Our ageing world rulers are unfit to tackle climate change – their politics are suited to inaction at best

Like frogs in a pot, most of our global leaders have been boiling for too long in business-as-usual politics to take radical action to drastically reduce emissions 

Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace stage march on the second day of Glastonbury Festival

The average age of world leaders at this year’s G20 summit was 60 years old. Half of them have been in senior political positions within their countries or parties for more than 20 years. For many of these leaders, their lives have been spent in close proximity to mainstream ways of doing politics – cautious methods which have been successful for getting them to the top.

Young people have been mobilising to force climate justice onto the agenda because the established political order has failed to rise to the climate challenge. Just as oil corporations Shell and Exxon knew the consequences of their business model on global warming as early as the 1980s, similarly many of these politicians have had the climate science in front of their eyes for decades and studiously ignored it all. Why should we rely on them now?

Climate breakdown is unlike any other challenge the old policy levers have faced. It will kill and displace millions of people – we can already see the effects accelerating across the planet. Fossil capital is killing us. Radical solutions, then, are needed for an existential problem. Trust in the same kind of policies that career politicians have grown up with in power is the deadliest kind of incrementalism. This is no time to balance between vested interests.

Take Theresa May, for example, first appointed to the shadow cabinet in 1999. It has been painful to watch her scrabble after her cataclysmic legacy on the climate by announcing a nominal target of 2050 for net zero emissions. The 2050 target is currently an empty promise. On one hand, May presents the UK as a symbol of trailblazing climate leadership, while with the other she has doled out aviation expansion and ripped up subsidies to solar panels.

The hypocrisy of government policy could blow the UK’s carbon budget wide open, even if a large amount of carbon debt is parcelled off to countries in the global south. This greenwashing of the government as some kind of world leader on climate rings false when you remember she abolished, on her second day in office, the ministry designed to address climate change.

It is politically expedient to pretend something is being done. “Climate emergency” becomes lip service, with action only in name, as the monumental efforts of movements like Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikers are soothed and patronised. This is business-as-usual politics.

However, young people are waking up the political class to the severity of the climate crisis and are reshaping the terrain of the politically possible – just look at Ed Miliband’s recent climate glow-up. He has called for broad and far-reaching changes to the British economy and society in the name of climate justice.

Perhaps surprisingly, our best sources of hope come from some of the oldest radical politicians. Leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders – both spending vast swathes of their long political careers in the legislature but in exile from the power of government – are harnessing the hyperactivity of current climate activism. It is not just decarbonisation we need but, alongside it, a deep recalibration of our politics, couched in the groundswell of the green social movements.

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This is the promise embodied by a Green New Deal. It would go beyond the rapid scale-up of renewable technologies and would also lay the groundwork not just for an inhabitable society but a truly liveable one. It could deliver green jobs, universal basic services and not just avoid extinction but construct a plentiful and just transition on an international scale.

Leaning on politicians who have showed, at best, apathy and, at worst, denial of the reality of climate breakdown is misguided. Age and experience of the status quo blinkers those who could save us. Rather than the daring intervention required to keep us below two degrees warming, talk of compromise and plastic bags rules the day. Without serious attention to the ideologies and modes of politics of those from whom we are making demands, we doom our movements to failure.

The fight for a better planet rests uneasy on the ageing shoulders of the past. We are not asking for more words, we are demanding transformation.

Eleanor Salter is a climate activist and campaigner

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