A recurring theme among environmentalists over the last few years is that climate change should be addressed with big and urgent changes, putting the country on ‘a war footing’. “With the urgency that now exists around avoiding irreversible damage to our planet,” said Prince Charles recently, “we must put ourselves on what can only be described as a war footing.”
Ed Milliband said it last year, Bernie Sanders uses the language of war, and so does Bill McKibben. I associate it most with Caroline Lucas, who has been arguing for years that “we must move onto the equivalent of a ‘war-footing'”. While most people have used it as an expression, Lucas’ New Home Front project explored different ways that we could learn from the British experience of the Second World War and apply lessons for climate change. That was in 2011 and the project website is now offline, but I wrote about it here and here.
It’s a phrase I’ve not used myself, for a number of reasons. If nothing else, ‘footing’ is an odd word. It isn’t immediately obvious what a normal ‘war footing’ is, let alone applying it to an environmental crisis.
Most importantly, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about a war footing without the war. It’s easy to say that climate change needs that level of response, and it may be correct, but it’s all too slow motion. Climate change is slow violence. It doesn’t have that immediate sense of threat that Britain faced as German troops massed on the other side of the channel, ready to invade. Or as we face today, with the news stories about the Coronavirus flying in faster than we can read them.
Over the last ten days, we’ve seen what a real war footing looks like. The British government, led by a clearly reluctant Conservative prime minister, has had to do a whole series of things that would be completely unthinkable under normal circumstances. They have underwritten wages, closed down schools, ordered pubs and restaurants to shut up shop. Private healthcare capacity has been commandeered, businesses re-tooled to serve the national interest at short notice.
Stories that would be extraordinary are barely noticed. Today for example, the government offered to run all the trains if any of the railway companies get into trouble. This is a government that has pushed away any talk of nationalisation for the last ten years, in favour of competition and private profit. After all the fretting about Jeremy Corbyn and his radical socialist ideas about reversing privatization, it may be the Conservatives that actually do it. Everything can change in a crisis.
There’s no outcry over any of this. Politicians that would have thrown up their hands at any one of these policies support them or sit quietly, knowing it’s the right thing to do. The press don’t protest. Most people don’t question it. It’s simply what needs to be done. The crisis legitimises extraordinary policies, and without the crisis, it would be impossible.
That’s the reason why, however much we might like it to apply, it doesn’t work with climate change. The urgency of the crisis hasn’t reached the critical point where people are ready to support dramatic interventions. The use of phrases like ‘climate emergency’ have certainly sharpened people’s minds, but it can’t be manufactured and it’s still nowhere near the critical mass. Without the imminent sense of danger, radical actions don’t have democratic legitimacy and they will be rejected. Even relatively small measures can be shot down, the way the gilets jaunes took to the streets in France in response to fuel taxes.
Perhaps that will change, but so far even heatwaves and floods and droughts haven’t pushed us to that tipping point. Climate change is too slow, the effects too disconnected from the causes. It is global in nature, and highly unequal. The places that most need critical intervention – places like the US and Australia – are the least likely to support them. Conversely, the places that are most vulnerable, and where the need for dramatic action is most obvious, have far fewer opportunities to take meaningful action. People in Madagascar or Bangladesh already have low carbon footprints.
Having seen what a war footing looks like, I’m not convinced we’ll ever see climate change action on a similarly urgent scale, with daily drastic action. I’m not sure it will ever command that kind of attention, and legitimise the kind of social disruption we have seen this month. Whether it should or not is not the point. The fact that climate change feels distant is part of the problem. But while we might never see a war footing for climate change, I would hope we can still see urgent and far reaching climate action without it.