The urgent need to act for the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement is being drowned out by political narratives and Brexit. In this blog Neil Johnston, CEO of Paddington Development Trust, argues that our communities offer a solution if we can build unity and speak with one voice.

In September 2015 world leaders committed to the UN’s comprehensive framework for global, national and regional action across 17 facets of life, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Two months later, in an unprecedented act of global convergence, 197 nations agreed to limit warming to well below 1.5 degrees. These two critical and interdependent frameworks created a route-map to a future world in tune with our planet’s natural capacity to sustain life as we know it.

Since then in both political and societal domains it seems that anything evidenced as truth can be denied or described as ‘fake’. The growing liturgy of human-induced climate change denial threatens the fragile values underpinning civil society and its own sustainability.

‘Post-apocalyptic fiction has been moved to our current affairs section’

Since 2016 and 2017, denial and fake news have become defining terms in influencing Trumpian political narratives globally. In the UK, largely thanks to Brexit, the international climate agreement and SDGs have all but been drowned out.

Concurrently, a fifth of our population find themselves choking in the undergrowth of poverty; cyber warfare whips up social division and fear via breakfast headlines; millions of people continue to be displaced by environmental catastrophe; plastic is clogging the ocean and entering the human food chain; wildlife is experiencing exponential rates of extinction, affecting agriculture and ecosystem health; our taxes subsidise an arms trade and fossil-fuelled economies; and Virgin Galactic is selling tickets to the moon.

As one wry bookshop billboard read recently, ‘post-apocalyptic fiction has been moved to our current affairs section’.

The Twitter-storm of migrant-blaming, slut-shaming, personalised hate, and self-interested Trumpian vulgarity is burying the real stories of our time; we’re focusing on the wrong things.

In 2018 the IPCC climate update gave us all 12 years to limit the worst impacts of climate change and ensure we do not exceed 1.5 degrees of warming, the accepted safe limit. This doesn’t mean that the world will end in 2030 if we move above 1.5 degrees. But it does mean that our complex weather and ecosystems will continue to change irrevocably, extremely, and probably faster than expected. Those who will suffer most as this unfolds, both in the UK and globally are the defenceless, weak, poor and those displaced by the irreversible environmental change already in motion.

So, what can be done?

A growing minority of exceptional people and organisations all over the UK and the world are taking action.

The only way to halt this dystopian cartoon of 21st century ‘development’ is to tell the truth over and over again, and to mobilise people by amplifying the facts of real life.

To do this we need to grow the power of our fledgling communities, cultivate solidarity of intent and hone tools that will unify the many voices ready to be heard in the name of social and climate justice. These tools are making headway and slowly changing the global social and economic context that underpins 21st century civilisation.

Growth in renewable energy, bans on plastics, carbon sequestration technologies, reducing Greenhouse Gases, re-forestation, conservation, and stories of extraordinary environmental activists worldwide, now represent the new politics of our time. Notwithstanding, the scale of the challenge remains formidable, however we can act wherever we may live. We have the evidence and the tools to communicate the urgency demanded. We must re-imagine what it means to be human, abandon ego-centric and competitive ideologies underpinning a failing world-system and take on the true meaning of compassion, collaboration and sharing, in both local and universal terms.

The SDGs provide a framework with which we can do this.

They aren’t just for governments and countries but for local communities and civil society responding to poverty, inequalities and environmental degradation all over the UK. They frame the values-based work of established and growing social and environmental networks, and contextualise solidarity within a global movement for change. They connect our individual actions to a collective impact that does resonate within corporate communities that seek to change the destructive mechanisms of consumption and waste.

Each of the 17 goals represent a call to action that multi-sectoral communities can embrace in the new political paradigm that will shape our communities in years to come. They join us together and enable us to interpret these goals across UK communities, and nurture a unifying culture that is equitable, sustainable and fit for the future.

Let’s make this a decade of courage, collective action and honesty – surely on the other side of these values we might find some happiness, too. 

Neil Johnston is the CEO of Paddington Development Trust, a not-for-profit organisation focused on economic, social and environmental regeneration of its north west London community