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Hot air apocalypse

We need action on climate change — not more idle talk

Artillery Row

The perceptive among you may have noticed that it has been warmer than usual. On Tuesday, temperatures in England reached 40C for the first time. This rubicon was crossed by lunchtime, with the country continuing to broil in the afternoon. There were grass fires in Croydon, Upminster and Kent. The Met Office now predicts that we can expect heatwaves like this every three years or so.

Mainland Europe has been similarly infernal. There are huge wildfires in Portugal, Spain and France. Italy is currently afflicted by drought. The great river Po has in some places simply dried up. The Po delta is now inundated with seawater from the Adriatic, wreaking havoc on local agriculture. Again, experts warn that this is going to happen more and more frequently. Climate change is no longer a distant menace. It is here.

While it remains important that governments in this country continue to push for lower carbon emissions, both domestically and abroad, serious thought must now be given to plans to mitigate climate change’s effects.

The United Kingdom is not going to suffer terribly, compared to less fortunate countries, from the most damaging effects of the climate catastrophe. Nowhere in Britain is going to be rendered uninhabitable. Nevertheless, the changing climate is going to inflict significant discomfort on a country already suffering from long-term economic and social malaise. It is vital that the power of the state is brought to bear on this issue, and that wider society begins to debate and confront some of the decisions that will have to be made. Self-deception — of either the denialist or the falsely optimistic varieties — is not a viable option.

Sometimes this will break out into violence

Perhaps the most urgent imperative is that Britain must understand that climate change will contribute to the world becoming a more dangerous place. In parts of the world more directly affected by the crisis, there will be increased competition for water and for fertile land. Sometimes this will break out into violence, and other times into fluctuating alliances and accommodations which might disadvantage the West and its allies. 

Food supplies will be under increased pressure, both directly as extreme weather impacts crop yields, and indirectly as geopolitical instability afflicts production or exports (as we see, tragically, in Ukraine currently). 

Client regimes in historically unstable regions are likely to totter. All this plays into the trend of recent years: the peaceful triumph of Western democratic liberalism is not assured. The pax americana is not an unchallenged order. History has not ended. 

In this world, Britain cannot entirely depend on either good fortune or an increasingly capricious America. It is urgently necessary to re-arm, and to deepen security ties with those European powers whose interests align most with our own (particularly France).

Ecological instability, with concomitant economic and political upheavals, in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East is likely to drive a further intensification of migration into Europe. It will become harder and harder to maintain legal and moral distinctions between refugees and economic migrants. More and more would-be immigrants will tragically drown in the Mediterranean, be exploited by traffickers, or disappear into the underground slave markets of Libya. There is a risk of migrants being exploited and enslaved in Europe itself. And, of course, there is the recurrent danger of an extreme political backlash in the form of far-right political movements on the continent. 

To prevent, or at least mitigate this, will require closer cooperation with European allies. Britain’s commitments to continental partners will have to be reliably honoured: pacta sunt servanda. European countries should likewise seek more conciliatory compromises with Britain on the knotty problems of borders and the Northern Irish question. 

Cooperation and coordination will not merely require a higher standard of British diplomatic behaviour. The United Kingdom will need to invest in wider European security. With continental partners — above all France, Italy and Spain — we should deploy the Royal Navy to the Mediterranean to suppress North African people-trafficking operations, just as in the nineteenth century the West Africa Squadron broke the back of the transatlantic slave trade. We will not be able to do this without increased defence spending, and a recognition that the navy will require a larger surface fleet of patrol boats and frigates. Despite fraught post-Brexit relations, Britain and the other European powers have a clear common interest in maintaining a common secure and humane border in the Mediterranean.

Further work is needed beyond the immediate realms of government policy. As a society, we must learn both to look honestly at what lies ahead, and work to cultivate the kind of social solidarity and cohesion necessary to weather the coming storms.

We must look honestly at what lies ahead

The former involves not only better education and higher standards of scientific and political journalism (though it will surely require both of those). There has to be a cultural shift towards realism about the world we are inheriting. Difficult and frightening truths about the decades ahead can be tackled through art, literature and film; not with the lazy liberal didacticism which marks much current cultural output, but with works simultaneously more creative and more serious.

A tantalising glimpse of what this might look like is provided by the literary manifesto Uncivilisastion, produced in 2009 by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. Uncivilisation demands artists carve through the rotten and complacent myths of inevitable progress, of man’s separation from a supposedly distinct “natural world”, of the permanence of any given civilisation. Only a shift in our worldview is capable of processing the planet’s current travails. Their vision, though is not hopeless: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.” 

This almost apocalyptic call is not in itself enough. We need more than a panicked, vertiginous awareness of the dangers of the crisis. As already noted, the brunt of climate change’s challenges are unlikely to fall directly upon Britain. The steps the United Kingdom will have to take to shore up its water infrastructure, to secure Europe’s borders, to build much-needed housing suitable for extreme weather, to reinforce vulnerable supply chains, and to provide aid to those abroad who need it most, will require strong bonds of social solidarity.

Aris Roussinos has argued that strong nation states will be vital in surviving the coming crisis. As of yet, nation states seem to be the largest cohesive social and political units capable of generating the ties and loyalties which can sustain the kind of concerted, long-term and expensive policies which the dire situation requires. Fellow-citizens and taxpayers must see themselves as their brothers’ keepers. 

Yet concerted action on security, borders and energy will require a growing sense of social and civilisational European identity. This need not be tied to the European Union itself, yet the climatic and ecological challenges of the twenty-first century are going to demand that Britain acts as a European power, in concert with the other leading regional powers. Ecological disaster in any given European country will have immediate knock-on effects in its neighbours. Britain is fortunate to be an island, but it is still part of the main.

Britain … is still part of the main

On the subject of cohesion, the vast scale of problems posed by the climate crisis ought to be one of the major arguments deployed against Britain’s dangerous secessionist movements. The twenty-first century is going to require a powerful British state, capable of enduring severe economic shocks and of defending its vital interests at home and abroad. The natural resources of these islands will need to be equitably shared, as will the tax-burden of infrastructure and defence investment. Petty nationalisms are a divisive and unjustifiable threat in an age of incipient ecological collapse.

This needn’t all be doom and gloom. The world of the mid-to-late-twenty-first century may look rather different to the sterile complacency of the noughties, but there will be moments of opportunity. A nation capable of doing the hard work of investing in infrastructure, of projecting necessary power on Europe’s borders, and of social and cultural renewal will be able to thrive in an unstable world. We will require, however, a political class capable of long-term planning, of delayed gratification, and of genuine service in the national interest.

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