Global warming: the point of no return?

These days almost every politician in Britain likes to claim that they are green. They want us to believe blue is the new green. Which is progress. Now all we have to do is to get their actions to line up with their words.

It hasn’t been a good year for the environment. Covid is, of course, the most obvious of the environmental problems that have begun to hit home. Environmentalist scientists told us well in advance that cutting down forests would expose humanity to contact with new pathogens, that caging wild animals was a perfect way to allow viruses to jump between species, and that excessive air travel was the ideal way to spread disease uncontrollably across the planet. They were largely ignored. Even now, in the middle of a human-induced ecological disaster, Covid-19 is being treated by most people and most governments as a bit of bad luck. It isn’t. It is a lot of bad environmental management.

When it comes to the climate, the warnings have been heard more widely. Yet the scale and the urgency of the challenge still isn’t being grasped. This year has seen:

  • Record low levels of arctic ice
  • Record high temperatures in Siberia
  • The worst fire season ever in California and in Australia
  • Yet another exceptionally bad hurricane season
  • Stores of frozen methane beginning to melt.

Some very highly qualified scientists recently predicted that we are on course for between 2.6 and 3.9 degree centigrade rises in temperature within the next hundred years. That is an utterly horrifying prediction. So dire, that they were rapidly attacked for being too pessimistic and persuaded to soften their conclusions. Unfortunately, events in the real world are demonstrating all too often that views that once came from only the wildest of pessimists are now turning into very ugly realities.

All the changes to the climate we have already seen have been driven by a single degree of temperature increase since the industrial revolution started. Imagine the impact of another 3 degrees of temperature rise. Can we really cope with the consequences of that amount of extra energy in the system? Do we really think we can live comfortably with that amount of extra flooding, extreme winds, long droughts, and harm to food supplies? The same scientists predict that such warming will produce sea level rises of between 12 inches and 8.2 feet. Enough to flood London and every one of the new nuclear power stations that are currently under construction on the British coast.

The scientists who did this work were sufficiently alarmed by what they found that they argued that prevention is no longer possible and the only option is active intervention to reverse climate change via geo-engineering. The evidence they have studied convinced them that humanity has now gone beyond the point where it can prevent disaster by even the most radical measures designed to prevent fresh injections of additional CO2 into the atmosphere. They were of the view that we now need to develop technology that can remove it.

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I have my doubts. Not about their level of concern, but about the wisdom of trying to cure human-induced environmental problems via human-designed climate engineering. There is rather a long history of attempts to clean up the environment doing more harm than good – for example, detergents can kill more birds than the oil spill they are trying to cure. We’d be much wiser to take radical action now to go carbon neutral quickly than to rely on eventually discovering a safe and cost effective way of removing carbon dioxide and methane. The British government needs to start taking its own words seriously and to act as if it understood we are dealing with an emergency, instead of something that can be dithered through without any sense of urgency.

The first step has to be to recognise that a target of stopping making things worse by 2050 isn’t remotely ambitious enough. The second needs to be to focus on how to make it pay for ordinary people to take action whenever remotely possible, and to reduce, manage and compensate unavoidable pain.

Some of the actions that need to be taken actually cut living expenses and are relatively simple. A little upfront investment and a bit of thought can make a significant difference. It ought to be the simplest thing in the world to require every new building in Britain to be carbon neutral. Yet new planning laws are being proposed without that basic easy win being included. It ought to be obvious that we should be heavily subsidising every home, workplace, school or hospital to ensure that they can generate their own electricity and massively reduce use. Instead, we have a temporary scheme to provide £5,000 to home owners to take helpful actions.

Other changes are a lot harder but even more necessary. It simply isn’t possible to go on growing food using heavy inputs of chemicals and then ship the food across the world to get wrapped in plastic and driven home in the boot of a petrol car. Much of the food we eat consumes more calories in production, distribution and packing production than it provides for the consumer. That is only made possible by burning fossilised calories. Any government that was remotely serious about environmental policy would be working flat out to subsidise local farmers to produce healthy food for local consumers, and ensuring that balanced diets were being fostered in every meal served in a British school. At the same time, they would be heavily cutting down on animal produce and increasing arable farming and agroforestry. Instead our government is cutting agricultural subsidies and going all out to get a trade deal that will increase the imports of US foodstuffs produced by the most appallingly industrialised farming methods in the world.

When it comes to transport the government deserves some small credit. It is providing a £3,000 subsidy to buy a new car if it is electric and bringing forward the date by which all cars must be partially electric. What it is not doing is coming up with a workable strategy to get people out of cars and onto public transport. The costs of taking a train to the consumer often exceed the cost of taking the car. They don’t to the society, the economy or the environment when the full costs are considered. You can’t fix an environmental problem by encouraging people to buy a new car. What is needed is massive investment in electric and hydrogen buses, efficient local rail networks and a coherent public transport network that people can rely on to arrive promptly and frequently and get them there in comfort on time. That simply cannot be achieved by an attitude of “leave it to the market”. The credit the government deserves is therefore very small indeed.

Nor can we give them much credit on air travel. Covid should have taught most businesses that international flights are actually an unnecessary waste of money in a world of Zoom conferencing. Deaths on cruise ships should have discouraged an entire generation from crowding out and polluting every picturesque port across Europe and beyond. We have an opportunity to change habits and seriously downsize the flight industry. Instead of taking that opportunity, the government told people it was just fine to go on foreign holidays in the middle of a global pandemic because it was scared of inflicting pain on airline businesses. It is inconvenient and unpopular amongst those who want a bucket and spade holiday for their kids to have to cut down on trips abroad. It is a lot more inconvenient for those kids to have to live out their lives within a legacy of collapsing stability in the climate, insecure food supplies and regular human induced pandemics.

The point I am trying to make here is not that everyone should travel the Atlantic in a sail powered craft if they really need to. Nor am I arguing that we should all be perfect individuals choosing to live entirely environmentally sound lifestyles at all times. The point is that we need governments to make sure that the costs of what we choose to do bear some relation to the reality of the impact. The point is that it should be cheap and easy to do the positive things, like go by train.

The problem right now is that we have a government that has absorbed a belief in the infinite wisdom of markets. That is fine when what is needed is flexibility and rapid reaction to consumer choice. When what is required are fundamental structural changes to the economy, the society and the ecology within which we all live only a very different approach will work. Governments are going to have to learn how to use the power of conscious government decision-making locally, nationally and internationally if we are going to cope with the scale and the speed of the changes we need to make.

It isn’t obvious how a government that believes in turning its back on its international commitments and going it alone is going to achieve the necessary psychological shift.

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