Climate Change Conversation Has Gone Mainstream – Now It's Time To Act

With Sir David Attenborough talking properly about climate change and the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in full swing, the UK needs a step-change in its ambition
Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

At 9pm tonight, the BBC airs David Attenborough’s new documentary, Climate Change – The Facts. This one-hour prime time special sees Attenborough joined by an a-list of the climate world to provide a whistle-stop tour of the basics of climate science, exploring why we have failed to tackle carbon emissions so far and what we need to do about in the future. Those who have seen it say that the documentary is an excellent primer on climate change and has placed a welcome focus on action and solutions.

The film’s release follows long-running criticism of both Attenborough and the BBC for failing to give sufficient precedence to climate change in their previous work. Whilst such criticism may or may not be justified, the focus of Blue Planet II on plastics in our oceans and the subsequent public and policy response shows what can be achieved when environmental issues are given such mainstream exposure. It also suggests that the BBC has finally picked up on the cultural shift in attitudes to climate and environmental sustainability, particularly amongst the young.

This change of narrative and focus is very welcome and could hardly come at a more important time. As IPPR research has demonstrated, the risks that we face are both much worse and much more urgent than the vast majority of people realise. Mainstream political and policy debates have failed to recognise that human impacts on the environment have reached a critical stage, potentially having eroded the very conditions which make our socio-economic stability possible. While our political leaders continue to operate on a business-as-usual model, global emissions have continued along a trajectory that is diametrically opposed to where it needs to be if we are to maintain a stable climate.

In response to this challenge, the UK has historically pitched itself as a climate leader. However, even when considered on its own terms it is now set to miss its legally-binding fourth and fifth carbon budgets - and by a much bigger margin than previously thought. Furthermore, the targets that we have set ourselves are based upon terms that are favourable to the UK. By focusing predominately on ‘territorial’ emissions - those that arise within our borders - and downplaying those associated with international aviation, shipping and imports, we have effectively outsourced the heavy-lifting of decarbonisation to other countries, most of whom have less resources to deal with them. This ‘pass-the-parcel’ approach to carbon accounting is one of the reasons that global emissions continue to rise, despite many companies and governments trumpeting significant progress against their emission reduction targets.

Last week, 12,000 scientists took the unprecedented step of signing an open letter that backed the children who decided to walk out of school and engage in climate strike protests. Set alongside Attenborough’s new documentary, movements like Extinction Rebellion and the evidence of changing attitudes amongst the young, the scientist’s letter points to the potential emergence of powerful new coalition who seem genuinely committed to giving climate change and environmental breakdown the attention it deserves.

Our political leaders would be well-advised to heed their calls. IPPR’s research has found that without drastic action there is a huge risk of a global future plagued by economic instability, large-scale involuntary migration, conflict and famine. In response to this, our political and economic institutions should scale up our response now, rather than waiting to have change thrust upon them as a result of the political instability that will inevitably arise from an inadequate policy response.

Our historical disregard of environmental considerations in most areas of policy has been a catastrophic mistake. The silver lining is that – for now at least – there remains a genuine window of opportunity to pursue solutions capable of both stabilising the climate and improving people’s quality of life. The emerging discourse around concepts such as the ‘Green New Deal’ in the US and a ‘green transition’ in the UK can be seen as early signs of a narrative capable of bringing a new coalition together into a cogent political force.

The policies that underpin these concepts have the potential to present a way to radically reduce our emissions, whilst also delivering broadly-distributed prosperity and rewarding, high-quality work. More research is needed to develop them, but the government should nevertheless urgently seek to adopt the agenda.

Will the BBC’s embrace of the climate change agenda prove a tipping point that shifts opinion – and makes governments act – like nothing before? We must hope so. But for all the activity Blue Planet II stimulated in relation to ocean plastics, global plastic production is still forecast to grow over the next decade. On climate change, Attenborough’s new film will surely help – but unless we deliver a step-change in our ambition we will still fall far short of maintaining a stable climate.

Tom Hill is senior research fellow for energy and climate change at IPPR


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