Does climate change have us licked?

So, Jeff Bezos is now an environmentalist. “We must all stand together to protect our world,” he declared at this week’s COP26 climate summit, pledging $2 billion to the cause having recently returned from space a changed man.

“I was told that seeing the Earth from space changes the lens through which you view the world, but I was not prepared for just how much that would be true … from up there the atmosphere seems so thin, the world so finite and so fragile”.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks at an event at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.Credit:Getty Images

For the sake of discussion, let’s leave cynicism aside and take Bezos at face value here, as a textbook example of the “overview effect” astronauts often experience. This is where the Earth, viewed from a radically different perspective, ceases to appear solid, mighty and indestructible. Suddenly, it is “hanging in the void”, impossibly precarious, with only the tiniest atmospheric shell to protect it. In a glimpse, so much artifice is revealed. National borders mean nothing. Human conflict seems petty.

That is Bezos’ new “lens”. But it underscores precisely why climate change might just defeat us as a species. Because even if we assume Bezos is completely genuine, he’s coming from a perspective not one national leader at that conference can possibly share because none can have his “overview”. Bezos is responding to a marble with no borders. And yet without those borders, none of the leaders in the room would exist.

That’s the central, giant contradiction at the heart of climate politics. At bottom, it is a collection of national leaders with national constituencies, presiding over national economies and pursuing national interests, while trying to solve a borderless, global problem. That is a massive problem of political structure. The scope of the problem we’re trying to solve simply doesn’t match the main political tool we have at our disposal: the nation state.

The more this climate crisis rolls on, the clearer this seems to become. Who is mounting the most powerful moral case for action? Island nations whose very existence is threatened. Who’s opposing initiatives to phase out fossil fuels like coal and reduce methane emissions? China, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and of course Australia: nations whose economies rely on those resources.

Which developed countries are chiding them? Nations like Britain and France who don’t have resources economies. Whose emissions reduction targets are least immediate? Developing nations who have millions of people to lift out of poverty.

That doesn’t mean each nation’s position is equally correct. But they are, roughly speaking, equally national. Some national interests will align more closely with the reality of this catastrophe than others.

From a planetary perspective, Australia’s behaviour is entirely risible, while Britain’s is far more admirable. But that is not a matter of relative virtue so much as political circumstance. Does anyone doubt that were Boris Johnson Australia’s Prime Minister he would be sounding a lot like Scott Morrison right now?

To fix this, you’d somehow need to give politics an “overview” perspective. The United Nations routinely fails to do this for the same reason COP does: it is ultimately a collection of nations. It is international, but not global. And yet, global government is a complete non-starter: impossible to realise, and probably catastrophic if somehow it were.

Governments only work when they stretch as far as the solidarity of their peoples. A global government would require global solidarity to exist among the Earth’s people. And if we had that, our climate responses would already be so much better than they are.

A more realistic alternative might be to expand the notion of the national interest so its horizons extend beyond the short-term. Protecting a fossil-fuel economy ceases to be in the national interest if the consequence is an unliveable country in a century.

Indeed, the Queen’s COP 26 speech asked world leaders to think in precisely such epochal terms: “none of us will live forever. But we are doing this not for ourselves, but for our children and our children’s children, and those who will follow in their footsteps.” But much like Bezos, her words underscore the problem. They adopt a perspective too big for political imagination.

It is, if you like, another huge problem of solidarity. The Queen assumes people care deeply about their descendants, but when political decisions get made, it turns out people alive today seem to have very little solidarity with those who are yet to be born. This is especially true in democracies where the living vote and the unborn don’t.

Even the young don’t really count, which is why they are so frequently on the losing side of political contests: housing affordability, franking credits and of course, climate change. Democracy does many things well. Intergenerational policy is not one of them.

Climate change confounds us because it demands political solidarity across time and space that we find deeply unnatural. That’s not to say we can’t learn to create them. Indeed, the nation state that we take so much for granted now, is an artificial creation that required humans to imagine a political structure different to empire and reimagine their ideas of political solidarity accordingly. But here’s the thing: it took a monstrous crisis to do it. The nation state grew out of the Treaty of Westphalia, which was in turn designed to end Europe’s 30 Years’ War. That war killed about 20 per cent of Europe’s population. That’s a pretty heavy incentive to unlock a new political imagination.

Could climate change unlock something similar? It is more catastrophic than any other crisis we’ve faced, but also more gradual and abstract. It doesn’t declare itself in a rush like a war or a pandemic. It works on time scales the human mind doesn’t fully grasp and that human emotion doesn’t feel in a visceral way.

And that is the last great demand climate change makes of us: to think and feel in a different way; to imagine the abstract as concrete and the future as now. We’re in the fight of our species’ life against an enemy that exposes our every weakness. It is utterly necessary we prevail. And if we can, we will have achieved something truly heroic.

Waleed Aly is a regular columnist.

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