I’ve decided to forego the usual round-up of links because of the really big science news which broke this week: we have about 12 years to save the planet. Can we do it? Will we do it?
The latest IPCC report (the report, plus summaries etc., may be found here) sounds like it doesn’t it pull it’s punches. In fact it does a bit: some key elements on “tipping points” – parts of the environment that may reach a catastrophic point of no return, leading to out-of-control global warming, were fairly watered down. This includes things like the loss of the ice sheets, or methane release from melting permafrost, which may end up in a vicious cycle of positive reinforcement once the temperature rises beyond a certain point.
The certain point beyond which the IPCC has concluded global temperatures must not rise beyond, is an average of 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures, a figure based on decades of rigorous scientific research producing overwhelming evidence. Beyond this point, very severe consequences start to happen, and those consequences will affect us, including severe drought, sea-level rise, famine, and various ecological catastrophes including the near-total loss of coral reefs. We are already at 1C above pre-industrial levels, and already seeing consequences, notably extreme weather events such as this year’s record heatwave in the Northern hemisphere. If we get to 2C or above, let me summarise what will happen in a reasoned, non-hyperbolic manner:
We’ve got to this pretty pass because – despite the IPCC and other agencies and scientists producing increasingly dire warnings for well over 30 years – not nearly enough has been done to deal with the problem so far. Governments don’t do very well with long-term thinking, particularly if it involves short-term costs, because they don’t want voters to not elect them. And one of the flaws of capitalism (which, as democracy is to government, may perhaps be said to be the worse form of economics we have, apart from all the others) is that it, too, prioritises short-term gains and doesn’t factor in long-term losses well.
We have the US withdrawing from the Paris agreement, and a government in Australia that still sees its country’s future as being in coal (very 19th century). It seems almost unbelievable that, only days after this report was released, the UK government announced the re-start of fracking in England. (Every time I think they can’t sink further any lower in my opinion…). It’s a perfect illustration of what seems like the utter insanity – or at best complacency – of those who govern us. Why would the Conservatives make this decision? To be scrupulously fair, their 2017 manifesto included strong support for the oil and gas industry, so voters either were fine with this or (most likely) didn’t read the manifesto. And it’s true parties don’t always honour manifesto promises. Well, for one thing, there are plenty of climate deniers in their party (second only to UKIP, I suspect), but those who would know the truth, should, of course, follow the money: they receive substantial chunks of money from the fossil fuel industry. (See for example here). Fracking is a hugely dirty, environmental damaging industry: and it’s notable that not only do most of the British public don’t actually want it, it’s not even cheaper than environmentally friendly alternatives such as wind power (various sources; see e.g. here or here or a wikipedia summary here).
So what can be done, assuming anyone with any clout gets off their arses and does it? I’ve written before about what can and does need to be done. In a way, it’s a tall order, but it’s not nearly as impossible as it sounds. Check out this site, based on the United Nations Environmental Report, for what can be done. Carbon Brief is also excellent and has more technical information. And lobby your representatives to do it. Don’t vote for people who aren’t committed to tackling climate change. Here are 6 simple steps that need to be done:
I have to admit that I find it hard to be very forgiving of the people who’ve been in charge for the past 30 years or so, in which the dangers of climate change have been both clear, well-evidenced and well-known: they should have done better. But so should have all the ordinary people, many of whom in the Western hemisphere saw some of the greatest rises in living standards ever after the end of WW2, and thought nothing of an increasingly consumerist society, burning fossil fuels with abandon, and tossing their plastics into landfill.
We can and must do better, which I’ve said before. But what if we don’t? Can we buy ourselves more time? Can we somehow such all those trillions of tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the air? Well, possibly…I’ll feature some ideas in the next post.
A simulation of maximum temperatures on 21 July, 2018, during the heatwave. Photograph: Climate Reanalyzer/Climate Change Institute/University of Maine.