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Why the west is defaulting on climate change action

By Melissa Bradshaw, on 25 February 2016

Climate change is an urgent challenge of global citizenship, was the message at the heart of Jonathon Porritt’s UCL Global Citizenship lecture on 22 February. Speaking from decades of experience working in sustainability, Porritt showed that the world is precariously balanced between commitment to and denial of global citizenship.

Jonathon Porritt, CBE giving the UCL annual Global Citizenship lecture. Photographer: Kirsten Holst

Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future and acts as an advisor to many bodies, as well as to individuals including Prince Charles, and he is a Visiting Professor at the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity. He celebrated the Paris Agreement, the conclusion of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, as “one of the most astonishing agreements ever signed”. With 195 countries committed to limiting global warming to below 2°C, the agreement is a great source of hope and optimism.

The risks of narrow horizons

Yet Porritt also confronted us with the frightening reality of the consequences of a persistent denial of the world’s interdependency. Climate change is forcing the world to recognise that the interconnectivity of all human beings is a physical fact. The extraordinary achievement of the Paris Agreement proves that climate change is making nations adopt global citizenship a matter of urgency.

But if we continue as we are today, treaties will be repudiated and countries will default, he warned.

The consequences will be more xenophobia and repulsion of refugees, a continued vulnerability to “crass ideologies” and “fossil politics”, and more failure to adapt economically. The forward trajectory of human progress will be stopped in its tracks.

“The fact that this is depressing is not an excuse not to look at it,” he said.

The positive effect of the EU

In the run-up to Britain’s referendum on remaining in the EU, Porritt positioned criticism of the EU within the pattern of denial he had demonstrated. Most low carbon agendas are based on European laws and agendas, he said. “Every time I see them attacking Europe I see them attacking any notion of global citizenship.”

He discussed Britain’s record on carbon emissions in contrast to Germany. The Climate Change Act 2008 made Britain at one time a world leader on achieving low carbon emissions. No other country in the world had an act like it. But the present UK government has made 14 individual decisions that have unlocked that path. In contrast, Porritt said that in Germany commitments to reduce carbon emissions have been upheld without any debate.

Why have countries defaulted on climate change action?

Porritt’s lecture though gave insights about the reasons behind the default on action on climate change.

Implicitly, he recognised that looking away has happened in part because the reality can seem so dispiriting. But he also shared other insights from decades of advising politicians and policymakers as to reasons for the failure to act. Identifying these reasons infused his lecture with the sense that there is something we can do.

One of the more obvious reasons Porritt identified is that politicians don’t get elected by prioritising the long term over the short term. He also said that there are no politicians who are factoring in other economic models than inevitable growth, or preparing for the fact that wealth will have to be generated in a new way.

Policymakers are also victims of ‘path dependency’, he said: this means that their decisions are limited by past decisions and knowledge. Crucially, the Paris Agreement has the potential to create a new path dependency. We are one-third of the way to investing the $1 trillion we need to invest annually to prevent a temperature rise of 2 degrees. “That is remarkable.”

Jonathon Porritt

Jonathon Porritt, CBE

Global citizenship is the key

Porritt thus offered his audience an empowering possibility that global citizenship can be embraced to prevent meltdown, and achieve breakthrough. But “we have been hollowed out by the old stories of industrialisation and colonisation,” he said. “We have to suffuse the notion of global citizenship with empathy.”

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