I’m watching Boris Johnson at the Youth for Climate conference in Italy, part of the build up to COP26. Johnson has the air of a Latin master who forgot to teach his pupils half the syllabus while trying to assure them their exams will be fine. I watch him lavish insincere praise on the youth activists as he explains what he hopes will emerge from COP – coal, cars, cash and trees. If we stop using cars and coal, he claims, if we spend more on green projects and plant “trillions” of trees we can “make it the beginning of the end of climate change.”
Or to paraphrase Greta Thunberg, “blah, blah, blah.”
Perhaps the only thing Boris Johnson and I have in common is that we are both about to become fathers again. Johnson’s seventh (?) child is expected around Christmas, while my second is due early January. Babies born into this terrifying new age of the Anthropocene, an era of climate and ecological collapse.
At night I worry about timelines: by 2050, when my son is a young man, we face 2C of warming – locked in even if we cease emitting all CO2 now. 2C means more famines, fires and floods, more extinctions, more climate refugees. But it gets worse. By 2070, when my son will only be a little older than I am today we’re on track for 3C of warming. One study suggests a 3C rise leaves a third of the world’s population living in conditions only found in the hottest of deserts. A 3C rise turns the Amazon into savannah, melts Arctic ice in summer months and turns Greenland’s icesheet into rising seas. Forward another 30 years. By 2100 my unborn son will still be younger than my father-in-law is today. Instead of enjoying retirement and grandchildren, he faces a potential 4 or even 5 degrees of warming, the collapse of life as we know it.
I lie awake. The thought of my children’s future in this almost unimaginable world fills me with horror and shame. Why aren’t we doing more? Why aren’t our leaders stopping this?
COP26 is being touted as “the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control.” Or, to quote a downbeat Antonio Guterres, “We can either save our world or condemn humanity to a hellish future.” Make or break time, but let’s be real: COP won’t save us. The world has been organising these “conferences of the parties” since the mid-90s but the global output of CO2 emissions has gone steadily up. Rewind to COP2 in 1995 and the conference accepted the findings of the IPCC about man-made climate change. The following COP in 1997 introduced the Kyoto protocols to reduce emissions to “a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Even then the science was conclusive, the alarm was ringing.
The IPCC states: “The scale of recent changes across the climate system… are unprecedented. Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.”
Alas, the history of COP is not a history of actions taken but a story of prevarication and delay, of creative carbon accounting (“Oh, let’s not include emissions from flights”) of targets distant and vague, of vested interests and powerful lobby groups fighting to maintain business as usual. Global CO2 emissions are due to hit a record high by 2023 and could be a further 16% higher still by 2030.
One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result. 25 years since the first COP and the IPCC has released its sixth and most urgent report: “The scale of recent changes across the climate system… are unprecedented. Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.” The obstacles to action do not lie with the science, they lie with the politicians.
I’m not confident that anything meaningful will emerge from COP. Quite apart from the glaring gap between words and actions that defines the UK’s policy, Australia’s government of climate criminals might not even attend whilst the AUKUS pact gives China a pretext to disengage. If that happens other nations are also likely to avoid meaningful action (“What about China?”). Our government currently provides millions more to fund road and airport expansion than renewables, approves new mines for coal that cannot be burnt if we are to stay within our “carbon budget”, continues to invest in fossil fuels and grants new licenses to drill for gas and oil while claiming this is part of the 2050 net zero unicorn strategy. Even pragmatic actions such as insulating homes – thereby reducing our carbon footprint, tackling fuel poverty and “levelling up” – are only on the agenda thanks to activist groups. Sensible ideas such as the CEE Bill proposed by the Greens are ignored while Nigel Lawson’s denialist “think tank” The Global Warming Policy Foundation pushes the line that net zero is “unaffordable” for ordinary people. Johnson has said he likes to have his cake and eat it, hardly surprising in a media landscape where “cake” is mentioned ten times more than the climate emergency. But there’s no Bake Off in a world of 3C of warming.
As a novelist and academic I’ve started discussing with students how there’s only one real story left – the climate and ecological emergency. But inspiring words and powerful facts can only take us so far – which is why, with a small group of writers and activists, I set up Writers Rebel to stage literary events that are also direct actions. Without the disruption (and attendant media interest) caused by non-violent civil disobedience the constellation of powers embodied in spectacles like COP will never authorise the action we need to save humanity.
I watch a clip from the first COP. An activist runs onto the stage and says to the panel, “I’m nineteen years old. By the time I’m your age the world will be much worse place because of your inaction. Your words are worth nothing, it’s time for action now.” It’s heart-breaking and terrifying to behold, her words truer today than 26 years ago. We’re almost out of time.
James Miller is the author of the novels “Lost Boys”, “Sunshine State” and “UnAmerican Activities”. He co-founded writersrebel.com, writes tweets for Extinction Rebellion and runs the MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University