Brexit, Climate Change and Modern Political Discourse

Fry: This snow is beautiful. I’m glad global warming never happened.
Leela: Actually it did. But thank God nuclear winter cancelled it out.

– Futurama, Xmas Story

When I look at the current state of global politics, I can’t help but think about how helpless we are to address the most pressing issue facing our species. Climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions are starting to have a very notable impact. Rising sea level was likely a large culprit in the destruction of houses along Sydney’s richest boroughs earlier this month. Extreme heat that followed an extremely dry winter caused a massive fire that destroyed part of Fort McMurray last month. Extreme flooding has hit Europe during the past few weeks, swamping areas of France and Germany. Drought in India have affected millions of people this year.

As someone who studies the behaviour of climate in the past, I am fully aware about how sensitive the Earth is to small changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. The difference in CO2 between full glacial conditions (when ice covered most of the northern half of North America and Europe) and ice restricted to Greenland and Antarctica is about 80 PPM. We are currently about 140 PPM above that threshold. The past year, when every month set a record for global temperature due to a strong El Nino, is probably a preview of the normals we will see in a couple of decades. This means more extreme weather events like those that have generated global headlines. Of course, you can’t take one event in isolation and say it is a result of climate change, but when a bunch of events happen in a short space of time all around the world, it becomes harder to downplay the role of global warming.

This brings me to Brexit. I didn’t really closely follow this, because I honestly didn’t believe that the leave campaign would win. Having watched Boris Johnson’s morose press conference from this morning (he, who championed the leave campaign within the Conservative Party) and Nick Farage’s backwheeling on the main plank of spending money on health services, I don’t think that the leave campaign expected that they would succeed either. Boris Johnson’s campaign now seems like a cynical plan to elevate himself to the leadership of the Conservative Party, something that I would guess is not likely going to happen now.

Why did the Brexit campaign succeed? Why are we not taking action on climate change, something that threatens our civilization? Ultimately, these two things have a shared cause. I follow the efforts of organizations such as Skeptical Science, who are fighting the good fight to try and counteract the lies and deceptions by vested interests who want to keep the status quo. Though their intentions are good, it ignores the fact that we will not make progress on the issues until we can get the casual observer onside. The Brexit campaign, as well as the anti-climate change action advocates, succeeded because they were able to get the marginalized middle class voter onside. These are people who are not truly poor, but feel their status is being threatened by perceived threats to their livelihood. In the Brexit vote, this perceived threat was immigration from refugees in the Middle East, or that they are sending money to Europe and getting nothing in return. For climate change, this are a more broad spectrum of issues, from the belief that they will have to give up their house and car, eating less meat, or having higher taxes.

The problem is, there are truths to the opposing campaign. To say that the free flow of people into the UK has not changed the social culture of the country would be naive. Combating climate change will almost certainly require a change to they way we live. The problem with those fighting the good fight have been using arguments almost solely based on economic reasoning. Keeping the UK in the EU is logical because it means that the UK has unfettered access to a large market, and people can freely move to and from it. Fighting climate change is logical because the effects of rising sea level and global temperatures are ultimately going to be costly to our economy.

I don’t think that most people are convinced by abstract economic theory. It doesn’t help that economists are very bad at predicting the future – when people were losing their house due to the market crash, I don’t think they could take solace in them saying “oh we didn’t see this coming”. Climate change science, on the other hand, has been pretty much spot on in predicting what would happen if CO2 rose, going all the way back to the original analyses by Arrhenius over a century ago. In terms of a human lifespan, though, rapid climate change is very slow, and can be pretty abstract as well, even if the cumulative economic impact is considerable.

How do we engage, then? I think we should take note from Bernie Sanders – we are all in this together. I think politicians of all stripes, and people in the most educated segment of our society, have forgotten about this. For the Remain campaign, their fatal flaw was not to directly address the xenophobic aspect of Leave – that somehow the people who have come into Britain for better opportunities or to flee persecution are somehow lesser than the people born and raised there. People are people, and we need make them feel welcome and part of the local society. If we bring in immigrants, we need to make them feel like they are British (or insert other nationality). The angst that the supporters of leave felt was very real, and represents a failure of the government to properly integrate newcomers into the local society. This integration must include local communities. It is instructive to look at Canada’s refugee sponsorship program, where private groups can commit to funding the arrival of refugee families. I think communities are much more responsive to immigration when they have a direct role in it.

For climate change, we must take the concerns of those who are not informed on the science of this issue far more seriously. Say for instance, a farming community, who is concerned that reducing CO2 emissions will have an adverse effect on their livelihood. Rather than advocate for a general purpose carbon tax or climate trading scheme, I think it is better to go after local initiatives. Allow farmers to set up wind and solar farms to compliment their incomes. Give those local communities a way to directly sell their produce to consumers, rather than be forced sell through big companies. Big companies will produce propaganda that says that this is bad, but if you can set up an economy where people help out each other locally, this can be counteracted. If a government can promise to help a person’s neighbour, I think that people will be far more receptive to government ideas. For more on this, I suggest reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.

As implied by the opening Futurama quote, I remain skeptical that humanity will be able to sort itself our and tackle the most pressing problem of our species. Could we possibly destroy ourselves rather than work together and solve our problems? Until the progressive minded people can bring the marginalized (whether real or perceived) people into our fold, I think this is unlikely. The populist appeal of politicians like Johnson or Trump will always win over those who feel they are being slighted, unless they can feel that they are part of the solution.