I have tried to remain alert to the fact that the people, events, and forces described … carry in them the seeds of other, perhaps less terrible futures.
C Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable.
T Schelling, Pearl Harbour: Warning and Decision
During the more normal of times, the world was always awash with commentators, newspaper columnists, bloggers et al providing their take on current affairs and often with a deficit of originality. It is hard. There is only so much news. Whether you are writing on a student forum or for The Times of London it is likely the kernel of your argument has already been enunciated elsewhere, with greater clarity and in more perfect prose.
This may be such an instance. The topic of this piece is the ever-present and escalating threat of anthropogenic climate change. A topic rightfully written about ad infinitum during the normalcy of slowly rising global temperatures, and, despite the black-hole like distraction of this pandemic, with all non-COVID 19 news being sucked into its orbit and never seen or heard from again, to a certain extent a clever literary device keeps ‘the climate crisis’ from this fate; the Coronavirus Comparator.
To give a short, OED style definition of this currently omnipresent trope of climate change related opinion pieces:
A method by which a writer of an op-ed piece may describe events or forces unrelated to the Coronavirus pandemic to emphasise the significance or transformative impact of said event
~ The Blitz Comparator
The invocation of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ or the imagined memory of Britain in the second world war to evidence the significance of an event or the exceptionalism of the British people; the preserve of Tory politicians and Daily Mail columnists often resulting in unintentional and non-sensical juxtapositions; e.g. Brexit
However, it would be quite arrogant to dismiss the comparative approach. Such a methodology can yield quite fruitful observations in relation to our response to climate change as compared to Covid-19.
Following years of inaction to pre-empt climate change, and now to ameliorate its worst-case scenarios, the current lockdown in which half of the world’s population find themselves does indeed demonstrate, as Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times writes, that
“Drastic, previously unthinkable changes in our way of life are perfectly possible - when we are persuaded that the threat we face is right here, right now.”
While the seriousness of climate change is often noted it does not instil the response we are engaged in against the more immediate viral threat.
If … people could be convinced that the seriousness of the threat from Climate Change necessitated as transformative a response as we are currently engaged in, and action was initiated today.
If … as was the intention at the time, further ratcheting up of the nationally determined contributions to reduce Green House Gas emissions contained in the Paris agreement signed 5 years ago occurred and corresponding policies were undertaken with sincerity and vigour throughout the world.
If … we act in a way alien to our nature and unfamiliar to any person that has ever studied the history of the annual UN Climate Change COPs (Conference of the Parties) from which no comprehensive agreement to successfully deal with the existential threat has emerged.
We would succeed in limiting the impact of climate change to an annual loss of life on par with what we will witness during this pandemic.
In 2014, the World Health Organisation, who’s every word any responsible government now hangs upon, estimated that climate change would lead to about 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050, from among other things, malnutrition, heat stress and malaria.
I don’t profess to know the future but will nevertheless try my hand at optimistic clairvoyance this one time, casting a projection for 10 years in the future: 2030. Having somehow fulfilled the three conditional assertions above, I and many others, on a comparatively warmer April evening will switch on to the evening news. On that evening and on many other occasions of that year, we will watch as reporters stand in scenes of misery to tell of the horrors of drought, flood, famine, pestilence, disease, mass migration and the general human misery associated with (what is now labelled a “conservative estimate” due to our continued inaction) 250,000 deaths a year. We mightn’t much care.
Before the Coronavirus had consumed our attention completely (itself, of course, a picture of horrifying sadness) we bore witness to tales of famine and flood with little emotive response. We sit and eat our dinner to this stuff. However, in 2030, the reporter will comment at the end of the reel on the rareness of such events in extremis and assert that it is undoubtedly due to man-made climate change. But having acted in such admirably unprecedented form to strike the global deal that secured progressive decarbonisation that was in its 10th year of implementation, we could be somewhat comforted that we had limited the misery to such levels – let’s call this the 1.5-degree mark i.e. global temperatures will only rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.
Now back to reality. On our current carbon emitting trajectory, by 2100 global temperatures are projected to rise by somewhere between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius. A 2.5-degree difference between the worst and best-case scenarios does not sound like much but where would our current path take us by the end of this century? In the equatorial belt, latitudes encompassing the northern half of South America, the Central African countries and parts of India, Indochina and Australasia will become inhabitable for much of the year. The Saharan deserts will expand across the Mediterranean into Southern Europe desiccating countries such as Spain, France, Italy and Greece. Coral Reefs, shellfish and plankton will be entirely wiped out by the rising acidity and without prey the populations of larger sea life will rapidly decline and collapse.
In this most likely of futures, in the years beyond 2030 as we grow older and bear witness to the calamity we have inflicted upon ourselves and future generations, the scenes depicted on our televisions screens in the most optimistic of scenarios will be much closer to home. The horrors of drought, flood, famine, pestilence, disease, mass migration will affect personally even us in the most developed nations of the western world. If you think that the desiccation of Spain is sad for the Spanish but ok for us, then I fear you are a hopeless case that will not gauge how deeply global warming will affect you individually until it is too late.
We will have bequeathed our grandchildren a dystopian nightmare which if granted to us would leave us cursing our predecessors to hell if they had not already created it here on Earth. I hope then you can see that our current situation does not do the ‘climate crisis’ justice in any sense of the scale of suffering, as horrible as it is. The two optimistic quotations that prefaced this piece, taken as they are from texts on the world wars of the 20th-century, coupled with the Blitz Spirit jibe may have already given away what I think may be a more appropriate comparator; War.
A scale of suffering and loss coupled with an unnerving and continued persistence to win against astronomical odds provide a better reference point with which each and every one of us can understand our role in facing down the climate catastrophe we exist within. Rather than a shutting down of the global economy for a space of weeks or months are challenge will be to permanently restructure it in its entirety. We will be required not to stay at home and rely on our creature comforts for solace but to live our lives in a way with far fewer material goods. It is quite difficult to describe in such a short piece how our attention to this issue will transform every aspect of our lives.
To give a final glimpse of what are most optimistic future resembles and the transformative response that it will require, the following two paragraphs are quoted in full from Climate-Challenged Society, a book that is a must-read if this article has spurred your interest at all. It paints a sobering picture:
Economies would be based on solar, wind, and other renewable technologies, rather than fossil fuels. They would have moved beyond material flows that require constantly throwing things away (perhaps recycling a portion), to an economy of fewer but more durable goods. While poor people would still be attending to basic material needs, the relatively rich would find happiness in cultural, social, intellectual activities that consume little energy, no longer establishing their identities by stuff they own and consume (that is, they would be post-materialists).
In spite of these responses, climate change would still be taking place, driven by historic build-up of green house gases in the atmosphere, which will have been significantly slowed but still far from being in decline. People would be continually adapting to the further dynamics of climate change (some would be migrating). Coastal communities would be dealing with the half-matter rise in sea level while anticipating up to another meter before sea level stabilises in 2250 or so. Farmers would have developed strategies to cope with more frequent extreme weather and increasing temperatures. Biologists would be assisting critical species to help them move with the changing climate or otherwise adapt to avoid extinction. In spite of an abundance of immediate problems, people would also be looking 50 to 100 years ahead and crafting their current efforts so that each generation will be thankful for the decisions made by generations prior.
John Dryzek, Richard Norgaard and David Schlosberg
Be in no doubt, this is a war that if lost will mean to the end of civilisation as we know it. Thanks to the complacency of our forebears and the inaction of the current global leadership we now face a challenge far greater than it needed to be. It will require you, the individual that this article has not bored to extent that you stopped reading a few paragraphs above, to make great sacrifices in the way you live your life. It will require a restructuring of society as we know it and will affect everyone (including those comrades who succumbed to apathy after reading the first paragraph of this piece).
At the preliminary negotiations for what would be the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the first international agreement to curb carbon emissions with the hope and the then real possibility that climate change could be avoided altogether.
At that time and place in history, where those 250,000 souls of 2030 could have been saved, President George H. W. Bush felt confident enough to assert that “the American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period”. A comment echoed by the inaction of Western leaders ever since and most especially by the current American President.
Well, almost 30 years later I feel confident that the most appropriate reply, in the most inappropriate language absent from any op-ed piece, blog post or column commenting on the urgent need for action to the immediate and direct threat of climate change is;
“We are in a war. It f**king better be.”
Cathal Mullan is a 22-year-old postgraduate student at Queen’s University Belfast. Having graduated with a degree in Law with Politics, he is currently studying for a Masters in Human Rights Law. Cathal is interested in, and has written widely on, politics, environmental issues and human rights law, policy and practice.