For some time now there has been a determination amongst environmentalists to try and stress the positives and to focus on hope rather than fear. There is an understanding that despair is not a great way to galvanise people to action. But there comes a point when optimism begins to be deceptive and we have to think through the consequences of a significant degree of failure.
COP-out and delusion: the world WILL pass 1.5 degrees of heating
It simply isn’t realistic to believe that current policies are going to hold the temperature rise across the whole planet below 1.5 degrees higher than pre industrial levels. We are on track to smash through that barrier in the near future. Climate change is happening sooner and faster than almost all models predicted and the consequences of that are only just starting to be evident. Actions to limit climate change, however, are happening later and slower.
Even the COP conferences, which are supposed to galvanise the world into action, have been turned into an opportunity for an oil-rich state to market itself and fossil fuel lobbyists to pour poison into the ears of decision makers.
Sultan Al Jaber, the person chosen to lead the most important international conference on controlling the damage to the environment used his role to inform the delegates that:
“I’m not in any way signing up to any discussion that is alarmist. There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C.”
It is hard to think of a more deluded statement. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon that has been stored for millions of years. It is a basic scientific fact that when carbon enters the atmosphere it causes more of the sun’s heat to be retained within it. That extra energy drives storms and makes weather increasingly unreliable.
The truth is in fact the opposite of Al Jaber’s assertion: there is no scenario out there in which we can avoid phasing out fossil fuels, because every time they are burnt it involves releasing fossilised carbon into the atmosphere which has been locked up for millions of years.
The most realistic prediction is that we will significantly exceed possibly safe levels of 1.5 degrees and move into much a more unpredictable and unstable situation where feedback mechanisms like methane releases run out of control. Already the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 282.9 parts per million in 1800 to 421.3 in December of this year. Despite all the talk about reductions, the production of carbon dioxide has risen to record highs. We are decades away from achieving net zero.
Food insecurity – act now
More energy in the system means more chaotic weather. That makes crops harder to grow, harvest and store. For decades the planet has been fed by increasing the amount of forested areas that are cut down and by planting overbred crops that depend heavily on pesticides and artificial fertilisers to boost their growth rates. The droughts and the soil exhaustion that this approach produces in the long run are now starting to become evident. For example, Brazil has been going through an appalling heat wave and fires in previously wet woodland areas. All the scientific predictions are that these heat waves will get worse and more damaging.
If those patterns of land use continue to proliferate and are accompanied by more extreme weather, then it is hard to see how sufficient food can be grown worldwide. This problem is currently being exacerbated as more people around the world switch to diets that are high in meat and fish.
In such circumstances any country that relies heavily on food imports is taking enormous risks. Britain imports around 45% of its food. If exporting nations need that food for their own populations, it would be naïve to expect sales to Britain to continue. One of the core responsibilities of all governments is to keep the population fed. The UK government needs to organise a major drive to increase Britain’s food security right now, because the switch will take years and it will be too late once the problem becomes sharply evident to all.
If environmentalists are even remotely right about the impact on food production of exceeding 1.5 degrees of global temperature rise then there is one other rather important thing to consider. Nations that are desperate for food have a nasty tendency to go to war to get it. Farmers whose crops fail year after year eventually have to move. The world is going to become more insecure and there are going to be more refugees.
Brutal facts and the need to re-think policies
The practicalities of that are ugly. For decades most of us on the left have stressed the important contribution that immigrants make to our economy and our society and questioned the value of over large defence spending. I have been a strong advocate of that tradition.
It may not be very long before we have to rethink some aspects of those beliefs. In a time of growing chaos there is a case for a lot more spending on conventional defence forces, not just to deal with natural disasters but to enable us to protect ourselves from the consequences of greater international disorder. I still believe that it is wrong to waste money on nuclear weapons that are of little value in real conflict situations, but it isn’t easy to sustain an argument that defence should be a low priority area of spending once climate chaos starts to translate into political chaos.
Nor is it easy to sustain an argument that a policy of open borders and all being welcome is realistic going forward. Legal controls and limits are going to be necessary in a world where millions want to move across borders. And international aid budgets aren’t going to be cheap.
Anyone who thinks rigorously and realistically about the most likely consequences of increasingly chaotic weather conditions ends up thinking a little like some outback American disaster prepper. On a national scale.
We have a choice. Either we build up our food stores and reach for the shotguns to keep out hungry outsiders or we ignore the foolish words of the oil industry lobby and take action fast enough to avoid serious trouble.
Now that even the international climate summit has been captured by the oil lobby, we have to assume that the likelihood is that humanity is going to fail to make the right choice. The earlier we start thinking and preparing for the ugly consequences the better.