Alex Stephenson considers the reasons why Climate Change is off the popular political agenda – and why we must all take pains to change this
Those who follow the ever-developing landscape of crazy internet trends will have seen the recent phenomenon of people driving 6 hours to get the now out-of-stock McDonald’s Szechuan sauce, a condiment popularised by the adult cartoon Rick and Morty. The event felt bewildering, horrifying and in a weird way, dystopian; something I dismissed as typical of late capitalism. My unease was summed up by Sam Kriss’ tweet that ‘stuff like this is going to keep happening with increasing intensity until we all suddenly cook in our own skulls from climate change’.
There is a morbidly depressing plausibility to what Kriss is saying. As a society it feels as though we have embraced the trivial to the point where it has become all-consuming. Szechuan sauce and internet trends are what interest us, while issues like climate change, with all the discomfort and generational-spanning significance that they portend, are unable to get a look in. Let us be content with memes whilst we ‘cook in our own skulls from climate change’.
In some respects a portion of our responsibility can be mitigated: even at the highest level of our democratic institutions are these topics hardly being mentioned. Walk away from either the Labour or Conservative party conferences this year and you would be forgiven for thinking that we had not spent the summer watching in awe as America was ravaged by numerous ‘once in 500 year hurricanes’; and India, Nepal and Bangladesh hadn’t been completely decimated by floods. Instead, we saw the same old political discourse concerning immigration, education, the NHS, Brexit.
This is not to say these are not important topics. But as we keep being told, our very understanding of political and civil society, and thus all of the aforementioned topics, must now be seen through the prism of climate change. As we debate how to cope with the present-day refugee crisis, let us imagine what what the situation will be when significant proportions of Africa and the Middle East become uninhabitable. Consider too how a foreign policy and a foreign aid budget will look when wars start to break out over clean water. Consider how we can restructure our economy towards sustainable energy and the education, investment, and think about the potential restructuring of our tax system that all of this will require. Consider what international trade will look like as natural disasters render supply lines increasingly fractured, and formerly fertile areas of land become desert. As it stands, nobody seems to be having these discussions.
Politicians rarely seem to look beyond next week – nevermind after the next election – and thus issues of such time-spanning magnitude do not break into the political narrative. The cold hard reality of climate change doesn’t have the same saccharine appeal of tax cuts or increased spending on the NHS and thus discussion of it becomes untenable.
Structurally, too, both parties, are currently unable to address the issue. Whether due to ties with big corporations, internal party conflicts, bureaucratic structures, the extensive social and structural reengineering that is required to ensure all echelons of Government and state are working towards a collective goal is a fantasy.
However, we cannot imply just blame the government. It’s cognitively dissonant to believe we can castigate polluting firms without acknowledging their production exists to service our consumption. We accept flimsy soundbites that pay lip service to problems when we know full well they require much more to be tackled, and offer a sympathetic but ultimately half-hearted response when increasingly violent natural disasters batter countries around the world. By not bothering to question why renewable subsidies have been cut by 95% over three years or why our roads have become some of the most polluted in the world we’ve created our own political situation. It is now imperative that parties and politicians that are not focused on addressing these issues are portrayed as ones who are unwilling to ensure the longevity of our nation and planet.
Popular internet culture can no longer be relied on as a comforting distraction or evasion from our responsibilities.Party dysfunctionality, short termism, the exclusion of social collective responsibility in favour of market domination, and crippling public apathy have all brought us to a point where not just our prosperity is threatened but also our very survival. At the core of all new policy decisions there must be the question: will this address our climate crises? Only by beginning to ask questions such as this, and by beginning to discuss the political predicament that has made climate change seem unassailable, can we ever hope to deal with the problem.