I don’t know. It is noticeable, however, that many people now talk as if they do know. There is an increasingly shrill tendency to say that we are all doomed, and that Climate Change is the cause. It has lessened during this period of pandemic, when a different threat has taken the limelight, but this is no more than a pause in the tape I think. The most extreme voice has been that of the Extinction Rebellion, whose name makes explicit the Sword of Damocles they think is hanging over Humanity’s head. But I wonder if we should be shifting the debate, in answer to these existential prophecies?
I wonder if, while we can be certain of the science explaining what is happening, we cannot be certain of the consequences. One of the recurring features of science’s contribution to the Climate Change debate has been that models of the consequences have always turned out subsequently to be wrong. In the aftermath of the terrible floods in Germany and Belgium, the models that failed to predict them were admitted to be inadequate and misleading. The consequences in this case were worse than predicted, but could they also be better in some instances?
There is another characteristic of the predictions of global catastrophe that deserves attention: they are not new. In the history of civilization, there has rarely been a time when we did not think we were facing the end of everything. There is a word which describes this tendency. It is “eschatology”, or the study of the end of the world. Originally coined to describe branches of religious thought, it can be used to describe any theory of the end of the world. They abound. The second half of the 20th century was dominated by the Cold War, and a widespread fear of nuclear holocaust destroying the human race. Once this ended, we had a decade of nervous anticipation of the end of the millennium. There were, of course, extreme sectarian views that it would indeed see the end of the world as we know it, but far more commonly accepted was the idea that the Millenium Bug would break down all civil and economic systems to a point where we would be incapable of the most basic activities for some time to come. No sooner had it become apparent that it would not, 9/11 happened and created a new form of fear, that a direct terrorist threat was about to engulf us all.
This fear is not a modern phenomenon. The Christian and other Abrahamic religions all give us a vision of the end of the world, an armageddon of some kind, which is reflected in earlier religions. We find the vision of Gotterdamerung, set to music by Wagner, drawn directly from Norse mythology.
And now we have Climate Change. This has already lasted some time, as a vision of anticipated doom. James Lovelock articulated the Gaia Theory for the first time in the 1970s, prophesying the destruction of the human race on Earth much as ants are destroyed when they exceed the carrying capacity of their environment. The line from Lovelock to Greta Thunberg is direct. Both are the uncompromising prophets of doom. In between, we have heard countless other voices, ranging from Al Gore and Nicholas Stern to David Attenborough. They are all saying essentially the same thing. They are telling us that Climate Change is certain to happen, indeed is already happening; and that if we allow it to get much worse, human life on the planet will no longer be sustainable.
It raises three questions:
- Are they right?
- Why haven’t we listened to them?
- What can we do about it now?
Actually, no. They are not. We are not all doomed. We are all going to die, as certainly as we are alive. The human race will one day be extinguished, as certainly as one day it began. These are inexorable laws of nature, and no amount of faith in science will permit us to escape them. But are we all doomed by Climate Change?
No. Not all of us. But many are. It needs no skill or expertise to understand this, because it is obvious to us already. We can already see the consequences of Climate Change and global warming for the people caught by the wildfires in California, Australia or Western Canada. They are not doomed, but their lives will never be the same again. The flooding in Bangladesh last year, and more recently in Germany and Belgium has more obviously caused multiple deaths as well as homelesness and loss of economic viability Doom is not too strong a word to use for the fate of these poor people in Germany and Belgium who have lost their lives to Climate Change, while the more fortunate in the wildfires have generally survived.
There is no doubt that, when we look at these events, they are not isolated nor are they likely to be exceptional, they are part of a pattern that will become more familiar with time. But they are incredibly localised. Climate Change is happening, those who have warned us are right, but it is not singular. It is no more one climate that is changing than there is one climate covering the entire world. The climate is different wherever you go, sometimes sub-dividing into micro-climates. The change that is taking place affects each climate in a different way, some horrifically, some not so badly, some not badly at all, depending on the nature of the original climate and the prevailing conditions.
Nevertheless, we must accept the reality of the threat of Climate Change, because it is already happening. Even though we are not all doomed by it, it is already affecting enough of our world to justify taking it seriously as one of our highest possible priorities. If we do not, then we are playing a form of Russian Roulette with communities around the world, including our own. We do not know if we are one of the potential victims or not, just as the poor people who lost their lives in the German and Belgian floods had no idea their lives were at risk as a result of the exceptional weather events caused by Climate Change. Even though James Lovelock, Greta Thunberg, and countless others had been warning them for years.
Perhaps the most honest answer to this question is that we did not believe them. It has taken the events of the last three years to persuade us. We needed to actually see Climate Change before we collectively believed in it. The evidence we were shown before then was never enough.
It is not hard to understand why. Culturally, almost whichever culture you come from, we have been filled with the terrors of the end of the world all our lives, from our religious educations to our scientific connections. Disaster stories are hardwired into our consciousness. The awful truth is that we actually enjoy them. One of the most successful TV series last year was Chernobyl, a forensic examination of unparalleled nuclear horror. This was not broadcast as news, or investigative journalism, it was entertainment for all of us to enjoy.
Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, really explained Climate Change for a mass audience and was watched by millions of people. Instead of leading to a revolution in policy and practice, it was absorbed, discussed and enjoyed.
But we have not listened to him, or to the many others warning us of the consequences of ignoring them. Is it useful to ask why not? Blame is no use to us now, if we know it is already happening. It is only useful if it helps us to understand what to do next.
In the end, this is the only question that matters. History is littered with stories of disasters, man-made or natural, that were not anticipated, COVID-19 being the latest of them in which the many warnings of potential pandemic went unheeded. We have defined our societies and communities by the manner in which we have faced them. We can now expect natural disasters to be compounded in different parts of the world today, some of which will affect us, others of which will not. We can group them all under the heading of Climate Change, because this is essentially the trigger of the disasters — exceptional weather events.
Although this is the trigger, however, it is not the cause. Global warming is the cause. So we are left with two directly practical challenges:
- We must start to anticipate these exceptional weather events more effectively and take precautionary measures to cope with their adverse effects.
- We must start to arrest and reverse the global warming trend by putting a stop to carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, and removing carbon from the atmosphere.
These are, above all, practical problems. What can we do about them? We have to work constantly now to find new ways of doing what we have failed to do so far:
- Predicting and protecting
- Sourcing the materials required for life in a way that does not use hydro-carbons
These require innovation above all. Let us pursue this goal at a granular, determined level, leaving no stone unturned.
Cassandra’s prophecies of disaster went unheeded, and the disaster consequently happened. Let us not turn Greta into a modern day Cassandra. She has spoken clearly enough.