The climax of Alan Moore’s famous graphic novel (warning: spoilers*) plays out around a moral dilemma. In a world of conflict and discord, maybe the only thing that can bring humanity together is a shared enemy. If you accept that proposition, then could it ever be morally defensible to create such an enemy? And if you discovered that the enemy was a sham then would it better to reveal the truth or join the conspiracy? Part of the reason the conclusion to the book is so chilling is that your heart wants to side with the uncompromising truth-seekers while your head makes rational calculations that lead to unpalatable conclusions.
Why am I invoking an old comic? In climate change we face a common enemy which is undeniably real, whose approach can be measured, predicted and increasingly experienced in real time, and which has been created entirely by ourselves. It may not have the same dramatic impact as a surprise alien invasion; think of it more like spotting the aliens while their ships are still some distance from reaching Earth, but they’re already sending trash-talk transmissions in which they detail exactly how they’re going to render the planet uninhabitable to humans and frying a few interstellar objects just to prove the point. And we invited them, knowing exactly what would happen.
In this case there is no conspiracy. The stream of scientific studies demonstrating the perils of allowing global temperatures to increase further is so continuous and consistent as to be almost background**. We want to stick our heads in the sand and ignore climate change because we enjoy our short-haul flights for city breaks, private cars to drive to work and occasional steaks. The individual incentives are all aligned towards apathy, ongoing consumption and deferred responsibility. Whatever is the worst that could happen, many of us in the Global North will be dead of natural causes by the time it reaches our parts of the world.
In the face of such an obvious existential threat, about which we have been forewarned by the consistent voice of the overwhelming majority of scientists, how is humanity preparing? Are we coming together as one? Have we overcome our differences and channeled our collective intellects and resources into finding a solution for all?
Like hell. America withdraws from the only international agreement with a shred of common purpose; Australia continues to mine coal while the country burns; Poland hosts a gathering of climate scientists and uses it to defend the coal industry. I know people who have stopped attending UNFCCC meetings because the emotional toll is so great. To recognise how much needs to be done and to witness how little has been achieved is a terrible burden. This is not to say that the situation is hopeless; with concerted action we can still avert the worst outcomes, and doing so remains worthwhile.
With all this in mind, I’m forced to conclude that the evidence in support of the Watchmen hypothesis is lacking. Creating a common enemy will not be enough to bring the world together. We’ve been trying it for 30 years already***.
Where does this leave the likes of Extinction Rebellion? Over the last year I’ve been amazed by the scale of the protests in London, Berlin and cities around the world, which exceed every previous effort. It feels like it a tipping point, and it ought to be, because one is long overdue. Whether it proves to be the moment the tide turns, time will tell. It has all the elements of a success story: popular support for the message, if not always the methods; an inspiring figurehead in Greta Thunberg who continues to exceed expectations; politicians scrambling to be seen on their side. Yet the background to this is the ongoing prosecution of many of the participants as states quietly assert their control. And the usual pattern of politics is for green issues to slip down the agenda as soon as an election looms****.
One of the side-effects of XR is that the disaster narrative has currently obscured other discourses and even subjected them to friendly fire. But this is not a battle which will be won on a single front. Many alternatives are available, including market mechanisms, commercial partnerships or a rebalancing of economic goals (there are good reasons why the Green New Deal isn’t quite it, but I admire its objectives). These are not exclusive of one another, nor likely to be sufficient on their own, but if we are to succeed in inspiring change then a mixture of approaches and messages will be essential.
I’m not saying that we should stop heralding the impending catclysm*****. The uncompromising truth-speakers are right. We need to keep up the drumbeat of evidence, narratives, reporting and campaigning as the climate crisis unfolds. There are positive, individual steps that we can all take. But if we hold out for the moment when humanity suddenly unites to act as one then I fear it may never come.
* It’s been out since 1987 so you really have had plenty of time to read it, but if you haven’t then perhaps you should. And no, watching the film doesn’t count. Trigger warning: contains scenes of sexual violence.
** Even in such times, this paper stands out as particularly terrifying.
*** The first IPCC report was published in 1990. The fundamental message hasn’t altered since, even if the weight of evidence and urgency of action have increased. At least half of global carbon emissions have occurred since this report.
**** A few years ago I attended a talk by a statistician from one of the major political research agencies in the UK. He showed polling data with a consistent pattern that voters placed a high priority on green issues between elections but they fall down the ranking in advance of an election. Politicians know this, which is one reason why action in democratic countries is so slow.