Letter to an old friend

I don’t understand your attitude to global warming and the impending threat of climate disruption. To be more precise, I don’t know what your attitude is. You don’t talk about it and I am left puzzled and vaguely unsatisfied.

You are not one to suffer fools gladly. You are armed with intelli-gence, knowledge, judgement and discernment; you have time to read and to think and I know you do a lot of both; you have children and many grandchildren.  Yet you seem to be blasé, detached —professorially aloof. You are not someone who turns his back on society or refuses to provide a helping hand: you’ve done a stint as town councillor, you invest a lot of time and energy in the care of your local river and you are a born teacher. Yet you seem to be unconcerned by the medium-term future—fifty years or so, probably less—and the fate of the world your offspring will inherit, much as though it were, say, another dimension: theoretically interesting but no direct threat to the Standard Model. “I do care about climate change,” you said to me once; but I think that was the only time you’ve mentioned it. And in any case caring won’t cut it. All in all, I prefer to think I’m reading you wrongly.

Because ours is the Goldilocks generation—we’ve had the best of everything. The NHS watched over our childhood, we had shoes that fit and we never went hungry; we had free education and there were jobs waiting for us; we’ve been able to retire on a decent pension. We’ve had money enough for beer and fine wines, travel, books and music. We even had sex post-Pill and pre-AIDS! We’ve been privileged to witness the exponential expansion of knowledge as our science began to penetrate veiled unknowables. We grew up with a battered, out-dated encyclopaedia and now we have the whole universe in our laptops. We’re able to rejoice in the fact that each new discovery reveals new unknowns. (The clearing in the forest really is an excellent metaphor.) Ours is the generation that currently has its hands on the levers of power.

And because we’ve fucked it up. Utterly and unforgivably. Those few visionaries who saw all this coming, back in the 70s and the 80s, had no chance of convincing the world to change course, because the science hadn’t been done and the numbers weren’t available. But twenty years ago, when we were in our prime, the numbers were there, the models were up and running, and we failed to react. If we’d organised and protested loudly, insistently, we could have brought about a (relatively) soft landing. Today we could be looking back at twenty years of progressively diminishing CO2 emissions and the situation would be incomparably less bleak. But we dithered. Rampant, dogmatic free-market capitalism got the bit between its teeth and now we’re reduced to flapping around like penguins in a cabbage patch while the politicians squeak timidly about a +2° scenario that was written off by the scientists years ago.

I reached a new level of understanding of just how desperate the current situation is on Sunday 21 September. In La Roche sur Yon some three dozen people had played a small part in the day’s worldwide climate marches (over 40 actually if you count small children and my dog). There were more of us than I’d been expecting, but that hardly made up for the fact that only 0.07% of the population had known about the demo and felt concerned enough to get off their arses. (The comparable figure worldwide was 0.015% which is even more depressing.) When I got home I looked for any mention of the day’s events in Le Monde—in vain. Typical, I thought, climate change is just not news worthy. But I did find the latest numbers for CO2 emissions, which (with nice timing, I must admit) had just been released: 36 Gt in 2013, plus another 3.5 from deforestation. Now, that needs to be put into context. The 5th IPCC report included reference to a global CO2 budget of 1,000 Gt: i.e. the amount of CO2 we could afford to inject into the atmosphere over the whole of the period from 1750 to the present and beyond. If we stayed within that budget, global warming might be limited to 2° and the ensuing changes might not be irreversible. But we’d already ‘spent’ 530 Gt. CO2 emissions, which were still rising, would need to be cut “rapidly and substantially”, concluded the IPCC, bending over backwards as usual to avoid sounding alarmist. In fact I’ve since discovered that the IPCC revised that budget in the final version of its report, to take other GHGs into account: in fact they reduced it by 20%. So to sum up: we’ve spent 570 Gt already, CO2 emissions are still growing by 3% annually and our reserve is down to 230 Gt, or about five years’ production at current rates.

To cap it all, the next day, I looked up the programme for the New York Summit and realised that instead of a week-long boot camp it was a one-day farce with plenary session speeches limited to four minutes. Jesus, they might as well try to solve God-the-universe-and-everything on the back of a postage stamp! How dare they expect to be taken seriously?

“…as anticipated, the leaders held back on making new commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions or to give significant climate finance to developing countries, leaving it to business, cities and campaign groups to produce the real action on climate,” I read in the Guardian the next day. No surprises there then. Needless to say, I don’t understand the politicians’ attitude either. But I do understand how they are able to get away with it: they are under no pressure to denounce the elephant in the room.

Take that Guardian article, for example: I had to navigate to the Environment section to find it—there was nothing on the front page. (The dear old Graun still doesn’t have a first-level navigator button for climate change.) Ditto for Le Monde: nothing on the front page and, in “Planète”, a handful of mumbled inanities and a 4-minute video on “understanding climate change”, containing several factual errors. The FAZ (Germany’s most usually quoted paper) doesn’t have an equivalent sub-section, so there’s nothing there at all. As for the thundering editorials demanding of the politicians that they exdigitate… Silly question, sorry.

With politicians furthering nothing but the art of the possible, as is their wont, with only token pressure for change from the media, and in the face of a relentless, mendacious campaign led by the fossil fuels industry (which I’ve not mentioned here because I insist it be taken as read), the situation looks hopeless.

What then should we be doing?

I know what I’m going to do. I shall be hassling Avaaz to organise another worldwide demo in three months’ time, with the aim of getting 2% of the population out on the streets. That would be 1,000 people in La Roche sur Yon, 70,000 in Paris. A modest target. But then 5% after a further three months, and so on up to 10% and more when the Paris conference convenes in December next year. If Avaaz isn’t interested then I’ll damn well try to do it myself.

And you, my dear old friend, what will you be doing?


One thought on “Letter to an old friend

  1. Good and highly relevant article. As a research scientist myself, I am frequently alarmed at the way in which non-scientists are ill-equipped to reason in a logical way and to grasp simple facts, so in a way, the fact that the majority of the population fail to grasp the importance of this issue is unsurprising. This, coupled with the fact that the overwhelming majority of politicians gain access to power, not by being particularly intelligent, but by being highly ambitious and willing to drop all semblance of personal decency and integrity in order to gain the “high” that absolute power gives them, makes for a lethal mix when combined with the money from industry that is available to gloss over the reality of the situation. All in all, while the need to reproduce is the highest drive of humanity in terms of evolutionary survival strategy, the need to think about the long-term survival of one’s descendants clearly is not.

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