Earlier this week the Government updated its website page explaining climate change, for the first time in almost four years. “We have added details of the latest IPCC report” it noted, indicating there was something new from the authoritative UN-backed inter-governmental panel.
Curiously, however, although the update does indeed refer to the IPCC’s latest assessment report, the report was first published in 2014 – so, as with so much else in climate change policy, it came with a significant time lag.
Yet it was a good moment for the Government to review its advice page, as the temperature across parts of the UK began to soar again, and after a series of warnings in recent weeks about climate change and other environmental risks.
In mid-July the chair of the UK’s independent advisory Committee on Climate Change said the government isn’t doing enough on climate change; last week the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee predicted that heat-related deaths will likely triple to 7,000 a year by mid-century unless action is taken; and 2018’s Earth Overshoot Day – the date on which we have used more resources than nature can replenish for the calendar year – arrived on Wednesday (1 August), earlier than ever before.
All this, in addition to the steady drumbeat of media reports of UK and international wildfires, record-breaking temperatures and heat-related deaths. There is a new way of looking at all this change, which has already gained momentum among scientists, and is now beginning to be talked about more widely.
As global temperatures creep up and the earth’s systems change, we can expect to see much less stable environmental conditions overall. This reflects, scientists are saying, the beginning of the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch – one that has been dramatically shaped by human activity. It is characterised by much less hospitable conditions, which are hard to predict and which multiply each other. Above all, it is characterised by the end of the stable climate that has allowed human civilisation to flourish in the 12,000 years since the last ice age.
Anthropocene, from the Greek word for human, points to the fundamental role human activity has played. Some human activity, that is – for example, just 90 companies are responsible for half of global emissions since 1880. This suggests that responsibility for our current predicament might not be equally distributed among humanity, but weighted toward certain “carbon-hungry” economies and cultures.
The plain fact is that environmental and human systems (economic, political, social) are inextricably linked. Society relies on natural foundations – from biodiverse insects pollinating crops, to fertile soil allowing them to grow.
We need to redesign our economy and institutions for the new environmental reality in two ways. Firstly, we must bring our economic activity into environmentally sustainable limits, while maintaining human rights and fostering equality and justice. This means improving our “resource productivity” (the rate at which we use resources and generate waste for the economic value we create), for example through technological innovation, lifestyle changes, and making the economy more circular. Secondly, we must build our resilience to the effects of the environmental damage that has already been done, so that politics, society and the economy are more able to cope.
The British are renowned for talking about the weather; less so about climate change or environmental collapse. That might change, though, after this summer’s heatwave. Even ‘climate sceptic’ newspapers are linking the current heatwave to climate change.
Scientific evidence for climate change, and the clear need to act, has been around for years. But now millions of people’s first-hand experience of this summer’s heatwave, as the journalist Michael McCarthy noted in The Guardian this week, is hammering the message home more effectively than any number of predictive models. The sheer physical discomfort of the past few weeks may do more to shift public perception of climate change than a myriad of scientific papers over the last few decades. Only time will tell, but recurrence of such weather events will surely lead to greater awareness.
Political leaders need to take a role in building that awareness and start preparing for what is to come. The storm will truly start to hit as the baby boomer and Gen X generations hand over the reins to millennials. Millions of people now in their 20s and 30s will be the first responders to the developing crisis, which means they must be prepared because they will also be responsible for minimising the now inevitable damage for future generations.
IPPR is preparing to launch a project this autumn, aimed at developing an understanding of how to respond to the Anthropocene. That response must be comprehensive, with a greater sense of urgency than the four-year time lag to update the government’s guidance would suggest.