A more radical shift towards greener policies would provide many benefits besides saving us from global catastrophe. Activists should place more emphasis on the short-term advantages of decarbonisation.
Man-made pollution, regardless of its effect on global temperatures, is the cause of widespread disease, death and environmental decay. Nearly everyone can benefit from cleaner air and water, and not just because it might save our entire species.
The need to reduce pollution has thus far largely, and rightly, been framed around the prodigious effects of climate change. But it is clear that ideological division on the issue, fueled by pseudo-science, lobbyists and vested interests, has hindered progress in many places.
The political situation for climate activists seems bleak right now; look no further than Scott Pruitt’s appointment as head of the Environmental Protection Agency he has sued 13 times. Perhaps now more than ever, we need a positive, non-partisan narrative for cleaner air and water, energy efficiency and sustainable practices.
One such narrative is based on the short and medium term benefits of a green economy. From my observation, political will is best generated by promoting the measurable benefits of a policy. In this respect, two arguments stand out for their potential to generate cross party support (and meaningful results).
Clean energy can ensure security of supply, improve global stability
Fossil fuels currently provide the world with 81% of its energy. In June 2016, the EIA reported that “unplanned global oil supply disruptions averaged more than 3.6 million barrels per day in May 2016, the highest monthly level recorded since EIA started tracking global disruptions in January 2011.”
Most of these disruptions were caused by political dispute or conflict and, given the current political landscape, this trend will likely continue. The policy decisions of the world’s most powerful governments are often influenced by the need for oil. Tragically, many of these decisions have also led to war and regional destabilisation.
One particular issue that stands out is the uncomfortably cozy relationship Western nations enjoy with Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Though this accord is not just for the sake of oil (for what use is oil if it can’t buy you weapons?), the Saudis’ 17% share of the global oil market is a powerful bargaining tool for as long as the West continues to buy it. Likewise, playground bully Russia accounts for a third of all EU gas (39%) and oil (29%) imports.
Divestment from fossil fuels would firstly free up much of the $5.3 trillion of global subsidies the industry receives, to be reinvested into clean energy, energy efficiency and other sustainable policies. Secondly, it would decrease the West’s reliance on perennial human rights abusers for energy. Shrinking revenue would put internal pressure on the world’s autocrats and would allow Western governments to take a stronger moral stance in international dealings. Perhaps it is naive of me, but I cannot believe our leaders would prop up authoritarian regimes if they didn’t believe it to be somewhat necessary.
Cleaner air and water could save the lives of millions
A 2016 World Health Organisation report estimated that 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment in 2012 – nearly 1 in 4 of total global deaths. It concludes that “environmental risk factors, such as air, water and soil pollution […] contribute to more than 100 diseases and injuries,” and that 8.2 million of these deaths are “mostly attributed to air pollution”.
The human cost is enormous, yet largely ignored, and even dismissed as an inevitability. But a 2009 study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency concluded that measures to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to 50% of 2005 levels, by 2050, can reduce the number of premature deaths from the chronic exposure to air pollution by 20 to 40%.
To put this into perspective, these measures could save the entire population of Ireland every year - and improve the general health of millions more (Alzheimer’s disease was recently linked to air pollution). As far as the political narrative is concerned, a large and continuous death toll would be harder to deny in the face of sustained public pressure than “invisible” climate change.
As recently as 1988, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell voted in favour of George H.W. Bush’s amendment to expand the Clean Air Act, saying “I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo; I chose cleaner air.” In 2010, new British Prime Minister David Cameron told civil servants at the Department of Energy he wanted his coalition to be the “greenest government ever,” and oversaw the creation of the UK’s Green Investment Bank.
In both cases, we all know what happened next. However, cross-partisan rhetoric in support of greener policies is evidently not such a distant memory. With the right pressure, traditionally anti-green actors can be mobilised to act. In fact, we are already seeing encouraging signs from some of the usual suspects, as even China phased out coal from 663 villages in 2016, with the same planned for a further 700 villages this year in a bid to improve air quality.
In the context of climate change hyper-politicisation, we must emphasise more immediately achievable, concrete and measurable benefits of green initiatives - improving the health of those of us alive today, and helping to stabilise what has become a worryingly turbulent political landscape. This more positive narrative has a greater potential to bypass anti-intellectual ideology and generate the public support and political will needed for widespread decarbonisation. So the next time you face off against a climate change denier, how about firing off a few more immediate truths?