This coming Sunday (21st) there is going to be a march for action on climate change involving hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. Of course, it’ll actually be more of a gentle saunter (you can’t march that many people anywhere very quickly), but hey. March is the word everyone uses, so march we jolly well will.
Not surprisingly, London will be one of the main focal points. It isn’t the first such assembly of people on this issue, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last, but it comes just ahead of a climate summit for world leaders next week.
The challenge for them is to agree in principle on much more ambitious and binding global targets for decarbonisation than have been agreed to date. Much, much more. In summary: to pay attention to the speed of the changes being observed, heed the warnings of those who work in the field of climate science about what our current trajectory means, and wean humanity off fossil fuels in the shortest possible timescale.
Maybe you’re thinking, why bother marching? Well, I would argue that it is a democratic opportunity to express something very specific to those who (temporarily) pass legislation on our behalf. It is an opportunity for us to join together and see in person how many others want a sustainable future for humanity, of all ages and kinds. And in the face of such a monumentally difficult challenge, it is an opportunity for hope.
I would also argue that there is no other topic quite as all-encompassing as this one. The news agenda is very good at ignoring long term problems in favour of short term ones (and deliberately muddying the waters if there is a financial incentive involved), but don’t underestimate the importance of the action we could and should be taking right now to make a crucial difference in the years to come.
There are numbers that don’t matter so much, and there are numbers that do. The numbers 565 and 2795 may not mean a lot to you, but let me try and persuade you that they belong in the latter category.
In 2012, 2795 was (roughly) the amount in gigatons of conventional (proven) fossil fuel reserves we had globally in the inventory of companies or countries, ready to extract. 565 (again, roughly) was the amount of this we could ‘safely’ extract and burn and still have a reasonable chance of not exceeding a 2ºC rise in global air temperature above the pre-industrial average. We are already at the 0.8ºC point.
These numbers were widely shared article in a 2012 Rolling Stone magazine called ‘Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math' by Bill McKibben. They do not include unconventional fossil fuels such as shale gas (and this is one of the strongest argument not to frack there is, regardless of local environmental issues; we simply have too many conventional reserves that need to be left in the ground). I do not know specifically what the updated figures are for 2014, but we have not showed any sign of slowing down.
2ºC, 4ºC, or higher?
To the casual eye, 2ºC doesn’t seem like a lot compared to day to night and seasonal fluctuations, but in climate terms it is a big, big deal. Climate is a very finely balanced affair. Change at such a rapid pace (geologically speaking) is very bad news for ecosystems, for our food and water supply, and for low-lying land vulnerable to encroachment by the sea. It is therefore very bad news for us.
The idea of 2ºC as a target was formulated in the early years of this new century as an ‘acceptable’ goal to aim for politically, but as the evidence has accumulated since of more rapid change occurring in the climate system, it is now a figure characterised by some working in the field of climate science as ‘extremely dangerous’. However, at present - if we do not change course - we are on track for at least a 4ºC rise by 2100, possibly much sooner. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre describes a 4ºC rise:
'This is a world that we have to avoid at all costs. Many scientists suggest that a 4°C rise is incompatible with an organised global community. It is beyond “adaptation”. Yet this review of 4°C temperature rise does not take into account possible feedbacks and other discontinuities, which on average are anticipated to make the situation worse still.'
'Possible feedbacks' refers to things such as methane being released from melting permafrost (methane being a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 over a short timescale). 4ºC is likely to be merely a point along a road to a completely altered climate state, and one which will certainly not support 7-8 billion human beings.
Where is much of the world’s permafrost? In the Arctic region. Where have the highest rates of warming been observed? In the Arctic region. Humanity is taking the most humungous gamble with its own future.
We are where we are
We are currently at 0.8ºC above the pre-industrial average, and this has already led to dramatic summer ice loss in the Arctic (well head of earlier predictions), along with a notable destabilisation of ice sheets in both Greenland and the West Antarctic. Increasing weather unpredictability the world over is affecting crop yields and access to water, and those with the least resources to fall back on are suffering most.
Even if we stopped all emissions overnight, global warming would continue for at least another 20-30 years, because the inertia in the climate system keeps propelling things forward. And CO2 can stay in the atmosphere for a very, very long time indeed. China’s emissions may have rocketed in recent decades (with our help along the way), but the accumulated historical emissions of western countries is vast and still there doing its warming. We are not off the hook for this. More importantly, our emissions per person in the US and Europe are still extremely high, and still greater than the Chinese equivalent. This problem requires action from everyone, not playground style finger pointing.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence yet that we are slowing down our emissions. It has just been reported that 2013 saw atmospheric CO2 grow at the fastest rate for 30 years. In recent decades, a lot of the additional CO2 has been absorbed by the oceans, but to assume that it will keep doing so to the same degree is not plausible (and this absorption creates a huge problem of its own: acidification). Indeed, one of the reasons for the larger CO2 increase in 2013 is a decrease in absorption rates. Why this has happened is not yet understood.
Climate change does not have to be linear. It can create different effects around the world and occur at different speeds at different times depending how the various physical systems interact. We have seen this in the UK from fluctuations and ‘holding patterns’ in the jetstream affecting our weather in recent years. Other areas of the world have seen much more damaging and widespread drought and flooding.
How do we respond?
This is where it gets hard. The above is scientific query. It seeks to observe, describe and predict what is likely to happen based on past evidence of how the climate behaves. It is constantly being tested and modified and judged by peer-review on its accuracy and plausibility. You cannot measure the morality of greenhouse gases.
But when it comes to our lives, our families, our communities, our societies and our countries, how are we to react to this scientific awareness? That is a profoundly moral question. What is our legacy? What are we leaving our children and grand-children to deal with? How much do we love them? What price our own comfort? I have no children of my own, but I care very much about preserving a liveable planet for future generations and averting unnecessary conflict.
A ‘war-footing’ type mindset to climate change is often referred to by activists as what we need, but the impetus is clearly not yet there because the threat is not understood. There have been glimpses of it now and then, but the status quo is very addictive and entrenched in our thinking.
Debt creation by commercial banks lending at interest, and economic growth to pay for that debt is the scaffolding on which most political debate is draped. This is ‘economic reality’. But they are rules we have set ourselves; interest on debt is not a function of the natural world, it is a creation of human ingenuity. In this case, it is an ingenious trap.
The ingenious trap of economic growth
'continuing with economic growth over the coming two decades is incompatible with meeting our international obligations on climate change'
This was the conclusion of a paper by the aforementioned Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows in 2011. The longer we wait to act, the steeper the decline needs to be, and the less practical it becomes to manage economically speaking. Peaking our emissions in 2020 requires a 10% drop in emissions every year thereafter.
To give a sense of scale, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a 5% drop in their emissions in the immediate aftermath. The global financial crisis of 2008 led to barely a murmur. A drop of 3-4% is the maximum possible to still allow economic growth, as calculated by the Stern review in 2006 and others since.
There is a massive disconnect going on here. Politically, only the Green Party are willing to flag up the sheer scale and imminence of the problem and attempting to offer appropriate measures in response. A part of that is the flat-out drive for renewables to replace fossil fuels in the shortest timeframe possible, along with a similar flat-out drive to fully insulate the UK housing stock. But there is much more to it than that though.
Once you comprehend the role of economic growth as an obstacle to emissions reductions, you have to look at why economic growth is actually necessary (to repay interest bearing loans) and the process of debt creation by commercial banks which creates this money from thin air. The Greens have taken account of work by bodies such as the New Economics Foundation, and proposed plans to remove the power of commercial banks to create such loans.
No one is pretending this is easy or without potential pitfalls, but it is an essential step to meaningfully address the role of economic growth in emissions, and the monetary system which underpins it all. It also begins to tackle the huge problem of financial bubbles and their distorting effect on the real economy (particularly with housing), as the financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures have showed so very painfully.
The other political parties aren’t even going near this issue. Yet. But they should be.
The other thing to tackle is investment in the fossil fuel industry. Any individual, organisation or pension fund should look to divest their funds from such industries and put that money elsewhere. If that means removing money from the banks that support them, then that is also worth considering. It’s worth mentioning that a lot of these industries’ assumed ‘value’ will begin to evaporate if we are serious about climate change, and what they ‘own’ cannot be produced.
Of course, being promised less is not a vote-winner. Or at least, it hasn’t been. But this is a test of our maturity. Are we willing to accept the science and to act accordingly to avoid the scenario it lays out? Politics can only do a certain amount for us. Beyond that, it is also about the actions of every single one of us, most especially those of us in western countries who are relatively well-off.
As things stand, we collectively fly too much, eat too much red meat, don’t insulate enough, buy too much (clothing, electronics, tat) and don’t consider how wasteful some of our habits can be, be that in how or when we drive, cook, or simply heat our homes.
What makes us happy
No-one wants to think about this stuff. It’s profoundly challenging to our assumptions about society and human progress. And when no-one else appears to be considering action, it can make you feel crazy and/or depressed to be doing so. (I’ve been there, and here’s a song to prove it.) Such is the power of herd behaviour and the need to conform.
But… I believe human ‘progress’ is about finding wisdom and acting accordingly, in using our technical knowhow to solve problems at a practical down-to-earth level, and trying our best to create a more equitable world in the process. It’s not in reaching for the stars and exploring the universe, as gloriously exciting as these visions were. That unsustainable dream was a fossil-fuelled flash-in-the-pan, amplified by a heavy dose of human imagination in books and films. The film Gravity was a much more realistic take on our achievements - such as they are - in space, and it highlighted for me the importance of this big, blue planet. Our only home in a hostile universe. Taking care of this planet is vital.
I also believe that, fundamentally, most people care about the well-being of others, because this is ultimately a way of protecting ourselves. (Do unto others etc.) We are social animals, and we know instinctively that resilience is in collective action, however much advertising tries to stimulate our individual desires, or scapegoating tries to stimulate our hate. Spread more widely, our caring about the wellbeing of people across the world is a recognition that conflict and mass migration should be avoided at all costs. Fighting climate change is an essential part of this.
I still see plenty of evidence of how much people care. Community involvement may be less strong than it used to be, but you only have to look at charity, religion or sport to see how we still connect with one another and are willing to give time for free. We do not see everything in terms of monetary reward, and thank goodness for that.
So what are we going to lose by changing our world? We would still love as freely and intensely. We would still be able to educate ourselves and our children. We would still spend time with friends. Learn practical skills. Create and enjoy art. Cycle. Walk. Play sport. Read. Get drunk. Go to church. Grow stuff. We would still do all manner of things that actually make life enjoyable and worthwhile.
Maybe we’ll start thinking about doing some of them more locally to where we live too. No one wants travel to be impossible, but how necessary is regular long-distance travel really?
The high consumption lifestyle we lead is a total historical anomaly; we have been and can be just as content on much less. Much of the world already is. As long as there is good education, clean water, decent health care, the possibility of meaningful employment and a reasonably fair distribution of wealth, a lot of other stuff just isn’t that important.
In a crisis, people will pull together. The thing is recognising exactly how much of a crisis this is. The starting point is understanding these numbers: