The core argument of this lecture is that failure of climate change policy represents an existential threat to civilisation that will destroy the foundations of trust on which democracy depends. Climate change is a unique problem in human history. Climate policy success demands the local, national and geo-political cooperation that only democracy can provide. For our civilisation of eight billion people to thrive in changing climate we must strengthen the trust foundations on which democracy rests.
LECTURE BY MR TOM BURKE CBE AT THE UKRANIAN CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY, LVIV, UKRAINE FEBRUARY 21ST 2019
Let me begin by thanking you for inviting me to participate in this Biennale of Trust here in Lviv. This is an extraordinarily imaginative and important initiative and one I hope you will continue to develop.
When I first heard of it from my friend Charles Landry I was very keen to be part of it and was sorry I was unable to join you last October. However, I am especially pleased to be here this evening – and at this moment in history – because it allows me to forge a link between two of the most urgent and important challenges facing humanity.
The first challenge, and the one with which I am most familiar, is the challenge of making the transition to sustainable development so that the eight billion of us living on this planet can continue to thrive as we run ever closer to the limits of the planetary system.
The second challenge is a consequence of the extraordinary powers humanity acquired as we unlocked the secrets of the nuclei of both the atom and the cell.
For these powers to enrich rather than destroy our lives we must maintain and further develop those global institutions and rules systems now under increasing stress.
Trust is central to this task.
There is a paradox at the heart of our current existential difficulties with the natural world.
Enthralled as we are by the glittering prizes made available by contemporary technologies, we are inclined to forget that we are primates.
Primates are one of the most successful orders in the class of mammals. Humans are the most numerous species in this order – though to what extent we are really justified in naming ourselves ‘sapiens’ is questionable.
The instinctive behaviour of the higher members of the ape family, of which we are a part, to cooperate as well as to compete is unusual. We strike a productive balance between these two instincts. This is what has made us so successful as a species.
Competition may have been one of the most important drivers of development in human societies, but it is cooperation that has underpinned our ability to construct the enduring institutions which are the foundations of civilisation.
It has been the harnessing of our competitive instincts to shared purposes that has made us so successful as a species.
Human history is punctuated with examples of civilisations destroyed when the balance between these twin instincts tilted too far towards competition.
The paradox is that it is precisely this instinct to cooperate that has allowed us to acquire the powers that, poorly managed, now threaten the limits of the planetary system to support us. As we breach these limits, the balance between the cooperative and competitive instincts of homo sapiens will tilt from the constructive to the destructive.
Some would say that this tilt has already begun.
My thesis this evening is direct: to succeed in delivering sustainable development for eight billion people we must tilt the balance between those twin human instincts heavily in favour of cooperation. If we fail, we will lose the global rules and institutions without which we cannot make that transition to sustainable development.
Trust is at the heart of cooperation. Without it, no cooperation is possible. Trust is therefore a crucial resource for the future. As critical, in its way, as minerals, or energy, or food, or water.
The more trust we have, the better we cooperate. The less we have, the more aggressively we compete.
We do not typically think of trust as an asset, like a home, or a vehicle or a factory – something that can be used to improve our quality of life. Yet, for all that it is intangible, trust is one of the most valuable of the assets we possess.
Increasingly, we are attempting to measure what is happening to this asset. The public relations firm Edelman publish an annual global trust barometer. It rarely makes cheerful reading at the moment.
In my lecture, I will use climate change as an exemplar. Much of what I say about it applies to a growing list of other environmental issues facing us. I have chosen it because it is the one we understand best and which is perhaps the most urgent.
If we cannot cooperate to deal with this issue, we will fail with the others. Trust is a critical asset in meeting this challenge and – as with any other asset – we must protect, enhance and leverage its value if we are to thrive.
I will say something later about what we must do to succeed in tackling climate change and also something about what we can do to retain and develop trust.
But let me first set the issue of sustainable development and its most pressing problem, climate change, it is historical context. We have a tendency these days to live in what the distinguished historian, Eric Hobsbawm, called a ‘perpetual present with no organic connection to the past’.
I am afraid that climate change is a perfect example of ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation’ as the Bible says. So, the least we can do is to understand how we got here.
These are anxious times. Much that we take for granted in the way the world is ordered is in flux. The brief moment when scholars talked confidently of the ‘End of History’ has passed.
Change is no longer an option, to be welcomed or resisted, as a matter of choice. It is now an imperative: permanent and pervasive; intrusive, disruptive, often destructive.
As it accelerates, it favours the strong, the educated and the affluent. For others, it is simply overwhelming, dislocating the familiar patterns of daily life, exposing vulnerabilities, defeating expectations.
Two factors in particular are driving this acceleration of change.
In less than a single life time global population has risen from 2.5 billion to nearly 8 billion. All these people are now massively better connected. Everyone can see, moment by moment, what is happening to everyone else.
Thus, the explosion in population has been accompanied by an explosion in expectations. The way the most prosperous and secure among us live their lives is now, literally, visible to billions whose lives are neither prosperous nor secure.
It is this combination of many more people with ever higher expectations that drives the global economy, the development of ever more powerful technologies and thus, the accelerating pace of change.
We overlook the importance of this second explosion at our peril. When human beings see that life is better somewhere else they do what all sentient beings do, they move in that direction.
In our time the pull of seeing somewhere better is increasingly reinforced by the push of a deteriorating environment that will be made worse by climate change.
Such prosperity as some of us enjoy is built on a virtuous triad of forces that has spiralled relentlessly upwards.
Physical security after WWII provided the stability necessary to ensure the investment that generated the prosperity that, in its turn, enabled reinforcement of that security, enhancing the stability that stimulated further investment to create more prosperity.
The prospect that this fundamental engine of rising expectations – prosperity, security and stability – may be faltering is fuelling a deepening global anxiety.
This general anxiety is the fertile substrate on which the more specific anxieties that have led voters to support Brexit, Trump and a growing band of authoritarian national leaders thrive. It is no accident that those who have sought to profit from this anxiety work assiduously to weaken our trust in each other.
These voting choices reflect the disappointed expectations of those being left behind by the accelerating pace of change. They are manifestations of an impoverishment of trust.
The defining political challenge of the 21st. Century is that of meeting the rising expectations of more than eight billion people. But we must do this without destroying the natural resource foundations of the economy of which a stable climate is the most important.
Those expectations are held by an increasingly well educated, more mobile, better connected and, above all, more urban population.
If we fail to grow the economy in a manner that meets these expectations, then the virtuous circle of security, prosperity and stability will quickly become a vicious circle of insecurity, instability and poverty.
Explosive growth in human expectations has happened before. It occurred, primarily in Europe, albeit at a far slower rate than is experienced today. Nevertheless, there are some instructive lessons to be drawn.
As the industrial revolution gathered pace from the middle of the 18th Century under the stimulus of the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent prolonged period of peace economies grew very rapidly.
In the 19th Century that rapid economic growth led, then in Europe, as it does today globally, to very rapid social change.
This social change, unmanaged by any attempt to diminsh its impacts on the welfare of large numbers of people, led to growing political instability which threatened to undermine the engine of economic growth driving the changes.
The consequent rise in mass discontent meant that Marx had written the Communist Manifesto by the middle of the 19th Century.
This led to a debate about how to maintain the social conditions necessary to keep the economy growing.
By the middle of the 20th Century this debate was over. It was everywhere accepted that government needed to invest in health, education and social security if the social cohesion necessary for economies to grow was to be maintained.
Social cohesion is simply the glue of trust that holds societies together and so tilts the balance of human instincts towards cooperation.
The population bomb went off just at this consensus was reached and global population almost quadrupled in less than seventy years.
What quickly became clear was the scale of the stresses imposed on the natural resource systems that underpin the economy.
This is true across a wide range of the natural systems on which we depend from the climate and oceans to freshwaters, forests and the soil fertility of our croplands.
For the global economy to continue to grow in the 21st Century we must now maintain both the social and environmental conditions necessary for the economy to thrive.
This is all that is meant by the phrase sustainable development – economic development which maintains the social and environmental conditions necessary for it to continue.
Our failure to make a timely response to the need to maintain social cohesion in the 19th Century culminated in the political stresses which meant that the dominant political question of the first half of the 20th Century became a choice between Communism or Fascism as our preferred form of totalitarianism.
We found ourselves in a world in which trust had almost completely collapsed both between and inside nations.
There is little reason to believe that our current failure to make a rapid enough transition to sustainable development will have less significant political consequences.
We are now experiencing the creation and distribution of wealth on a scale unparalleled in history. But this wealth is being bought at a price in global social cohesion and degrading of the economy’s natural resource foundations that cannot be sustained.
The social and political stresses that culminated in the Second World War fashioned an unprecedented intensity of shared experience. The result was a near universal appetite for institutional innovation, especially in Europe, to avoid its repetition.
Institutions are how we embody social cohesion. They are the repositories of trust: the places where we bank our accumulated experience of the benefits of cooperation.
World War II led to a massive investment of political and financial capital in rebuilding trust – both between and within nations.
Out of this came the network of global institutions, the United Nations, the Bretton Woods Institutions and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, later the World Trade Organisation, that were the foundations on which our current security, prosperity and stability are built.
In Europe, it led to the formation of the world’s first significant, sustained and successful experiment in pooled sovereignty that is the European Union today.
No single country, no matter how powerful, can protect its economy or citizens from the consequences of climate change or other breaches of the limits of the planetary system.
Nearly two billion people already live with absolute water scarcity and almost two thirds of the world’s population are already experiencing some water stress. Losing climate security will add to these stresses.
Without water security, food security becomes impossible. A government that cannot maintain food and water security cannot maintain internal stability.
The climate together with food and water security forms a single system whose integrity must be maintained if we are to have stability and prosperity.
Engineers understand systemic risk. These are the risks that emerge when there is a high degree of interdependence among the component parts of a system.
In such systems the failure of a small, and not necessarily vital, component can trigger a cascade of failures that leads to a collapse of the whole system. When this occurs in complex, interdependent systems, such as an aircraft in flight, the results can be catastrophic.
Financiers now understand systemic risk. They did not before the financial crisis of 2008. The liberalisation of financial markets in the late 20th Century stimulated an unprecedented growth in the size and complexity of financial markets.
This created a financial system that made credit more widely available to people than ever before. But it also created a landscape of risks that very few, even in the world of finance, understood.
When an important, though not particularly large, bank, Lehmann Brothers, collapsed in September 2008 the degree of interdependence between private financial institutions had become so great it triggered a cascade of financial failures that threatened to bring down the whole global financial system.
It took vigorous, and untypically swift and coordinated, action by world’s governments to prevent an economic cataclysm. A decade later, the social and political consequences are still reverberating around the world.
This was a powerful wake up call. It illuminated the vulnerability of the global financial system on which we depend to enable the global economy to meet the rising expectations of our growing population. There were many lessons to be learnt. Not all of them have been.
Few have yet understood that we face the prospect of a set of nested systemic risks as we strive to meet the expectations of a burgeoning population.
An unstable climate is a stress multiplier. It makes bad situations worse. All of recorded human history has occurred within the climate system we are now disturbing with our burning of fossil fuels. We are on the verge of going beyond any climate we have ever recorded.
Climate change presents humanity with a unique challenge.
There is no other problem that will impact on the security and prosperity of literally every single person on the planet. All eight billion of us.
Large numbers of people deal with poverty, or conflict or disease – often life threatening – every day. But large numbers of people have also never experienced any of these problems.
As the climate changes, the consequences will be felt by every single individual on the planet: rich or poor; ill or well; living peacefully or threatened with violence.
Wherever you live, from a giant coastal metropolis to a remote mountain cabin, a changing climate will reach out to change your life.
It is also unique because there is a ticking clock. We not only have to get to a specific place – keeping the rise in global average temperature to below 2°C – but we have to get there by a specific time – around the middle of this century.
Human beings are very good at solving problems collectively. Hence the ‘sapiens’ in the scientific name of our species. But we do this by trial and error. We try out solutions to our problems. If they work, we adopt them. If they don’t we try something else and we go on repeating these efforts until we succeed.
We are nothing like as good at anticipating problems and cooperating to head them off. Barbara Tuchman’s account of some of history’s more glaring examples of failing to deal with foreseeable and manageable problems is called ‘The March of Folly’.
Climate policy failure will destroy prosperity and security for all eight billion of us. It will make no distinction between the developed world and the developing world.
I do not mean to suggest that climate policy failure will not harm some people both sooner and more intensely than others. Only that in the highly interconnected economies of the twenty first century there will be no safe havens as the second and third order consequences of climate disruption ripple across the planet.
The financial crisis of 2008 taught us all a lesson in the consequences of policy failure in an interconnected world of eight billion people. We learnt that for the global economy to function the global financial system within which it nests must also continue to function.
The global financial system provides the investment that keeps the global economy working. Stop the investment flowing, as we came close to doing in 2008, and the economy grinds to a halt.
We are also beginning to understand that to keep the investment flowing you must maintain political stability. It is hard to find anyone investing in Syria or Libya or the other failing states around the world.
Climate policy failure threatens to undermine the food and water security that are the foundations of political stability everywhere. The Arab Spring was triggered by a loss of food security in Tunisia. It is now clear that climate change intensified drought in Syria helped trigger the revolt against Assad.
We already have the technology to decarbonise the global energy system and to do so while providing access to modern energy services to everyone on the planet who lacks it. And we know there is a lot more low carbon technology that will become available over the next thirty years.
We also know that we can afford to deploy that technology. Last year we spent almost two trillion dollars delivering energy to our economy. Clearly that was a sum we could afford without wrecking the economy since we have just done so.
Since we have to deliver energy to those without it we will have to spend more than that to underpin development. However, we waste about seventy percent of the energy we get by burning fossil fuels and the costs of the technologies we are using to replace them are continuing to fall.
Cutting out the energy we currently waste and capturing the falling costs of the new technologies will offset the increased cost of delivering energy to more people.
So, we know that we will not wreck the global economy by preventing dangerous climate change.
I do not want to underestimate the scale of the transformation we need to make to our energy system if climate policy is to succeed. It is a far greater challenge than the Manhattan Project or putting a man on the Moon. But I do want to focus attention on where the most difficult obstacles to climate policy success will be found.
In a word, this will be in the politics. Stripped of its contingent circumstances and ideological overburden, politics is simply the art of making decisions together. In other words, of cooperating.
A zero carbon global energy system will create huge numbers of jobs and massive economic opportunities. But they will not be the same jobs for the same people with the same skills in the same places as the fossil fuel industries.
If we do not make the energy transition a just transition we will not be able to maintain the impetus to cooperate in doing the things we know how to do, and we know we can afford, to keep the climate safe for ourselves and our children.
Put more baldly, we cannot have climate policy success without climate justice and climate policy failure will create a world more unjust than any we have yet seen.
Injustice is the most virulent destroyer of trust. It soaks into our relationships to each other and obstructs cooperation. But without cooperation we cannot maintain a safe climate. Therefore, trust is a crucial, if barely noticed, asset in the battle to protect the planet.
So, as Vladimir Lenin once asked, ‘What is to be done?’
Trust is a slow asset to build and one that can be quickly lost. Being intangible, it is diffusely held, between friends, within families and communities, by institutions and governments.
We are often more aware of its absence than its presence.
Tackling climate change and the other planetary limits problems will require a very high degree of cooperation both at and between every level of society: between friends and neighbours, between communities, organisations and companies, between governments.
This makes building a high trust society an imperative – as important a part of tackling climate change as developing the necessary carbon neutral technologies and the financial instruments to deploy them.
You cannot have a high trust society just for climate change. But climate change is only one of a large array of social and environmental problems where a high degree of cooperation is required if we are to tackle them successfully.
The long, slow, arc of history that is bringing the world from despotism to democracy still has a long way to go. If there is an upside to the existential problem that climate change poses to civilisation it is that is creates an imperative to accelerate our shared movement along that arc.
So let me finish by setting out some of the system conditions for a high trust society that will enable the level of cooperation between human beings necessary to deliver the socially just, carbon neutral economy we need to prevent further destabilisation of our climate.
It will be committed to and respect the rule of law.
There will be universal access to impartial justice.
There will be free flows of information.
Politicians will be accountable for their actions.
There will be an efficient and incorrupt public administration.
There will be stable macro-economic policies
There will be reliable public revenues, transparently managed.
There will be rising levels of numeracy and literacy.
There will be internal and external security.
There will be definable and defendable rights for all individuals.
These are not new goals for human beings. Millions, possibly billions, of us work daily to create these conditions: cooperating in the construction of high trust societies.
My point this evening is simple. These have always been human goals that are worthwhile in their own right. They still are. But they are now a practical as well as a moral imperative.