TODAY MARKS EARTH DAY, and its significance should be registered on four levels: planetary, geopolitical, historical and local (in our case, Scottish).
Firstly, climate change and environmental protection are perhaps the greatest challenges of the twenty first century. The stakes are sufficiently large to need little introduction. Unplanned economic growth has already caused vast extinctions and will pose a civilisational challenge to successor generations.
Secondly, these are matters of high politics. Joe Biden is using Earth Day to host a summit of forty world leaders, aimed at rebooting American geopolitical leadership in an area where it haemorrhaged credibility during the din of Donald Trump. Biden promises to cut gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030, doubling America’s earlier target. Not to be outdone, America’s principal rival China has, for the first time, used the world “crisis” to describe the phenomenon of climate change.
Thirdly, world attention to climate change is partly about coronavirus. The lockdowns have jolted global publics into recognising the ongoing risks of our species’ metabolism with nature. They have also showcased the public’s willingness to be corralled into changes of behaviour, given the right moral and intellectual leadership. And they have demonstrated some of the absurdities of our old economy. Air pollution is down 70 percent in some areas of London, much of which reflects office workers engaged in home working. There is an opening for talking about vast system change. The question is whether this will be led by a vulnerable patrician establishment, the Bidens and Macrons of the world, or by new democratising political movements.
Fourthly, with COP26 coming to Glasgow, there is the Scottish dimension. The Holyrood government issued a “climate emergency”, but the policy response suggested a mild hazard more than an emergency; less “your house is on fire”, more “I think I swallowed a toothpick”. But at the time, simply using the phrase “emergency” was sufficient to suggest leadership.
And it wasn’t the first time the SNP had sought to demonstrate green industry credentials: Nicola Sturgeon’s successor Alex Salmond had spoken of making Scotland the “Saudi Arabia of renewables”. STUC research, in a reported titled Broken Promises and Offshored Jobs, suggested the results were meagre. Rhetoric rarely matched reality.
Consider the tragedy of BiFab, a fabrications yard in Fife specialising in offshore wind platforms. It should have been central to the green supply chain; instead, it was dumped by a Government determined to be the most diligent student of neoliberal state aid rules. As Douglas Fraser observed, “its hopes of fabrication work have been dashed because the drive to reduce costs on offshore wind have pushed developers to place orders with overseas yards which have more scale, efficiency and government subsidy.” BiFab symbolised a government that throws around lefty buzzwords but remains straitjacketed by market globalisation.
After years of torment, last week BiFab workers had some cause to celebrate. A modest 290 jobs have been resurrected. And, elsewhere, there’s some worthy policies in the manifestos of all Holyrood parties, with the partial exception of the Conservatives.
Nonetheless, none of it adds up to an emergency response: certainly, it’s nothing on the coronavirus lockdowns. Scotland’s Government will continue to excuse itself with reference to Westminster’s failings, and argue it could do more with independence. But that game cannot last indefinitely. At some stage, serious progress must be made on the constitutional front, or Scotland faces a crisis of accountability.
Real governments with real central banks and real borrowing powers are beginning to make real shifts, albeit for self-interest reasons. With COP approaching, Scotland risks being left behind. Two years on, it’s no longer sufficient to declare an emergency. Rhetoric must be matched with action.