In April 2007, Margaret Beckett, then foreign secretary, gave a largely overlooked lecture called 'Climate change: The gathering storm':
It was a time when Churchill, perceiving the dangers that lay ahead, struggled to mobilize the political will and industrial energy of the British Empire to meet those dangers. He did so often in the face of strong opposition. Climate change is the gathering storm of our generation. And the implications - should we fail to act - could be no less dire: and perhaps even more so. (Beckett, 2007)
So, Britain and the US could launch a Green New Deal (Simms et al, 2008) for 100 months of concerted action, taking inspiration from Roosevelt's famous 100-day programme to implement his New Deal in the face of the dust bowls and depression. One such plan we published in the UK by a group of specialists in finance, energy and environmental specialists.
Addressed at the triple crunch of the credit crisis, high oil prices and global warming, the basics of the plan are to rein in reckless financial institutions and employ a range of fiscal tools, new measures and reforms to the tax system, such as a windfall tax on oil companies. The resources raised are then to be invested in a massive environmental transformation programme that could insulate the economy from recession, create countless new jobs and allow those countries to play their part in meeting the climate challenge.
As a precursor to enabling and building more sustainable systems for transport, energy, food and overhauling the nation's building stock, the governments need to brace themselves to tackle the big financial institutions. Currently they are giving us the worst of all worlds. We have woken to find the foundations of our economy made up of unstable, exotic financial instruments. At the same time, and perversely, as awareness of climate change goes up, ever more money pours through the City, London's financial district, into the oil companies. These companies list their fossil fuel reserves as 'proven' or 'probable'. A new category of 'un-burnable' should be introduced to fundamentally change the balance of power in the City. Instead of using vast sums of public money to bail out banks because they are considered 'too big to fail', they should be reduced in size until they are small enough to fail without hurting anyone. It is only a climate system capable of supporting human civilization that is too big to fail.
In 2008 we saw considerable oil price volatility. There is considerable potential to tax oil companies at a higher rate. Many politicians argued for this so-called 'windfall tax'. Money raised - in this way and through other changes in taxation, new priorities for pension funds and innovatory types of bonds - would go towards a long overdue massive de-carbonization of our energy system. Decentralization, renewables, energy efficiency, conservation and demand management will all play a part.
Next would be a rolling programme to overhaul the nations' heat-leaking building stock. This will have the benefit of massively cutting emissions and at the same time tackling the sore of fuel poverty by creating better insulated and designed homes. A transition from 'one person, one car' on the roads to a variety of clean reliable forms of public transport should be visible by the middle of our 100 months. Similarly, weaning agriculture off fossil fuel dependency will be a phased process.
The end result will be real international leadership, removing the excuses of other nations not to act. But it will also leave people more secure in terms of food and energy supplies, and with more resilient economies capable of weathering whatever economic and environmental shocks the world has to throw at us. Each of these challenges will draw on things that we already know how to do, but have missed the political will for.
Impassable ecological obstacles lie on the path down which we chase the shadows of overconsumption to deliver our well-being, expecting the poor to be grateful for the crumbs that fall from our plates. The good news is that another way is not only possible, as the philosopher A. C. Grayling writes: 'it is better, richer and more enduring'.6
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