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Climate change will affect all of us. So why the lack of urgency

Polly Toynbee

Tomorrow the world shudders as Donald Trump becomes US president. Hopes that wise advisers would mitigate the erratic, half-crazed stream of contradictions pouring from his lips have been dashed as he picks fake news purveyors and climate change-deniers for his close consiglieri. For these 24 hours the Guardian is marking the event with reporting from all seven continents on the effects of climate change happening right now, following the sun as day breaks around the world. Reports from every continent tell of rising seas, melting ice, warming tundra, scorching heat and a Gulf stream that may shift to freeze us here, as manmade global warming risks reaching the point of no return.

The idea is to make us all stop and think. For example, we commentators on politics and society need to ask ourselves what’s wrong with us? Why is it that we mostly ignore this fast-approaching cataclysm, as we write about daily political dramas instead – Theresa May’s Brexit speech in Davos today, Jeremy Corbyn’s failed joke at PMQs yesterday, Boris Johnson comparing the potential behaviour of the French president to that of a Nazi prison camp guard.
The trouble with climate change as a political issue is that it’s too big to grasp, too ever-present. An occasional fixed point of global decision – the dramatic last-minute signing of the Paris climate change deal – briefly flashes up on the political grid, but once over, it falls back as if done and dusted. The planet is heating up fast – but not fast enough for the hungry 24-hour news cycle.

One problem: it’s hard for politicians, commentators and the public to worry about several things at once. The high-octane anxiety over Trump and Brexit absorbs all political energy: fear-fatigue can’t accommodate too much at once. Climate change is background noise, the slow roll of distant thunder. Like anyone not a denier, I am always aware of it and sometimes add “and climate change” to the list of monster crises ahead. Getting it right to the forefront of the brain, ahead of everything else, forcing politicians and public to put planet survival first, second and third in their priorities, that’s the great task.

But it’s not easy. Serve up too much doom, and people despair, shrug and just hope nothing too terrible happens in their own lifetimes. Or they hope clever scientists and engineers will save us all just in time. The waterworld of Bangladesh drowning its people or the vanishing under the waves of Tuvalu are far away.
Some will cling to the comfort of climate-change denial. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s chosen secretary of state, and a lifelong ExxonMobil man, uses the most dangerous subtler variety: he’s not an outright denier, but he tells Senate hearings its effects are uncertain, it exists but it’s just not that serious – though 97% of scientists are as certain as they are that smoking kills.The deranged and deluded species of denier include former chancellor Nigel Lawson, his columnist son Dominic, most of the Tory press and Owen Paterson, David Cameron’s climate change-denying former environment secretary who cut his climate adaptation budget by 40%. He told the BBC’s Any Questions four years ago that “the temperature has not changed in the last 17 years ”, though the temperature has been rising for decades, and 2016 was the hottest year on record, setting a new high for the third year in a row.Outright climate misinformation from people in authority is hugely effective: surely no minister would be so bold-faced? Besides, who doesn’t yearn for the discovery that it was all a mistake, what Trump calls a “hoax” and we are not about to boil, drown and freeze after all? A very little denial lie goes a long way, right round the world. Some, like ExxonMobil are venal, others are mad ideologists of the right who see green politics as a socialist plot or tree-hugging virtue-signalling. If they were serious, the precautionary principle would say, even if warming turns out less bad than feared, the cost of avoiding it is peanuts weighed against the high risk of human annihilation.To Westminster, climate politics smack of voter-unfriendly puritanism and self-denial, like dry January for ever – a hard sell for politicians, who instinctively veer away. Concern about the environment only rises up the agenda when the economy is thriving – in the late 80s, late 90s, 2006 – as a luxury for good times. But when most people’s incomes are still below crash levels, it’s harder to worry about the environment. Better jobs, higher growth, more of everything for everyone is the universal politicians’ message – not less of anything. European Green parties have sometimes sounded like people who relish less for its own sake.

Besides, politicians urging individuals to change their driving, flying and meat-eating habits go down exceptionally badly in a society as unequal as ours. Who do they think they are, on their incomes? Let’s see the fat cats give up their private planes and Rolls-Royces first. Inequality kills in many ways – but losing the moral authority to urge restraint may fry the planet.
Optimism is what successful politicians sell in manifestos of hope, change and better lives for all. The modern environmental movement has been good at balancing threats of doom with reasons why green energy and green living can foster clean growth, not kill it. What an opportunity was lost post-crash for a great green Keynesian investment surge in home insulation and new boilers, alongside a massive renewables push for wind, solar, tidal and nuclear power, with better public transport. Instead, no sooner did onshore wind become economic than its subsidies were taken away by Cameron; and just as solar was on the verge of success, George Osborne’s drastic cut in solar subsidy last year wrecked an industry, causing thousands of jobs to be lost.

Read not only the warnings of impending disaster in our reports today, but the messages of hope. It can be done with political will. Greening the economy can be a motor for success not a drag on growth – and it’s for all of us, the voters, to hold the politicians’ feet to the global warming fire and fight off the reckless evil of the deniers.