We know we can all stop worrying about Climate Change because Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak told us so. And now the new Conservative Government is confirming it. They reveal a wonderful trend in the political metabolism that exactly resembles something in the human metabolism. I have written about this before. When two conflicting pains fight for our attention, the more severe drives out the less severe, as if it did not exist. I have stopped feeling my bad knee because my shoulder hurts so much.
One crisis overpowers another…
The Conservatives have stopped worrying about Climate Change because the economy is so much more frightening. There are a lot of different threats to worry about, all of which mount up, and collectively they mean real damage being done to the people of this country as a result of the economic downturn. Interest rates, inflation, energy prices, exchange rates, markets, wages, strikes, investment, confidence. Each one of these can be picked out, discussed and turned into another crucial determinant of imminent collapse. “The worst for years” became “the worst for decades” but now we have “the worst in history”. This is called rumour escalation. It could be dismissed as media hysteria were it not for the fact that the media has a significant impact on the actual decisions taken to affect these things. The politicians and the speculators listen closely to the media. Rumour creates action which creates rumour, and so the vicious cycle goes on.
…but the other has not gone away
So Climate Change is relegated at the precise point that Pakistan is flooded with the loss of over 1,000 lives, and the destruction of tens of thousands of homes, inundating more than 10% of Pakistan’s land mass; at the precise point that floods in Ancona disrupted the entire province on the eve of the momentous election of the first far right Government in Italy since Mussolini; at the precise point that the south of England experienced the highest recorded temperatures in history, with at least 19 readings in excess of 41 degrees. The previous highest was 38 degrees in 2019, recorded only in East Anglia. And the latest disaster in the US is Hurricane Ian, a hurricane the scale of which it is too early to tell at the time of writing, but the devastation is being compared to an Atom Bomb explosion with an impact of a hundred square miles.
The evidence of Climate Change all around us is growing, but the need to take it seriously is weakening. How do we explain this paradox? Or better still, how do we learn to live with it? Is it possible that the impression of a consensus reached between scientists, the academics, the media, the educated classes and the political classes is wrong? Is it possible that in fact we have not agreed that Climate Change is happening, and Donald Trump really does have a point?
The evidence of Climate Change all around us is growing, but the need to take it seriously is weakening.
In the first place, it is worth pointing out that we have been here before. There was a period from 2007 to 2012 when it was political suicide to be a Climate Change denier. But repetition bred over familiarity, and we know what familiarity breeds. In 2013 David Cameron’s Chancellor, George Osborne, pulled the rug from under renewable energy related investment. He removed the subsidies for wind and solar, and cut commitments to home insulation and renewable installations. It was a step change that was to last for the next seven years, until COP26 was upon us. The UK Government started taking Climate Change seriously again because it was host to this high profile international climate change conference. It had to be postponed due to Covid, which meant the focus lasted for an extra year. But its impact has dwindled since it was finally staged in November 2021, less than twelve months ago. It is hard now to find the Climate Change priorities in Government that were so loudly proclaimed at the time of COP26. The economy has taken over. Energy has been a crucial part of this emerging crisis, but explicitly our new Government rejects the role of renewables in solving it, falling back on traditional fossil fuels augmented by a despairing return to fracking as a new solution (sadly destined to fail – the UK does not have suitable geology for fracking, according to the experts).
Variable impact might explain variable priorities
But these people are not fools, they can see what we can see, floods, drought, ice melt, searing heat. The privileged few drinking on the terrace of the Houses of Parliament are breathing the same overheated air as the poor patients suffering on the other side of the Thames in St Thomas Hospital. Or are they? This is the crucial point about climate change. It is not the same for everyone. The privileged few can withdraw into air conditioned rooms where they will be kept cool. The suffering poor cannot.
It is worse than that. The south of England is scorching, while the north is pleasantly warm. The increase in the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK was close to a massive 10% rise in one jump. It was not just phenomenal, it was very uncomfortable. The same rise in southern Italy took temperatures to 48 degrees in Sicily. It was not just uncomfortable, it was unbearable. The same rise in Scotland saw record temperatures of 35 degrees. Was it unbearable or uncomfortable? Neither. It was more a cause for celebration than lamentation.
This is the crucial point about climate change. It is not the same for everyone. The privileged few can withdraw into air conditioned rooms where they will be kept cool. The suffering poor cannot.
Climate Change is not the same for everyone
Climate Change can be seen as less than critical in direct proportion to the problems it causes. This might be shortsighted, as the problems are set to get worse. But it is a comparative process. Other crises can be seen as more critical in direct proportion to the problems they cause, if these problems are greater than those caused by climate change.
In that context, it might be inhuman to quote numbers, but the Swedish statistics guru, Hans Rosling, provides a useful commentary on natural disasters. He shows how our resistance to natural disasters has become enormously greater in the last century. Natural disasters are consequently not the problem they once were. In the 1930’s the 10-year average annual deaths globally from natural disasters was 453. From 2010-2016, the same figure was 10. The reason for this is obvious. Technology has improved so much in the last century that we are now much better at predicting and protecting ourselves, from sea walls to earthquake-proof high rise buildings, from inflammable structures to central heating. Wherever you look, the world is a much safer place for all, other than those living in extreme poverty. But those too are far less numerous today than they were a century ago. As a percentage, an estimated 50% of the global population was living on less than $2 per day as recently as 1966. By 2017, this had dropped to 9%. It’s still 800 million people, but as Rosling writes, “we humans have finally figured out how to protect ourselves against nature.” (Factfulness, Hans Rosling, pub. Sceptre, p.110)
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, it is instructive to compare events of this nature in the UK. They bear out Hans Rosling’s point quite clearly in terms of safety and the loss of life. Following the Great Storm in England in 1703, deaths were estimated at between 8,000 and 15,000 souls. Following the Great Storm in 1987, it was calculated that 18 lives were lost across the UK. However, if we look at the cost of the damage done, it is another matter. The storm in 1987 was estimated to result in £2 billion claims. This made it the second most expensive UK weather event in history, the most expensive being the Burns Day Storm of 1990.
How to explain wilful blindness
Perhaps the overwhelming point that explains our politicians and our own wilful blindness to Climate Change now and for the last 30 years is the tendency of us all to see disaster approaching and discount it. The concept of Armageddon is at least 2,000 years old, recorded in the Book of Revelation. The Norse legend of Ragnarok, or Gotterdamerung, are older still. The craving for an apocalyptic possibility is as old as we are. We like to be frightened. We play with these ideas, we enjoy them, we treat them as a narrative to scare ourselves and our children. And then we walk away.
We walk away because we cannot see them in our own world and we believe they will not happen. The Cold War was just such an example. Many will not remember the fear of global wipe-out created by this non-event, but it was treated as if the end of the world was nigh. Those of us who lived through it might disagree about their own views, but collectively we got on with life on the basis that it would not happen. A much more trivial recent example of this was the Millenium Bug. It was a wonderful scare story. We were all supposed to come to a grinding halt at midnight on 31st December 1999 as computer settings all over the world failed to register 1st January 2000. Some large multinationals did waste time and money on it, but most of us behaved as if nothing bad was going to happen. And nothing bad did.
Perhaps the overwhelming point that explains our politicians and our own wilful blindness to Climate Change now and for the last 30 years is the tendency of us all to see disaster approaching and discount it.
Why clever people can ignore Climate Change
This exposes another point about our taste for Armageddon. When the reality turns out not to be as frightening as the anticipation, it provides us with the evidence that reinforces our tendency to not believe the next frightening story.
This is perhaps the root of the problem with Climate Change, the media and the politicians, and indeed all of us. We are not climate change deniers, but we don’t really believe it is as frightening as David Attenborough says it is. Is the world really a scary place? Is Climate Change really a dangerous threat? Is the economic crisis going to spell doom for us all? We lump all these questions together and say, No, turn over and go back to sleep.
But this is a terrible mistake. We can do this because we have lived through one of the longest periods of world peace (not universal, of course – pity Ukraine and Syria) combined with technology innovations designed to promote our comfort and safety to levels unimaginable as little as a century ago. It is no accident that population growth has exploded during this period, because we have learned how to keep our babies alive in ways unknown previously throughout the entire history of humanity.
We are not climate change deniers, but we don’t really believe it is as frightening as David Attenborough says it is.
The world is a scary place…
But bad things happen. Bad things have happened throughout history. Bad things continue to happen. And bad things often turn out worse than anyone expected.
The 20th Century was a paradox. It was a technological miracle which brought about a pace and depth of human progress unlike any other century, bringing comfort and prosperity to vast swathes of the global community that previous generations could only dream about. However, arguably the most influential single person, whose existence affected greater numbers of people than any other single human being, was Adolf Hitler. His actions were responsible for reducing large chunks of our world to rubble, and those still standing in 1945 were to suffer the consequences of what he did for decades to come. If you were living in apparent safety, security and stability in the 1920’s, almost anywhere in the world, you were living in a fool’s paradise.
Are we living in one now? Climate Change has not gone away just because Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak told us it had. But how bad is it? The truth is, we don’t know, but we do know that it is bad. There is no need for apocalyptic prophecies. We know it will be bad because it already is bad. That’s what the floods in Pakistan and Ancona are telling us. There is no need for us to consider it as a future Armageddon, it is happening now, and it will get worse. There is every need to treat it as a reality that will affect us all, some more than others, some for the worse, some for the better. There is no need to consider it in terms of mass obliteration or extinction. There is every need for us to treat it as destruction of the world in the shape as we know it. It is not an end or a conclusion. It is an interruption.
If Climate Change does to the world in the 21st Century half the damage Adolf Hitler did to the world in the 20th Century, we are all well advised to take it very seriously indeed. Now.