Bring on the carbon army

As the economic crisis deepens, the worsening state of the environment is predictably losing prominence in politics, the media and public debate. It always happens: when times are good, green is good. When times get tough, out goes the green stuff.

This time, however, it is different. The science has moved onClimate change is no longer a matter of speculation and no longer can it be seen as a long-term concern to be ignored while we deal with more pressingeconomic shocks: although that is what could easily happen. 

But, instead of making the usual predictable trade-offs, a new approach could be taken – one that joins up the need to cope with the impacts of peak oil and climate change, as well as kickstarting the economy. A unique opportunity has presented itself, to tame and control the financial system in order to put it at the service of our society; to set us on a more sustainable, secure and fairer trajectory.

This is not so much a technical policymaking challenge but a test of our political leaders' willingness to confront the ideological consensus of deregulated finance and small government that they have become used to defending and promoting at every turn. 

In the present crisis, however, there is a huge opportunity to do things differently, through governments taking control of the economy and by spending money – large amounts of it – to stimulate economic activity, cut our reliance on imported fossil fuels and slash climate-changing emissions. By spending now to build a low-carbon economy, we could generate a new army of highly skilled green-collar workers, building new power infrastructure, transport networks and super efficient buildings. 

This new "carbon army" could help reverse the job losses taking place across the economy, including in the financial sector, through massive public investment and incentives aimed at stimulating the emergence of a new zero-carbon and zero-waste future. Hundreds of thousands of jobs could come with this transition, as has become evident in Germany, where leadership from the state has brought about rapid changes in the renewable energy sector. We have to make this change in any event: and if not now, then when? 

Leaving the decarbonisation of the economy until after we have shored-up the old financial order won't work. Why should we expect the monster to behave differently once resuscitated? And, in any event, we don't have time to wait and see. We are already either at, or very close to, critical climatic tipping points. Continuing to load the atmosphere with carbon dioxide might give temporary relief for the old system, but it have the kind of climactic impact that will make the present crisis look like a minor inconvenience. We are set on a course toward disaster, and we need to change tack – fast.

It is unfortunate, however, that many politicians seem able to only deal with one issue at a time, because right now we need a joined up programme that simultaneously hits at least three priorities at once: promoting economic recovery, avoiding the worst impacts of peak oil and cutting climate-changing emissions. It is not as if everyone now speaks with one voice in favour of the old order. Even some of the UK's largest companies have spoken out today in calling for a more joined-up strategy for tackling climate change while boosting the economy. So let's do it, because this new political project could be one of the most important in history.