Photograph of wildfires in the NE of Scotland

fiddling while the world burns

Craig Dalzell looks at the politics of Climate Delay and why he agrees with Ed Miliband on who is now the greatest threat to efforts to prevent the climate emergency.

Last week Ed Miliband said that the greatest threat to our efforts to prevent the climate emergency were not climate deniers – those who do not believe or whose salary depends on them not believing that climate change is happening and is happening as a result of human actions – but climate delayers – those who say we must “do something” but are unwilling to do the something that they have the power to do.

The phrase had a familiar ring to it. It was one that Common Weal used ourselves almost two years ago when we saw the extent of fossil fuel lobbying in politics. Too many politicians are still content to fiddle while Rome (and the rest of the planet) burns and too many of those are doing so while being actively sponsored by the fiddle-makers. (Yes, I know that Nero didn’t play the fiddle and his efforts to rebuild after the fire were substantial.)

I remember the 2006 Stern Review that stated that every country needed to start spending 1% of its GDP on climate mitigation measures every year between now and 2050 or we would soon face a 5% reduction in GDP every year due to the damage caused by our failure. We failed to follow that warning. We’ll now need to spend even more to prevent the same damage and we’ll have to spend it faster.

The fiddles kept playing and the disasters started mounting up. Not just in places far away from and more easily ignored by the rich countries causing the problems but now in those countries too. The town in Germany where my partner grew up was destroyed by unprecedented flooding last month. Roads and buildings were swept away revealing foundations that have not seen the light of day since they were laid by the Romans almost two millennia ago. Whilst her father’s current house – in a nearby town but still within the flood zone – was thankfully left intact and his household are safe, his next door neighbour drowned in his own basement. This flood will likely come again. “Virtually impossible” weather events are about to become “normal”.

The Scottish Government achieved international acclaim by being the first government in the world to not just say that action needed to be done over climate change but that the world was presently experiencing a “climate emergency”.

One would be forgiven if they interpreted that to mean that emergency action would now be taken to avert the looming catastrophe. But while steps have been taken to at least some degree (and to yet more positive headlines) the combined action of them and proposed but as yet untaken steps does not add up to a country that will meet its obligation to limit the damage we are causing to the planet.

Take, for example, the Scottish Government’s target to decarbonise housing. In order to decarbonise every home heating system in Scotland by 2045 will require work to be done on more than 100,000 houses per year. Current policy is to decarbonise 64,000 houses per year from 2025. Even if the Scottish Government meets its own target (and it has a poor record of meeting its own “ambitious” climate targets) it will not achieve what is actually demanded of us by the planet. This is the essence of the climate delayer. Action put off till tomorrow and never enough actually done to meet the goal. We see the same thing in targets for housing energy efficiency, for regulations over new building standards, for the deployment of district heat networks, for land reform, transport, transitioning away from oil economies, everything that we need to do is being done late, too slowly and insufficiently.

Imagine how we would have reacted if the Scottish Government’s strategy for rolling out Covid vaccines had been to “wait a year or so, then vaccinate half the population with only a single dose”?

It’s not for the lack of a plan here. Just as Scotland was the first country to declare a climate emergency it is also the first country in the world to have at its disposal a comprehensive and fully costed plan to implement a Green New Deal (You can download it for free here or buy a physical copy here). Even if you or the government disagrees with some of the details (If you want to quibble over the amount of energy we should generate from solar vs from wind that’s fine) this plan lays out the scope of what we need in Scotland to do our part in addressing the climate emergency. We published this plan at the end of 2019 when we had 25 years left before the 2045 target date. That time has shortened substantially but we cannot keep delaying or more lives will be lost and more damage caused.

Next week, the IPCC will release its latest report since the 2018 report that said we had till 2030 to be substantially down the road of our Green New Deal plans if we wanted them to work. It is expected to lay out the extent to which we failed to heed that warning as we did the 2006 Stern Review and what we need to do as a consequence of our delayed action. We simply don’t have time for climate delayers to put things off till after the next election (or even until the end of this Parliament). This is the last chance. We need to treat the climate like the emergency we all know it is. It’s time to put down the fiddles and put out the fires.

Craig Dalzell

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