Brexit and climate – is the world too complex for our political institutions?

The British people have narrowly voted to leave the European Union. Britain’s elites are in a state of bewilderment and fear not seen since the Global Financial Crisis hit in September 2008. Already the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will step down, and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is also being challenged.  With the Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon pushing for another independence referendum,  the break-up of the United Kingdom is a distinct possibility.

Australians, having seen five Prime Ministerships in as many years between June 2010 and September 2015 will be familiar with such volatility. In fact, there are interesting parallels between the crisis of neoliberalism and its consequences, and crisis of climate change. Both are examples of the increasingly stark inability of our existing political and social institutions to cope with an ever messier and inter-connected world.. Both are ‘wicked problems‘ which need co-operation across borders and generations to be managed, (if not solved). The “Brexit” and the ongoing silence around climate change among political elites make the tasks ahead that much more difficult.

Climate science or neoliberalism?
The momentum started in the 1950s, but was regarded as fringe, arcane and p pretty dubious. By the late 1970s though, doubts were swept away, and elites began to be convinced, and acted on their conviction. The description fits either climate science or the dogma of the “free-market” (also known as neoliberalism). For the former, events moved from Charles Keeling’s measurement of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere in the late 1950s through to the 1979 Charney Report, commissioned by President Carter, which concluded there was no reason to doubt that doubled carbon dioxide levels would result in a much warmer planet. For the latter, the assiduous work of the Mont Pelerin Society, among others, and the collapse of the Keynesian consensus, brought free marketeers to office first in May 1979 with Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and then Reagan in November 1980 (as REM described in their song –Ignoreland).

When climate change broke through into public awareness in 1988 initially it seemed that ‘conservative’ parties might respond vigorously. Margaret Thatcher made speeches, and the Australian Liberal Party fought the 1990 election with a stronger target than Labor (John Hewson is fond of reminding people of this, but neglects to mention that his ‘Fightback!’ policies pushed environmentalism off the Liberal agenda).

However, both conservative and ostensibly progressive parties soon found climate change hard to square with the imperatives of economic growth, and keeping incumbent industries happy, and the issue was pushed onto the back burner until it re-emerged in the mid-2000s, thanks to a combination of extreme weather events (Hurricane Katrina, the millennium drought), political events (the Kyoto Protocol entering into force, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme beginning) and entrepreneurship from Al Gore (his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”). The issue has been with us – more or less – ever since, even as the neoliberal experiment that began in the late 1970s crashed in 2008. Although the banks got bailed out, the climate did not. It had become an ‘impossible object’

The Impossible Object
In a 1992 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Enterprise crew capture an individual from their dreaded enemy, “the Borg” – a malevolent hive mind. They plan to implant an impossible object in its visual cortex, release it to be re-assimilated. The object will be passed upwards in the hierarchy and, they hope, drive the whole Borg mad. The idea that climate change is the same unassimilable, ‘impossible-to-solve-within-the-existing-mindset’ problem is gaining traction with critics who point out that infinite economic growth is incompatible with a habitable planet.

The doomed British Prime Minister David Cameron went from ‘hug a huskie‘ in 2005to ‘cut the green crap‘ in 2013. Similarly, Malcolm Turnbull denounced Tony Abbott’s climate policy as ‘bullshit’ after being toppled in December 2009, but has not changed it since becoming Prime Minister. Before I am accused of partisan bias, it’s worth pointing out that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown mouthed pieties and commissioned reports, but Britain’s emissions reductions were largely about the switch to gas that Margaret Thatcher instituted, and the Australian Labor Party’s travails over an effective climate policy are too familiar to need repeating. From December 1975 to November 2007 (32 years) Australia had 4 prime ministers and in the last 6 years has had five. Would anyone be surprised if the UK (or England!) experienced a similar period of volatility?

Climate change, as a ‘market failure’ is, similar to the social consequences of neoliberalism that led to the revolt of the ignored and patronised voters of ‘middle England’ who voted for Brexit; We’ve known about it for a long time, and have known it would cause grief. However, we have been unable or unwilling to do anything substantive till the pain hits, because the short-termism and demands of ‘efficiency’ have precluded long-term planning. Scientists – social and natural – have been warning us, that by the time the pain does actually hit, it will be at best extremely costly to do anything, and at worst “too late.”

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