Is the world’s green consensus going dark?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL August 13, 2023
Read the full version of Aug 2's This Week, Those Books. Or sign up for free at https://thisweekthosebooks.substack.com and get the post the day it drops

Welcome to the latest instalment of This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s news and developments.

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July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth; extreme heat waves occurred in the American southwest, Mexico, southern Europe and China; India swung from sizzling heat to disproportionately heavy rainfall which caused floods; wildfires raged in Canada, darkening the skies over the US east coast with their fumy breath. Unseasonable weather has sent the price of tomatoes soaring more than 400% in India and caused a shortage of Sriracha hot sauce, the iconic condiment created in the US using peppers from the recently drought-hit American southwest and Mexico.

So, three of the world’s biggest carbon dioxide polluters – China, the US, India (in that order) – had an extreme month. The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, says it is a new era – one of “global boiling”.

A global problem needs a global solution and the green shoots of a  consensus have been emerging since the 2015 Paris pact, the world’s first treaty on climate change. Now, the US is now throwing big bucks at renewable energy, as is Europe; China is building solar capacity and Africa is talking sustainable construction materials, etc.

But green is also the colour of a sharp new dividing line, in geopolitics and domestic politics around the world. Consider this:

  • The green consensus forged in the UK, the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency in 2019, is under political threat. Ahead of a tough general election next year for his Conservative Party, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has declared he’s on the side of motorists and announced the auction of hundreds of new oil and gas drilling licenses in a new push for fossil fuel-based energy security. Of course, the move to play dirty politics with green policy could backfire. An Ipsos survey says eight in 10 Britons are concerned about climate change.
  • In the US, none of the 11 major Republican Party candidates for president is talking about green initiatives; one of them, biotech billionaire Vivek Ramaswamy, is calling for America to “abandon the climate cult” altogether. However, a Pew Research Center study found that large majorities of Americans want to prioritise climate change policies but not the phasing out of fossil fuels.
  • China reportedly obstructed G20 climate negotiations held late last month in Chennai in India. Beijing is said to have argued the G20 is an economic forum and not the venue for climate change policy. The G20 meetings are meant to prepare the ground for the UN’s COP28 climate summit in the UAE later this year. A 2023 academic paper says the Chinese people want to address climate change.

So, could the Chinese government lead the world in putting the green bandwagon in reverse gear? Could Western politicians deal a fatal blow to the emerging green consensus by making it another front in their domestic culture wars? It’s not a given. Cli-fi is now increasingly in line with cli-fact.

Dear Reader, this week reminds me of those books:

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Leave the World Behind

By: Rumaan Alam

Publisher: Ecco

Year: 2020

One of the best in the wave (see bonus picks at the end) of new cli-fi, a genre that dates back to Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy from 20 years ago. A mysterious event occurs before the reader’s appalled gaze as well-heeled New Yorkers Amanda and Clay and their teenaged children, Archie and Rose, holiday in a beautiful and remote Airbnb on Long Island. Everything goes on the blink – mobile phones, landlines, television, the internet. In their hundreds and thousands, the deer gather from the woods and the hills and begin to move. Pink flamingos fall from the skies into the swimming pool of the holiday home, then take off once more for other parts.

The family, which is joined by another couple, is cut off from the world. Then, they hear the noise:

“This was a noise, yes, but one so loud that it was almost a physical presence, so sudden because of course there was no precedent. There was nothing (real life!), and then there was a noise. Of course they’d never heard a noise like that before. You didn’t hear such a noise; you experienced it, endured it, survived it, witnessed it. You could fairly say that their lives could be divided into two: the period before they’d heard that noise and the period after. It was a noise, but it was a transformation. It was a noise, but it was a confirmation. Something had happened, something was happening, it was ongoing, the noise was confirmation even as the noise was mystery.”

As they panic and mourn, Alam notes:

“The illness of the planet had never been a secret, the nature of it all had never been in doubt, and if something had changed (it had), the fact that they didn’t yet know it had no bearing on the matter at all. It was inside them now, whatever it was. The world operated according to logic, but the logic had been evolving for some time, and now they had to reckon with that.”

It is left to Generation Alpha in the person of 13-year-old Rose to draw the dismal parallel between humans’ shameful propensity to take more than their fair share and trees’ gracious restraint:

“She’d seen once, on the internet, that trees knew not to grow into one another, held themselves at some remove from their neighbors. Trees knew to occupy only their given patch of earth and sky. Trees were generous and careful, and maybe that would be their salvation.”

Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet

By: Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin with C. J. Polychroniou

Publisher: Verso

Year: 2020

All this talk of climate change and what can realistically be done about it can get confusing. Who better to explain than Noam Chomsky, one of the most influential philosophers, linguists and political activists today, and Robert Pollin, a progressive economist who teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has proposed a global Green New Deal and the green transformation of the economy. In this compact book, political economist C. J. Polychroniou asks questions that allow Chomsky and Pollin to explain the nature of climate change, its relationship to capitalism, what a global Green New Deal might look like, and the effect it could have on politics.

Some choice quotes that underline Chomsky and Pollin’s common sense views on climate change and green policy:

Chomsky: “Global warming has an abstract feel. Who understands the difference between 1.5ºC and 2ºC (2.7ºF and 3.6ºF respectively) — in contrast to having food to put on the table for your children tomorrow?”

He quotes Australian climate scientist Andrew Glikson: “…the world continues to spend near $1.8 trillion each year on the military, a resource that needs to be diverted to the protection of life on earth…who will defend the earth?”

Pollin: “…we should think of a global Green New Deal as exactly the equivalent of an insurance policy to protect ourselves and the planet…”

Incidentally, at 192 pages, this book is roughly one-fourth the length of The Deluge, the much praised new cli-fi novel mentioned below (896 pages).

BONUS: Honourable mention for two other cli-fi novels

The Deluge by Stephen Markley, 2023: Set in the US, where weather extremes are raging and Rupert Murdoch’s eldest son Lachlan and LeBron James have lost their homes in an LA megafire. A Republican promising serious pro-climate legislation wins the White House. Then the political backlash begins.

The Wall by John Lanchester, 2019: Britain in the not-too-distant future. A climatic event called the Change has left a dystopian world and Fortress Britain is walled in concrete and patrolled by young conscripts known as the Defenders. An attack brings a different kind of change.

OTHER POSTS ON THIS WEEK, THOSE BOOKS

Saving the Amazon rainforest, ‘Earth’s lungs’

Russia-Africa summit and blood bonds

Oppenheimer’s dharma and the atomic bomb
Fireworks in France: Bastille Day and riots
Get smarter, faster about America’s 247th birthday
What to know about Russia, revolts and 1917
Ecocide and Cormac McCarthy’s words
What to know about ‘dictator chic’