The highlight of the week was probably watching Fox News last Saturday. It felt like East German state TV days after the Berlin Wall fell. Suddenly, the anchors were even-handed and fact-driven, gently correcting any to-the-bitter-end propagandists who still insisted that the Great Leader had won a glorious victory. (Declaration of interest: I am biased against Donald Trump. That may be because of my prejudice against lies, abuse, racist dog-whistling, environmental destruction, plutocracy and baseless anti-democratic conspiracy theories.) Then on Monday came news that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against coronavirus may be more than 90 per cent effective.
It was the best 48 hours of news in years. But there’s a human tendency to overvalue short-term events versus long-term trends. Even if we can beat nativism and the other virus, we’ll remain stuck with a worse problem: climate change. That’s why I suspect that my generation — Gen X, born between 1965 and about 1979 — will prove to have been the luckiest in history.
I used to be a Pinkerian. Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, argues that whereas daily TV news is generally bad, the world’s long-term trends are good. Life expectancy and literacy rise over time, poverty and violence decline. Societies gradually stop treating women, ethnic and sexual minorities as second-class humans: see Kamala Harris’s election as vice-president.
Generation X, especially in the west, has ridden the Pinkerian train. Admittedly, we have a sulky inferiority complex because baby boomers have hogged the top jobs. In the US, for instance, more presidents were born in summer 1946 (three) than in all of Gen X (zero); even Barack Obama is a late boomer. The average chief executive of a large US company is 59 years old, according to headhunters Korn Ferry. But most Xers have lived better than boomers, many of whom grew up in cramped postwar apartments without hot water and lost parents or siblings young. Gen X’s one collective existential childhood fear, nuclear destruction, was fixed by Reagan and Gorbachev.
This week, you could almost imagine that today’s existential threat will be fixed too. Biden and the EU are both targeting net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050. China recently pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.
However, even if Biden can get the Senate onside, these targets recall St Augustine’s prayer: “Give me chastity, but not yet.” The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — whose forecasts have tended to be over-optimistic — says we must approximately halve emissions by 2030 to be on track. That would entail repeating this year’s 8 per cent fall in emissions (for which we crippled the world economy) every year till 2050. The International Energy Agency now forecasts that we will plateau at about 2019 levels of emissions from 2030. That would be disastrous.
Even if all countries stick to their non-binding pledges made in the Paris Agreement in 2015, global temperatures would rise about 3.5C — far above the Paris target of 2C maximum. At current rates of warming, everyone in the northern hemisphere is effectively moving south by 20km a year, writes Mark Lynas in Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency.
We will eventually get to net-zero emissions. Solar and wind energy, as well as storage batteries, keep getting cheaper. We just won’t get there in time to prevent ruinous climate change.
Most politicians and voters aren’t even trying to prevent it. Before Trump, I thought politics was an argument about how to improve people’s lives. It turns out to be more like a ratings game. A possible explanation: once the material problems that drove voting in the 1945-2015 era were sufficiently ameliorated, many western voters moved on to identity problems, skipping existential problems entirely. Trump showed how easily we can be distracted. With fires burning in the woods around their house, voters invited an entertainer into the living room to spend four years smashing the furniture.
I don’t think the fire will consume my house while I’m still in it. I drew the best life available: a white son of university graduates living in northern Europe, the most tranquil region in the most prosperous era in history. My children, by contrast, now spend their days masked in a school that’s occasionally guarded by police officers because Paris is a terrorist target. This is just a warm-up for their adulthood, when the world’s population will peak at 10 billion, while rising sea waters, heat and hurricanes make many of today’s biggest cities unliveable.
My children will also still have to worry about the Bomb. The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists symbolises the risk of human extinction. In January, it was moved to 100 seconds to midnight, the latest it has stood since its creation in 1947. The Bulletin explained that nuclear powers had resumed their arms race and pointed to the conflicts over North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes.
President Emmanuel Macron says problems like climate change and nuclear proliferation can only be solved by international co-operation. That suggests they won’t be solved. Still, Joe Biden is a small mercy, no matter what comes next.
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