Having the courage to risk failure

Our changing climate allows no time to fiddle. Franklin Roosevelt offers a great example of how to act.

There are just two things that will stop global carbon emissions. One is functioning national jurisdictions making effective laws to decarbonise their economies. The other is a total collapse of those economies.

The world got an inkling of what total collapse might look like in 2009, when it came close to a second Great Depression. That was the last time global emissions moved decisively downward, which is evidence that world-wide economic depression could do the trick.

Except that it would have to be permanent and it must not spark war, which is a huge source of carbon pollution. But crashed economies and social unrest go hand-in-hand. A permanently depressed, permanently peaceful global economy is simply not going to happen.

So we have no real choice but to get effective laws and other measures in place, either by persuading existing governments to act or by electing governments that will.

Time is not on our side. Science advises that Earth will pass the nominated “safe” level of surface warming, 1.5C, within about eight years. We will overshoot, but we can get back below that threshold with a gargantuan effort on a global scale. We have to try, because not trying will condemn us to a worse fate.

Let’s consider this present moment in history, and what we might learn from times past. Nothing like this has ever been attempted, because in our time on Earth we’ve never faced such absolute imperatives on this scale.

But great, enduring changes have been wrought before. I’ve previously looked at two of these, rebuilding western Europe and creating the world community of nations after World War II. Both were bold and visionary initiatives, and both actually worked.

A decade earlier, another great plan was unfolding in the United States. Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 on a promise to lift America out of the Great Depression.

Most experts agree his “New Deal” did just that. It lifted economic performance to pre-Depression levels and reformed the financial system to stop a repeat of the 1929 crash. It also provided relief measures for the poor and unemployed, and addressed exploitation of workers and farmers.

US legislators are now seeing that reforming mindset being brought to bear on climate change. The Green New Deal is a 10-year plan to mobilise the country to act, based on the certain knowledge that success won’t come without wholesale economic restructuring across the developed world.

Besides direct climate measures – strict emission cuts, 100 per cent clean energy by 2035 and an end to fossil fuel extraction – the Green New Deal covers job security, health care, housing, education, building renewal, manufacturing and agricultural support.

Like the original, this is breathtaking. The country is still trying to digest it nine months after the Green New Deal resolution was introduced to Congress by a newly-elected young New York congresswoman, Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

Unlike the original, the Green New Deal enjoys no presidential or Senate support. Donald Trump ridiculed it, and conservative Republicans have claimed the proposal is socialism on steroids. But elsewhere in the US it continues to get a lot of attention, and growing popular support.

The Green New Deal calls for massive government intervention in the economy. But governments all over the world, including Australia, have been selling off publicly-owned assets and services since the 1980s, when a Hawke Labor government privatised telecommunications company Aussat.

While federal governments sold the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Qantas, Medibank and airports, state governments steadily privatised electricity, education, health, transport and port services. Latest candidates for privatisation include accommodation and care for people with disabilities, land titles offices and even the processing of visas. Nothing, it seems, is sacred.

If the public sector sell-off was an iceberg, all those items would be just its tip. Both sides of politics have outsourced a host of public services including accounting, recruitment, IT and legal services, TAFE education, immigration detention and government publishing, to name a few.

All this has happened against the background of a warming planet. Climate change demands coordinated response across whole communities, at scales which can only be done by government. Yet many public assets and services needed for this have been diminished by privatisation.

The battle for the climate demands a revitalised public sector, led by a political class ready to stand up and be counted, and sometimes to fail. Much in the mould of Roosevelt, who in the depths of the Great Depression found the courage to declare to his people that he might not succeed:

“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Roosevelt, elected and re-elected four times, was the most successful president in US history.

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