It’s 38 Degrees in the Arctic Circle
I once lived in a flat that became infested with mice. After some time the problem disappeared, but eventually we realised that the mice had been eaten by rats. I was remembering that rodent anecdote reading this week about about the small Siberian town of Verkhoyansk. Last weekend, weather stations in Verkhoyansk recorded an air temperature of 38°C or 100°F. That obliterated the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic Circle. The increased heat has triggered permafrost fires in the region, which are releasing tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The phenomenon was awarded three paragraphs in the Guardian and a smattering of outrage elsewhere.
We are distracted.
It’s not surprising. The media failure around reporting climate breakdown is long-standing, and was a key demand of Extinction Rebellion, especially focused on public broadcasters: Tell the Truth. Nor is it surprising in terms of human behaviour. How can we be expected to focus on the larger abstract notion of “climate change” when we are (very much) focused on the tangible virus that might kill us or our family?
But the problem is that the plans for recovery out of this crisis collide precisely into the one we’re not paying any attention to.
This week the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery published its report, ‘Towards a robust, resilient wellbeing economy for Scotland’.
The group is led by the former head of Tesco Bank, and current chair of Buccleuch Estates, Benny Higgins. So it’s not a surprise that despite the report being sprinkled with zeitgeist terms of “wellbeing” and “resilience” it had little of either.
The report mirrors our current obsession with economic growth, which is the main driver of climate breakdown.
It states unequivocally: “Scotland had the ambition to become a robust, wellbeing economy. That is one that generates strong economic growth… and that does so with an unequivocal focus on climate change, fair work, diversity, and equality”.
This is gobbledygook. Doublespeak. It doesn’t have meaning.
The problem for wellbeing campaigners is that their language is being co-opted for business-as-usual practice.
As environmental campaigner Matthew Crichton commented: “Left to Benny Higgins and his crew, that would be a very conventional recovery. One good thing is that it does call for a boost to investment levels, but it has no suggestions about how to do that apart from asking Westminster for more funds or borrowing powers. No plan for Scottish Green Bonds here, no call for a massive increase in the capitalisation of the Scottish National Investment Bank, just a suggestion that it should invest in housing – which looks dangerously like a dilution of its commitment to funding a Just Transition.”
Which brings us back to Verkhoyansk.
Last year the science journal, Nature, published a study by eminent climate scientists warning that nine major ‘tipping points’ which regulate climate stability are close to being triggered. These include the slowing down of ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, massive deforestation of the Amazon, and accelerating ice loss from the West Antarctic ice sheet. They warned that any one of these tipping points, if breached, could push the climate into catastrophic runaway global warming.
The problem is not Verkhoyansk in and of itself, the problem is what it represents and how it relates to these tipping points.
It is quite clear that the report initiated by the Scottish Government had saving jobs as its key criteria. That is understandable given the economic catastrophe created by the coronavirus. But if we keep saying over and over that we are in “unprecedented times” then we need – and should demand – some unprecedented thinking.
As the economist anthropologist Jason Hickel puts it: “As the Arctic burns under a record heatwave, with temperatures soaring to 45C, economists are lining up to call for more growth. The discipline is increasingly unhinged from reality. The key lesson for post-covid economics is that you do not need growth to solve a crisis of unemployment. Shorten the working week, distribute income and wealth more fairly, and introduce a Green New Deal job guarantee.”
If the Nature study from last year should have brought shock and action rather than inertia and duplicity, a new study in Nature Communications was a breath of fresh air. The study showed what we already knew, that the wealthy are disproportionately responsible for climate change. It found that the richest 10 per cent of people are responsible for up to 43 per cent of destructive global environmental impacts.
The authors write: “Recent scientists’ warnings confirm alarming trends of environmental degradation from human activity, leading to profound changes in essential life-sustaining functions of planet Earth. The warnings surmise that humanity has failed to find lasting solutions to these changes that pose existential threats to natural systems, economies and societies and call for action by governments and individuals. The warnings aptly describe the problems, identify population, economic growth and affluence as drivers of unsustainable trends and acknowledge that humanity needs to reassess the role of growth-oriented economies and the pursuit of affluence.”
We have seen during lockdown a glimpse into a possible alternative future: one where obsessive work and toil in pursuit of consumption are ceased, one where appreciation of nature, not as an “asset” but as something we are intimately part of, is normal. At the very heart of our current predicament is our economic system which values nothing but itself for its own sake and perpetuating that system is an act of self-harm we are witnessing in real time.