When the world changed faster than politics: a look back at climate change in the 2010s

But if a Green New Deal can be won, it would recast the past 10 years as something other than a lost decade
Photo: Markus Spiske on Unsplash
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Perhaps the most unsettling fact about the effort to get the world on track to addressing climate change this decade is this: there was no point where we came even close.

The course of history occasionally arrives at highly contingent moments, branching points where a different choice, a handful more votes, a failure to dissent might have redirected the flow of events along some wildly alternate path.

But I can think of no such moment in this last decade, no point where a couple close decisions could have started something transformative, no near misses that might, but for a bit of better fortune, have put us on the path to avoiding devastating climate change. It’s a damning testament to just how powerfully resistant our system of insufficiently democratic institutions, both economic and political, has proven to the climate emergency.

Other changes we have no simple names or words for — the kind that gather their momentum in secret before announcing the progress of their advance all at once.

This year sets a new record for highest carbon emissions. Fossil fuels account for 85 per cent of global primary energy, according to the latest figures, barely different from the 87 per cent they accounted for in 2010. At current emission rates, the carbon budget for the surest chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C will be expended by 2028, assuming the warming planet does not set off a massive release of methane emissions from arctic permafrost, which would reduce that budget even further. Countries’ emission reduction pledges under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement will cause the world to warm by 2.8C relative to pre-industrial times — and their actual policies by 3C.

Things are dire. As we enter the climate struggles of the 2020s, let’s take a moment to look back on the decade now coming to a close.

When what loomed descended

It was through the swelter that we all knew climate change this decade. Blistering new temperature records were set across the world, with especially frightening waves across the northern hemisphere in 2018 and again this year as the world went through its hottest July on record. The five hottest years on record have been the last five years.

Some communities came to know climate change more intimately still — enough, even, to call it by name. For those on the eastern seaboard who survived a $70-billion super storm in 2012, that name was Sandy. For too many in the Philippines in 2013, it went by supertyphoon Haiyan or Yolanda (more than 6,000 dead). In 2015, Pam (45 per cent of Tuvalu’s population displaced). In 2016, Matthew (90 per cent of south Haiti destroyed). In 2017, Maria (almost 3,000 dead in Puerto Rico), Irma (90 per cent of Barbuda destroyed), and Harvey (most significant rainfall event and second costliest natural disaster in U.S. history). In 2018, Yutu (strongest) storm to hit a U.S. territory). This year, Dorian (strongest hurricane to strike the Bahamas) or Kenneth and Idai (over 1,000 killed).

But none was more nightmarish than the civil war in Syria, potentially triggered in part by a climate change–fuelled drought.

Other changes we have no simple names or words for — the kind that gather their momentum in secret before announcing the progress of their advance all at once. So it went, for example, with the sudden arrival of the world’s longest and most widespread coral bleaching event (2014–2017), which included the two consecutive waves that devastated Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Or the “holy shit” moment in 2014 when it was revealed that the West Antarctic ice sheet has probably already crossed its tipping point, its inexorable disintegration now committed to lifting the seas for centuries to come. Or the finding that arctic permafrost melting is occurring much earlier than expected. Or the way repeated and uncontrollable wildfires — from western Canada to California to the EU to Latin America to Australia — informed us that parts of our world are now a tinderbox. And one could go on.

This closing decade also gave us surreal and tragic glimpses of the second- and third-order potentialities unleashed when we tamper on the planetary scale with delicately tuned, complexly entangled life systems. But none was more nightmarish than the civil war in Syria, potentially triggered in part by a climate change–fuelled drought. No model can predict these outcomes and no institutional arrangements currently in place can accommodate their humanitarian and political fallout, which included in this case the horrors of ISIS, the global migrant crisis, and the rise of xenophobic nationalism.

It is little wonder that, in this decade of extremes, we began to use a new word for nature’s increasing unnaturalness: anthropocene. The word does not merely signal our passage into a new epoch but also warns us that the activities of human beings under fossil-fuelled capitalism are interfering with the interlocked workings of the earth system. It is now entirely within our power to abruptly set off the existential threat of a set of cascading tipping points that would push our world into a new hothouse state.

Democracies of delay

Perhaps more unsettling than the changes to our world, however, was the unchanging unwillingness of our political systems to do much about it. Elections throughout the advanced capitalist world were dominated this decade by contests between parties offering to do too little about climate change against parties promising to do nothing at all.

We need look no further than Canadian politics for sadly paradigmatic results. The 2010s began under a Conservative federal government intent on building tar sands pipelines in order to turn Canada into an energy superpower; they ended under a Liberal government bent on building tar sands pipelines as part of a strategy based, somehow, on the notion that continued development of one of the largest fossil fuel deposits on earth can be balanced with the need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels. The two governments’ emission reduction targets were even the same: 30 per cent reductions on 2005 emissions by 2030.

Perhaps more unsettling than the changes to our world, however, was the unchanging unwillingness of our political systems to do much about it.

Canada joins the EU, Australia, and New Zealand in proposing climate targets that analysts deem “insufficient”: the world would warm by up to 3C relative to pre-industrial times if all nations made similarly unambitious efforts. Indeed, governments remain so unabidingly devoted to fossil fuel development that, by 2030, the world is projected to be producing 53 per cent more fossil fuels than is compatible with emissions pathways for limiting temperature rise to 2C and more than double (120 per cent) than what is consistent with 1.5C.

And climate politics took on even more grotesque forms than this in the 2010s. Late in the decade, Canada saw a cabal of Conservative leaders seek power by vowing to fight the federal government’s modest carbon pricing framework with no serious plan to put anything else in place. Their efforts both legitimized and benefited from an ugly, homegrown theory about a conspiracy of foreign-funded environmentalists. In Australia, the decade saw a Liberal party eliminate the carbon-pricing efforts that opened the decade. The decade closed on a prime minister who, having once brought nuggets of coal in parliament to revere, has done nothing on the climate crisis even as his country experiences its second-worst fire season on record, one that has burned to death an estimated 480 million animals, including almost a third of the koala population in New South Wales, their main habitat. In the European Union, right-wing populism brought climate denial into the EU parliament this year.

But the ghastliest climate politics of all was perfected by the U.S. Republican party, whose triumph against programs for a habitable world was so complete that no major climate bill passed in the House of Representatives between 2009 and spring 2019. The party, then (and still) in control of the Senate, was a key reason that negotiations for the 2015 Paris Agreement could not be expected to end in a legally binding agreement on emission reductions. The election of Donald Trump the following year ensured that history’s largest emitter would end the decade on a senseless lashing about for a few more years of uninhibited carbon profits set to fitfully smash apart what few arrangements are in place to even slow the crisis.

A Green New Decade?

So what went wrong? Stare long enough into the abyss of climate politics during the 2010s and you will detect the influence of three dark masses.

The first is neoliberalism, which persisted throughout the decade. Despite a variety of challenges — from the Occupy movement to the resurgence of democratic socialism — we were unable to leave behind a world shaped by an ideology of regressive taxation, languid public investment and planning, and market-oriented policy inimical to facing the climate crisis. Second is the surge in reactionary nativism — itself owing much to neoliberal times — which has been mobilized and exploited by parties of the right. And the third is the fossil fuel industry, which continued to shape our democracies, whether through heavy lobbying, state capture, or outright financing of industry-friendly political campaigns.

The result was like a dense concretion distorting our political fabric and trapping climate responses throughout the advanced capitalist world in its deep gravity well — all lasting through a decade we really couldn’t afford to lose. It follows us, grimly, as we enter the 2020s.

And yet we should also take note of the breakthroughs over the 2010s. In terms of governance, we saw a sharp rise in carbon-pricing policies throughout the world, as well as pledges to source 100 per cent of energy from renewable sources. Partial or total bans on oil and gas exploration are in place in Belize, Costa Rica, France, Denmark, and New Zealand.

Even more exciting was what happened with the climate movement. This was the decade when we made people’s climate marches tell stories of justice, used our bodies to veto fossil fuel projects, convinced more than 1,150 institutions commanding funds worth $12 trillion to divest from fossil fuels, used non-violent civil disobedience to rebel against extinction, changed language to speak in terms of a climate emergency, joined a generation of children as they went on strike for the climate, and even, as just occurred in the Netherlands, convinced a supreme court to make the government act on climate change. In so many of these struggles — from Unist’ot’en to Standing Rock to the Tiny House project — it was Indigenous peoples on the front lines.

Just prior to this year’s federal election, an important survey showed that while most Canadians didn’t know what a Green New Deal was, they supported it once they understood it — a hopeful sign.

But the decade’s most important movement breakthrough, the one that gives us a fighting chance if we can make it a reality in the early 2020s, was pushing into the mainstream the idea of the Green New Deal — a wartime-like mobilization to get us off fossil fuels in a generation. It will not be an easy or straightforward fight. As the recent collapse of Corbyn’s Labour Party in the U.K. shows, advocating for a Green New Deal is not an automatic win. Prospects for a Green New Deal in the U.S., meanwhile, face the machinations of the Republican Party, “the most dangerous political organization in human history,” in the words of Noam Chomsky.

In Canada, where the decade closes with Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline going into service and with construction on the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline beginning, it seems like a long shot, too. But, just prior to this year’s federal election, an important survey showed that while most Canadians didn’t know what a Green New Deal was, they supported it once they understood it — a hopeful sign.

If a Green New Deal can be won, it would recast the 2010s as something other than a lost decade, as a time when something important was still mounting, swelling, gathering, but not ready to be born — a tipping element in the political system that came in time to prevent some of the most dangerous ones in the earth system.

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