This week’s post is going to be a detour from the themes I’ve blogged about so far – because there’s an issue in the news this week that I couldn’t ignore. I know the theme of this blog so far has been arts commentary, and I do generally think of myself as more interested than the arts than in the sciences, which I haven’t studied beyond GCSE level. However, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about climate change lately – essentially reading about science with an arts interest, since it’s research for my novel and since, from my reading, I believe that we need to act to prevent global warming now, or within a century there could be no more books, music or films – since there’ll be no more people to make them. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth report has been published this week, bringing climate change back into public debate – and making some worrying predictions.
Crucially, the report puts the chances of human activity being the ‘dominant cause’ of changes in the global climate at 95%, compared to 90% in 2006 and 66% in 2001. This should be enough to finally resolve the debate – which, as George Monbiot argues in his excellent book Heat, was created in the first place by Exxon-funded campaign groups and The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition, which has also worked to undermine research into the effects of smoking on behalf of the tobacco industry – about whether climate change is man-made. The message is clear – since the Industrial Revolution, human activity has been focused on technological development and trying to develop a more comfortable and prosperous society. But the pursuit of this well-meant goal has been fuelled by fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases, which are causing catastrophic temperature rises. We have entered an anthropocene age, where humanity, not nature, has the power to shape the globe itself – and we are facing the terrifying possibility of rising temperatures causing catastrophic floods and droughts which could destroy the fabric of society and render the planet uninhabitable, possibly by the end of this century.
Climate change sceptics are now attempting to shift the debate from whether humanity is causing global warming to how bad it will actually be. They seize on the report’s admission that the rate of increase in global temperatures has slowed from 0.12C per decade since 1951, to 0.05C per decade in the past 15 years and say it proves that the consequences of global warming are impossible to predict, but aren’t likely to be catastrophic. It’s a reassuring thought – the idea that we have, simply by leaving the computer on standby or flying to France for a holiday, set in motion a catastrophic process which will wipe our children and grandchildren off the face of the earth is nearly unbearable – but ignores the simple fact that despite the hiatus in temperature increase, the decade leading up to 2012 was still the warmest on record. And Professor Andy Pitman plausibly argues that, following existing patterns, we should have seen a decrease in global temperature over the past 15 years. The temperature should not have increased at all and the fact that it has shows that the global climate is more sensitive to man-made carbon dioxide emissions than we thought.
People tend to think of ‘global warming’ as a vague, sci-fi concept that, if it happens at all, will happen to faceless people at some vague point in the next century. In fact, it’s already begun. As William Polk has pointed out, the current crisis in Syria started when “climate change came to Syria with a vengeance”, causing a drought that reduced 2-3 million Syrians to “extreme poverty” and drove hundreds of thousands of refugees from parched lands in Syrian countryside to the cities, causing a population stress that led to the current political crisis. Every night on our TV screens we can see in the Syrian conflict, with its death toll of over 110,000, its 2 million refugees and its chemical weapons attack last month, an example of the far-reaching consequences of climate catastrophe, and a taste of what could soon be to come. And the melting of the Arctic ice, causing rising sea levels, is going on all the time. This summer, while the world cooed over pictures of the newborn Prince George, Greenpeace released this terrifying picture of the growing freshwater lake at the North Pole:
If that is he IPCC report predicts that global temperatures are likely to rise by 0.3 to 4.8C by the end of the century. Mark Lynas has persuasively and chillingly laid out the consequences of a temperature rise of each degree in his book Six Degrees. If temperatures rise by 4C, it could destabilise major ice sheets, causing flooding which will turn the world’s coastal cities into post-Katrina New Orleans and raising the UK’s coastline to Oxford, while other parts of the world including Australia, China, south-western and central America and the Mediterranean could face devastating droughts. Furthermore, at 4C the Siberian permafrost could melt, releasing enough methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to raise the temperature another degree, which will heat the oceans to the point that they release enough methane to trigger a 6C temperature rise, or as Lynas calls it, “the ultimate mass extinction apocalypse.”
Humans have evolved to consider the immediate consequences of our actions, not the distant future. It is hard to imagine that both personal and political decisions taken in the here and now will have consequences we cannot foresee or control for our unborn descendants. But it is clear that we must act now to seize back control of the runaway climate if we are to preserve our planet and ourselves. In particular, we must keep the temperature increase below 2C – which the IPCC report states we are currently set to exceed within 30 years. We all know the standard advice to switch off the lights when we leave the room and cycle rather than drive to work and we all, with various degrees of conscientiousness, follow it. But acts on a personal level, laudable as they are, are not enough. Our political leaders need to work together to change the entire way we produce energy now. Geoengineering projects – cool-sounding schemes such as dumping iron dust in the oceans to encourage algae growth and reflecting the sun’s heat back into space with giant mirrors – are undeveloped and may have unpredicted consequences. There is only one reliable solution – we must end our destructive reliance on diminishing fossil fuels and switch to renewable global energy sources. Of course all renewable sources have inherent problems – nuclear energy creates waste and requires rigorous safety measures, wind farms and tidal barriers cause damage to their surrounding environments, solar panels reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the long term but create them in their short-term manufacture and installation. But following the ‘wedge’ system advocated by the writers quoted above, where we develop each of these sources to fulfil part of our energy needs rather than relying on one, it will be possible to develop the sustainable energy system we need to avoid catastrophe. Crucially, as the IPCC argues , we need to switch to renewable energy now and leave some fossil fuel resources in the ground to keep total carbon dioxide emissions below 1,000 gigatons – we have already used over half of that amount – and so keep the temperature rise below 2C.
But such radical change needs strong political will, and leaders across the world, seeing no incentive to implement policies that will benefit the voters after they’ve retired but could negatively impact those at the next election – are either ignoring the issue of climate change or actively working to undo what little progress we’ve made. The newly elected Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has described climate change science as “crap” and, in the three weeks he has been prime minister, has already shut down the country’s Climate Commission and tried to shut down the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. The Russian government has arrested 28 peaceful Greenpeace protesters in the Arctic after state forces illegally boarded their boat. The British government’s highest energy priority is not switching to renewable sources but extracting our remaining fossil fuels – and ruining Britain’s uniquely beautiful countryside – through fracking. Chancellor George Osborne has today stated in an interview with The Times that he considers tax breaks for married couples to be a more important policy than tackling climate change and that “I don’t want us to be the only people out there in front of the rest of the world.”
To which the obvious retort is – since when, exactly, was being a trailblazer a bad thing? When a government is striving for international relevance as much as Britain – who were rejected by America in favour of France as a partner in seeking action against the Syrian government, and whose prime minister missed this week’s historic UN meeting in favour of his own party conference – why on earth can we not be the first country to follow the moral imperative of acting against global warming – as we were once the first country to fight against Nazi Germany – and commit to an entirely renewable energy structure, hoping that committed action will shame others into following our lead?
That sort of bold action – from the UK government, and from world governments – is now our only change of survival.
- The new IPPC climate change report makes deniers overheat | Michael Mann (theguardian.com)
- IPCC: 30 years to global warming disaster (stuff.co.nz)
- Climate change? Try catastrophic climate breakdown | Environment | The Guardian (theguardian.com)
- Scientists 95% Certain Climate Change Is Man-made (eurasiareview.com)
- Professor Pitman on the myth of the warming hiatus: http://www.climatecodered.org/2013/09/is-global-warming-in-hiatus-not-if-you.html
- William Polk on climate change and Syria: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/your-labor-day-syria-reader-part-2-william-polk/279255/
- IPCC on the ‘climate budget’: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/sep/27/ipcc-world-dangerous-climate-change
- Tony Abbott’s actions on climate change: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/26/climate-commission-abbott
- George Osborne interview: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/sep/28/climate-change-energy-bills-george-osborne