One of the few things that all UN countries have agreed on is that if humanity allows global warming to exceed 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels there will be unacceptably severe consequences. It is now clear that there is no realistic prospect of avoiding that. We are on track to smash through that in the next five years and then carry on making the crisis worse for another 22 years after that. Which is what agreeing to achieve net zero by 2050 means.
Even more alarming is the unreliability of the climate change models. Faced with a barrage of misplaced criticism from sceptics, scientists have needed to be ultra-careful about their predictions. Evidence is now mounting of events which are happening much harder, faster and earlier than was expected in the standard predictions.
Antarctic sea ice is currently at record low measurements. The data is coming in at over 5 standard deviations away from the past average. That is something that should only happen by random chance once every 3,488,555 years. The temperature of the sea across the whole of the North Atlantic this summer is 1.2 degrees centigrade above the expected level. The world has just recorded its highest average temperature for July. Britain has recorded its highest monthly average temperature ever exceeding past record figures from 1940 and 1976 by 0.9 degrees.
Failure to adapt – the anti-survival paradox
Peter Frankopan recently published a fascinating book on the history of how humanity has responded to past changes to the environment. In over 700 pages of closely documented evidence he shows that it has been relatively common for human civilisations to encounter climate shocks that test their capacity to survive. The civilisations that were able to change their practices in response survived and weathered the storm. The ones that stuck stubbornly to past methods and past beliefs didn’t.
The central driving force which is taking our own civilisation towards the precipice is that too many of our decisions are made on the basis of what is profitable for an individual or an organisation to do in the short term and too few of them are driven by our collective needs. Put simply we have built our civilisation on the strange assumption that greed is good and that the pursuit of profit and the power of markets will somehow magically sort things out for the best. There is just one small problem with that theory. It is simply not true.
Left to their own devices markets will always utilize the cheapest current method for the individual purchaser. That is not the same as the best solution for the rest of us. Market forces are what has made it cheaper and more convenient for water companies to dump sewage in our rivers whilst loading so much debt onto companies providing us with an essential service that they are incapable of conducting their business and paying the interest on the debt. Market forces are what drove the stock market to collapse in 2008. Market forces have led us to extract fossils from the earth that were laid down hundreds of millions of years ago and burn them without regard for the consequences for another very important relic of past events – the earth’s atmosphere.
The need now is to manage and guide those market forces with sufficient strength of purpose to head off disaster. The good news is that most governments and most business people understand that and there are some large initiatives in place such as the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States. China is competing with the US and the EU to provide massive subsidies for its industry to adapt and change so that it becomes the leading force in a new era of technological progress.
Systemically entrenched resistance
The bad news is that change isn’t always popular and there is a strong tendency for some people, some businesses and some countries to want to cling to past ways of doing things especially if they are little bit cheaper and a little bit more convenient than the alternative choices at this particular moment in time. A lot of effort goes into persuading us to consume more stuff. Most businesses want consumers to buy more of their products and services despite all the evidence that it is completely impossible for everyone on the planet to adopt consumption patterns that match those of the US, Europe or modern China.
Anyone who tells the public that it is fine to go on consuming what they want and that there is not really any big and urgent problem is finding it relatively easy to find a receptive audience. Those of us who are trying to get us to focus on living more lightly on the planet and to focus on enjoying living in healthy and well-balanced communities face a barrage of criticism every time we propose changes that carry any financial costs.
Existential threat: obstinacy and denial
There is a battle for survival underway in which the tool of one side is scientific evidence and the direct lived experience of those who are encountering the damage caused by floods, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires. The tool of the other is nostalgia and complacency. The far right is busy indulging in the dangerous game of telling people they can carry on as normal and there is no need for change and for some that can be a very tempting message.
Which side wins will determine not just whether our civilisation continues to exist in any kind of recognisable form but also whether many other species are driven to extinction. On an optimistic day I like to believe that positivity usually manages to triumph and that we will find our way through this crisis as the urgency of the situation becomes increasingly evident. On a bad day I have to listen to Rishi Sunak refusing to even contemplate switching to onshore wind in case it costs him support within his own party, Kier Starmer backing away from making too many commitments to take serious action in case it plays badly in the red wall seats, or much worse, the nonsense that comes from American far right politicians who want to climb their way to power.
There never will be a day when humanity knows for certain that it has passed the point of no return and has triggered runaway climate change that we can’t control. The latest data seems to indicate that we are a lot closer to the edge than we previously realised. We badly need to beat the reactionaries and treat this as the existential problem it is.