the very regulations that protect us from corporate abuse and greed. A system that preaches caring for each other while simultaneously glorifying a form of market-based cruelty and individual greed that will somehow benefit us all.

This all encompassing machine is invisible to us — like a fish that’s unaware that it’s swimming in water — we’ve been conditioned to believe that everything is working just as it should — that the economy is to be revered above all else because it’s the magic that makes our lives and our society thrive. And we’ve come to “accept” that in our quest for personal gain it’s perfectly fine to push environmental and social harm on to others as long as it appears to be good for the economy.

The discussion of emissions, while extremely important, continues to distract us from what should be the main conversation; how do we tackle the virus itself:

“wasteful, unregulated, fossil fuel subsidized, media glorified and wealth concentrating capitalism.” 

Power and Control

Now that we have a clear diagnosis it’s a lot easier to understand why the medicine that’s been prescribed to us by both government and business was ineffective. Maybe they had no real interest in change and just told us what we wanted to hear. Or maybe it was a judgement error on our part to ever expect that the corporate elite and billionaires would dismantle the toxic system that allowed them to amass extreme wealth and power. At this point it doesn’t really matter — we just need to play the cards in our hand.

To say that this is a tricky challenge is the understatement of all time. We’re trying to solve a problem that, like water for a fish, isn’t recognized by most of society, doesn’t have a clear roadmap, will garner tremendous animosity by those who benefit from the status quo, and most of all, we’re very short on time. We have all the pressure to get it right and no one to blame but ourselves if we get it wrong.

And finally, if we’re going to get this right, we’ll need to understand right from the start that this is a battle of power and control. Those who have it are unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to reduce the impacts of climate change and social harm in any meaningful way. That power will have to be taken from them in order to bring more sanity and fairness into the system. And since we know that the billionaire and elite class won’t give up without a fight — it’s going to be messy. This is where our best chance of survival lies — this is where I choose to place my energy, courage and hope. Now let’s get started.

In Part 3, I explore the question of how hundreds of millions of people can unite and organize to demand a climate-stable future?

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