What Would It Look Like If We Treated Climate Change as an Actual Emergency?

If we accept the facts of climate change, we also have to accept the radical changes necessary to address it.

As the dust settles on COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, the results do not look good. Despite a flurry of headline-grabbing pledges, national commitments bring us nowhere near to meeting the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees. According to Climate Action Tracker, 73% of existing “net-zero” pledges are weak and inadequate—“lip service to climate action.” What is more, a yawning gap remains between pledges, which are easy enough to make, and actual policies, which are all that really count. You can pledge all you like, but what we need is action. Right now existing government policies have us hurtling toward 2.7 degrees of heating in the coming decades. 

What will happen to our world under these conditions? As temperatures approach 3 degrees, 30-50% of species are likely to be wiped out. More than 1.5 billion people will be displaced from their home regions. Yields of staple crops will face major decline, triggering sustained food supply disruptions globally. Much of the tropics will be rendered uninhabitable for humans. Such a world is not compatible with civilization as we know it. The status quo is a death march. Our governments are failing us—failing all of life on earth. 

All of this makes it worth asking: What would it look like if we treated the climate crisis like an actual emergency? What would it take to keep global heating to no more than 1.5 degrees? The single most important intervention is the one that so far no government has been willing to touch: cap fossil fuel use and scale it down, on a binding annual schedule, until the industry is mostly dismantled by the middle of the century. That’s it. This is the only fail-safe way to stop climate breakdown. If we want real action, this should be at the very top of our agenda.

How fast this needs to happen depends on the country. Rich countries are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the excess emissions that are causing climate breakdown. They also have levels of energy use that are vastly higher than other countries, and vastly in excess of what is required to meet human needs, with most of the surplus being diverted to service corporate expansion and elite consumption. Zero by 2050 is a global average target. A fair-share approach would require rich countries to eliminate most fossil fuel use by no later than 2030 or 2035, to give poorer countries more time to transition. Let that sink in.

It sounds simultaneously dramatic but also so obvious. Fossil fuels account for three quarters of greenhouse gas emissions, and they have to go. A new campaign, endorsed by 100 Nobel laureates and several thousand scientists, calls for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to do just that: an international agreement to end fossil fuels on a fair and binding schedule. Why is it, then, that politicians are so unwilling to take this necessary step?

Part of it is because they’re too cowardly to face down the fossil fuel companies and their army of lobbyists, who fight tooth and nail to prevent even the most moderate threats to their profits. And part of it is because they’ve bought into the narrative—peddled hard by billionaires and others who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, including the fossil fuel companies themselves—that technology will be developed to suck enough carbon out of the atmosphere such that we can keep burning fossil fuels for the rest of the century. This is the fudge behind “net zero” promises. Of course, carbon removal will have to play a role, but scientists have warned, repeatedly, that it is unfeasible at scale and highly risky: if for whatever reason it fails, we will be locked into a high-temperature trajectory from which it will be impossible to escape.

The tricky part is that once we accept this reality, we have to face up to the fact that scaling down fossil fuels fast enough to avoid catastrophe means fundamentally changing the economy. And I mean fundamentally

Think about it. Imagine next year we cut fossil fuel use by 10%.  And then the following year we cut it by another 10%. And so on the next year and the next. Even if we throw everything we have at building our renewable energy capacity and improving energy efficiency—which we must do as a matter of urgency—there’s no way we can cover the full gap. The truth is that rich countries are going to have to get by with less energy. A lot less.

How can we possibly manage such a scenario? Well, in the existing economy it would be sheer chaos. The price of energy would skyrocket. People would be unable to afford essential goods. Businesses would collapse. Unemployment would rise. Capitalism—which depends on perpetual growth just to stay afloat—is structurally incapable of sustaining such a transition. 

Fortunately, there’s another way. It is possible to keep global heating under 1.5 degrees, but it requires that we shift into emergency mode.  And it requires us to be honest with ourselves about the reality of what has to change. No fairy tales. 

First, we have to nationalize the fossil fuel industry and the energy companies, bringing them under public control, just like any other essential service or utility. This will allow us to wind down fossil fuel production and use in line with science-based schedules, without having to constantly fight fossil capital and their propaganda. It also allows us to protect against price chaos, and ration energy to where it’s needed most, to keep essential services going.

At the same time, we need to scale down less-necessary parts of the economy in order to reduce excess energy demand: SUVs, private jets, commercial air travel, industrial beef, fast fashion, advertising, planned obsolescence, the military industrial complex and so on. We need to focus the economy on what is required for human well-being and ecological stability, rather than on corporate profits and elite consumption.

Second, we need to protect people by establishing a firm social foundation—a social guarantee. We need to guarantee universal public healthcare, housing, education, transport, water, and energy and internet, so that everyone has access to the resources they need to live well. And as unnecessary industrial production slows down, we need to shorten the working week to share necessary labor more evenly, and introduce a climate job guarantee to ensure that everyone has access to a decent livelihood—with a basic income for those who cannot work or who choose not to. This is the bread and butter of a just transition.  

How do you pay for a social guarantee? Any government that has monetary sovereignty can fund it by issuing the national currency; think of quantitative easing, but this time for people and the planet. This is true for all high-income countries, although for EU countries it would have to be done in a coordinated fashion. The crucial thing is that to prevent any risk of inflation, we also have to reduce the purchasing power of the rich. And that brings us to the next key point.

Third, we need to tax the rich out of existence. As Thomas Piketty has pointed out, cutting the purchasing power of the rich is the single most powerful way to reduce excess energy use and emissions. This may sound radical, but think about it: it is irrational—and dangerous—to continue supporting an over-consuming class in the middle of a climate emergency. We cannot allow them to appropriate energy so vastly beyond what anyone could reasonably need.

How can we do this? One approach would be to introduce a wealth tax. Make it tough enough that rich people will be incentivized to sell off assets that are surplus to actual requirements. We can also introduce a maximum income policy, such that anything over a certain threshold faces a 100% rate of tax. In addition to cutting excess consumption at the top, this approach will reduce inequality and eliminate the oligarchic power that pollutes our politics.

Fourth, we need a massive public mobilization to achieve our ecological goals. We need to build our renewable energy capacity, expand public transport, insulate buildings, and regenerate ecosystems. This requires public investment, but it also requires labor. There’s a lot of work to do, and it won’t happen on its own. This is where the climate job guarantee comes in. The job guarantee will ensure that anyone who wants to can train to participate in the most important collective projects of our generation, doing dignified, socially necessary work with a living wage. 

Finally, we need a strong commitment to climate reparations. Rich countries have colonized the atmosphere for their own enrichment, while inflicting the majority of the costs onto the global South. This is an act of theft—theft of the atmospheric commons on which we all rely—and it needs to be repaired. We need to support our sisters and brothers in the South who already bear the overwhelming brunt of a catastrophe that they have done little to create. This should include a policy of debt cancellation, so poorer countries are no longer forced to devote their limited resources to servicing the demands of big banks and can instead focus on meeting people’s needs. And renewable technologies should be transferred for free to countries that cannot easily afford them, with patent waivers if needed, to facilitate the fastest possible energy transition globally.  

What would such a world look like? Our cynicism and fear would melt into hope and solidarity. We would feel the thrill and camaraderie of being part of something big, something transformative, something together. There would be a lot less needless commodity production, and a lot fewer bullshit jobs. Our society would be more equal, and poverty would be a thing of the past. Our economy would be organized around human needs and resilience rather than around endless capital accumulation. And most importantly, emissions would fall rapidly, year after year, in a dramatic break from the failure of the past several decades. Our planet would begin to heal. 

It is unlikely, however, that any government will be willing to take the necessary steps alone, for fear of disadvantage. A few progressive countries might—and doing this would light the path ahead. But ultimately we need coordinated action, which is why the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty is so important. We know that the only way governments will get rid of nuclear weapons is for everyone to agree to do it together. So too with fossil fuels.  

This is how we stop climate breakdown. But it won’t happen on its own. Asking politely for the ruling class to act is not going to cut it. It will require an extraordinary struggle against those who benefit so prodigiously from the status quo—as has every movement that has ever changed the world, from the Civil Rights movement to the anti-colonial movement. It requires doing the hard work of community organizing, building wall-to-wall solidarities strong enough to hold up against political attacks. It requires forging alliances between the environmentalist movement and the labor movement, and across national borders, sufficient to pull off coordinated strike action. This decade is the linchpin of history. We cannot afford to just sit back and wait to see what happens. We have to capture political power where we can, or otherwise force incumbents to change course. 

IMAGE: A firefighter sprays water as embers threaten a residence as the Hillside fire burns through San Bernardino, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. The blaze, which ignited during red flag fire danger warnings, destroyed multiple residences. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

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