When do we start to panic?

Are we on the road to The Road? If so, when do I need to start packing my flare gun and tins of beans? [N.B. I started writing this around six weeks ago but for a long time it was too frustrating. I’ve read enough comments on the CiF site to last me a lifetime, and as you’ll probably pick up from this, I feel like strongly held non-expert beliefs contribute hugely to the problem. Anyway, here goes…]

I was never much of an eco-warrior, and in fact I used to be (and maybe still am) quite suspicious of the Green Party. In the 1990s it seemed a strange parochial alliance of crypto-fascist aristocrats and middle-class cranks. When the faces of ecology were people like Zac Goldsmith and John Aspinall, I never felt inclined to take much interest and I followed the ‘better red than green‘ dictum. I was probably wrong to an extent (though not about Goldsmith); the Green Party has moved to the centre of the political debate in recent years by making explicit the need to link the combatting of the environmental crisis with social justice. At the most recent election, the victory of Caroline Lucas in Brighton was one of the (very) few bright spots. To be clear though, I don’t believe the Green Party policy-makers have all the answers, and there are certainly too many assumptions about consensus and collaboration in their rhetoric.

Over the past two or three years I have begun to see the enormity and urgency of the (various) environmental and social problems ahead, and I don’t have the faith in the current system that even the Green Party implicitly displays. What pushed me towards the more pessimistic end of the scale with regard to climate change and food / fuel / water crises were not only the demonstrable trends and evidence-based projections, but the howls of derision these elicit from many (otherwise sensible) people. It’s as if there is a mental block to imagining a future in which everything we currently gorge ourselves on – food, water, electricity, oil – is scarce (I’m not even talking about Global-Terminal scenarios).

My main worry is that people can’t (and/or won’t) imagine even a small change in our lifestyle, and this reluctance means that significant structural changes to society won’t even get talked about, let alone done. It’s not hard for me to imagine though. I read Henry’s Quest when I was tiny, and it always stayed with me; in hindsight it is probably one of the most affecting books I read, even though it’s ‘only’ a fable for children. Now it has never seemed so relevant.

I thought I would begin with three quotes – a summary of the crossroads at which we find ourselves; a précis of the dominant scientific position; and an example of what I consider to be the most serious problem we face:

“There are three ways in which disaster might be avoided. First, the scientific consensus might be wrong […] Second, there might be some as-yet-undiscovered feedback effect that acts to counteract the warming caused by greenhouse gases […] The third way disaster might be avoided is through action. Never before have we, on a planetary scale, so needed to combine pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will.”John Lanchester, writing in 2007

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global sea level… most of the observed increase in temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely* due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.” IPCC Report AR4

“It reminds me of all the nutters who predicted the world would end in 2000. As the time drew near, they stopped making their predictions. Sure, everyone is for recycling, against pollution and wants to avoid waste, but these alarmist and pointless predictions are just putting people off.”commentator ‘HeyPeople’ at guardian.co.uk

Regarding Lanchester’s list of options, clearly most people (if they have even thought about it) are pinning their colours to 1) or 2), the faith-based solutions. This is demonstrated nicely by ‘HeyPeople’, though maybe he/she is just a contrary so-and-so. How to deal with that very prevalent attitude though? Here is the conundrum: if you don’t shout “we’re all going to die, really soon!” then people don’t even listen, as imperceptible abstract dangers are not easily comprehensible. But if you do shout something like that (or indeed something a lot milder/less apocalyptic), you get ‘HeyPeople’ and the like asking you not to be such a Debbie Downer.

Panic Stations

So how worried should we be? Frank Fenner, working on a mixed discipline basis, thinks we will soon be extinct, possibly within a hundred years. He invokes the ‘overreach’ explanation used in Jared Diamond’s excellent Collapse, seeing the global overcrowding and resource mismanagement as a sort of Easter Island situation writ large. Likewise, James Lovelock’s latest apocalyptic predictions are that it is too late to do anything to combat climate change, and because the effects are so unpredictable, we should simply enjoy however many years we have left as a civilization as “we aren’t clever enough yet” to do anything about it. I’m working off the IPCC predictions, conservative as they are; if Lovelock is right, the consequences are twenty years of life followed by a decimation. Lovelock reckons the Chinese will survive (in Africa), South-East Asians will inundate Australia, Russians will all have to move to Siberia and Americans (he oddly specifies white Americans) will move north into Canada. Britain, he claims, will benefit from the end of the Gulf Stream. As you can imagine, the motives underpinning his views have been questioned.

The endgame is impossible to forecast at this stage, so the focus must be on the ‘tipping point’. According to the Guardian – using conservative estimates based on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – we should have been panicking already for two years, as we are already 26 months into their well-intentioned (if somewhat arbitrary and much-derided) “100 Months to Save the World” feature. After that period – and discounting the silly rhetorical round number – if current trends continue (and there is no sign yet that they will do anything other than get much worse), we will cross the threshold into feedback-affected climate change, a situation in which human intervention will not be able to counterbalance runaway processes such as the melting of (previously) permanent ice sheets. (While there are a couple of feedback loops which are expected to act as a brake on global warming, the vast majority will serve as accelerators). So why are so few people worried? 2009 saw a fall in the number of Americans who were moderately or seriously concerned by climate change. Their improved outlook was followed by the hottest year in recorded history (s0 far). How does this disconnect persist?

Partly because of articles like this one. Each time a crooked politician is paid by the oil industry to rubbish climate change, to imply that there is no scientific consensus, to bring out the one or two (sometimes peer-discredited) reports which say everything is fine, thousands of people hear precisely what they were so desperate to hear: that they should stop worrying and stick their heads back in the sand. (Actually, the message is not ‘stop worrying’ but ‘keep spending’, but there are niceties to observe). The ‘normalisation’ of climate change, in other words. This is not to say there is consensus on the precise causes, mechanisms or best solutions to climate change. Not even close. But it reasonable to surmise that however it came about, we are set to enter a period of accelerating climate change to which we are not adapting remotely fast enough. The problem is that things like the ‘Hockey Stick Graph’ debate (or the recent fuss over whether Bjørn Lomborg was a sceptic or not) have hijacked the attention of interested parties to the extent that nobody is informing the public anymore, instead focussing on internecine ideological (yes, more ideological than intellectual, and on both sides sometimes) battles.

Many libertarians fear the veracity of climate change too, as it will likely need strongly state-directed solutions, thus undermining the most wide-ranging political philosophy in the West, liberal individualism. (In fact, this lends a Cold War quality to much of the debate – e.g. “The “green” movement is interesting only in the sense that the British version of it was founded by Mosletite [sic] fascists and is now supported mainly by “ex-“communists. They hate the west and will use any means they can to undermimne [sic] its economic advantages.”) For all the attempts to slow global warming through voluntarism and personal action – some committed, some half-arsed – people would rather pretend it’s not happening at all than do something big about it (not just on climate change, but on food supply too). I can sympathise. I haven’t given up beef yet, though I keep meaning to. I still sometimes fail to recycle. I fly far too much (though I do pay for offset, whatever that really means, and I am aiming to have done two 2000-mile plus journeys by land over the next year). These things need to stop and I, for one, would appreciate the guiding hand of government (and it need only be guiding); and certainly not cuts to government-directed green policies.

This is not only because I feel people need such guidance. Just as importantly, it should not be left only to strong-willed volunteers to make sacrifices, because if only a few people do so they will have reduced their own quality of life, and for what? A common argument made by extreme sceptics is that people shouldn’t have the right to voice their concerns about the issue without themselves giving up car and plane journeys, meat etc. I think that’s utter nonsense – we live in a society, from which almost everyone is happy to reap the many benefits, so why should this issue be treated as one for six billion individuals to each face alone? (That said, I will be redoubling my personal efforts in order not to be a terrible hypocrite, which admittedly is a different concern.)

The NIMBY Frontline

Even among people who accept the need for immediate action there is a reluctance to countenance any alterations to longstanding ways of life. Let us begin in charming Ladbroke, a village which is expected to provide the focal point of protests against the High Speed 2 rail project. The opponents of the proposed rail line rely on two main arguments: reduced quality of life due to either the proximity or appearance of the railway; and reduced value of property resulting from this. The latter, sure, I can sympathise, and as long as we have a property-based society people need to be adequately compensated for this sort of thing. The former, though, leaves me unmoved. There is no right to live in one place one’s whole life. Equally there is no right to have the same view from one’s window forever. Society changes, the landscape changes, and we have to get by. This adaptation should be made as easy and painless as possible, but for me the debate should never come down to whether a new railway goes a bit near your house or not, but rather with the building of a railway near your house, should you decide to stay put and accept some ‘quality of life’ compensation, or to move somewhere more fitting with your expectations. (There isn’t enough room on earth for everyone to have a suburban semi-detached house with a big garden – this must always be remembered).

recent research project at the University of Birmingham has shown that wind farm planners are increasingly looking away from on-land developments precisely because of opposition from (in the main) wealthy local residents. One of the most blood-boiling moments in “The Age of Stupid” concerns the battle to set up a wind-farm in the home counties, which is predictably crushed by (crudely) a group of well-to-do locals led by a woman who is worried about her house price. Despite Al Gore calling for civil disobedience to prevent new ‘dirty’ hydrocarbon plants being built, the trajectory of the battle is pointing in the wrong direction: instead of civil society using its collective power to prevent the further worsening of our prospects, small groups of civilians are actively aiding and abetting the traditional energy industry by waging a selfish war on progress.

Here we have the frontline in the battle between those who accept the fact of climate change, and those who either do not accept it, or feel it is subordinate to such bathetic concerns as a drop in house prices. I don’t believe that the future of humanity will be decided in Copenhagen or Bali by twenty (mostly) white (mostly) men who have been mandated to concede as little as possible. It will be fought and (almost certainly) lost on the fields of middle England (and analogous fields the world over), between a minority who are keen to make pre-emptive sacrifices and a majority who would rather put their fingers in their ears than do without what have come to be seen as necessities. Incidentally, and something I will come back to when I write about “Mad Men” in a few weeks, there is a strong link between the profusion of the idea (through advertising) of a ‘right’ or ‘need’ for non-essential products and the reluctance or inability to face even brief periods of scarcity.

While I am not, of course, arguing that a new train line or a few wind farms in a part of the United Kingdom will tip the climate change process in one direction or the other, there is a direct correlation here: as long as ultimate responsibility for environmental policy is being passed to local arbiters, this is where the parameters of Britain’s contribution will be defined, and the future of carbon policy is one of few policy areas where Britain can claim to be a global leader. And as long as those local arbiters accept that the material concerns of a very small number of people (concerns which may not be ‘cashed in’ for twenty years or more) trump the needs (and I use the word ‘needs’ deliberately) of a society to make urgent and wide-ranging changes in order to survive in any recognisable form.

What is happening, and what may happen

To coincide with the Copenhagen summit last year, the Royal Society put out a brief statement regarding climate change. Unlike the IPCC, the Royal Society cannot be accused of having a pre-existing agenda on climate change. The report is objective, representative and politically neutral. It is also pretty disturbing. It concentrates on some of the more easily verifiable IPCC claims, but the section on adaptation caught my eye most sharply, underlining the need for not only global cooperation but global governance on this issue:

“As climate change will have the greatest impacts on the poor, any global agreement should properly support the adaptation and development of vulnerable countries and communities through sufficient finance, technology transfers and capacity building. Critical adaptation considerations include agriculture and forestry, which will require substantial investment to maintain or increase productivity as air temperatures increase, rainfall patterns change and the frequency of extreme weather events alter.”

The IPCC, on the other hand, is a bit of an odd thing. Its cycle of reporting means that some conclusions/projections are quickly out of date – within months of the publication of AR4 (and notwithstanding the criticisms of IPCC alarmism) there were many accusations that it was too optimistic. Recent scholarly papers suggest that the situation is actually far worse – this one particularly tackles some of the outcomes we might expect: the revised probabilities are deeply worrying since the two degree rise is by now virtually certain. In terms of concrete predictions, scientists are still somewhat coy, but the AR4 Report (which is the most recent one by the IPCC and will remain current until 2013/14 when AR5 is published) lists the following as known current trends:

  • Greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing
  • Earth is becoming substantially (and increasingly rapidly) warmer
  • Northern hemisphere ice masses are shrinking/melting
  • Sea levels are rising, and increasingly rapidly
  • Extreme weather events (especially North Atlantic hurricanes) are increasingly frequent

There is also evidence of ocean acidification and warming – the effect of ocean warming has not really been talked about much (other than in the context of causing rising sea levels), but since colder seas are much richer in life, I would think that there will be serious consequences for bio-habitats too.

Regarding sea-level rises, stopping this process would be nigh on impossible; instead an urgent plan for adaptation is necessary. Where there is uncertainty about this, it is only on one side as this report makes clear: sea rises cannot now be less than their recent predictions, only (potentially much) more. The frequency of freak ‘high sea level events’ is expected to increase a hundred-fold in vulnerable locations. Not even factoring in melting ice, mean sea levels will rise by one or two feet; the data on ice melt was deemed too uncertain to include but that would be in the range of two to seven metres.

The polar ice sheets are, of course, already suffering considerable deterioration. Only a few weeks ago a chunk of ice four times the size of Manhattan (with enough fresh water to supply the U.S. for 120 days!) snapped off and began drifting, though with a bit of luck it may end up acting as a ‘plug’. If the giant sea ice sheets melt and cause metres of sea rise, the consequences can be guessed at by having a look at this. Even a 1m rise would see large areas of eastern England flooded. Britain gets off lightly – the Netherlands would be gone, the Nile delta would be inundated, Venice is in big trouble, and places like New Jersey and Long Island would be a lot smaller.

Check out this graphic, relating to sea ice retreat and focussed on the summer of 2007. The fascinating thing for me is the interconnectivity between the ice retreat and (on the other tabbed graphics) pressure, temperature, cloud cover and solar heating. It demonstrates how when these phenomena align they multiply their effects; not a feedback loop as such, but a more nebulous grouping of negative consequences.

Forecasts and scenarios

This is the hottest year (so far) since records began, and scientists hope that this will help persuade people of the veracity of long-term temperature rises. It has been difficult, they argue, to convince people of global warming when Washington, London, Paris and Berlin all suffered brutally cold winters – despite the fact that the northern hemisphere had a relatively mild winter, opinion formers in capital cities got pretty chilly, and scoffed in the face of the climate change evidence. Context is everything. In Russia, where climate change has had contradictory effects which have defied adequate explanation, the more optimistic forecast has almost removed global warming from the agenda. Furthermore, the first evidence suggesting concrete links between increasingly frequent extreme weather events and climate change has been published; while the long, slow and irregular warming is very hard to anecdotally pick up on, I’m sure everyone has noticed the extremes of heat and cold in the last few years. If they can be concretely proven to have resulted from climate change perhaps people will find it easier to take notice.

The more I hear and read, the more I have come to believe that while the ruling generation understand the nature of the problem, they don’t appreciate its scale, its urgency, or the enormous changes in political and economic command structures needed if large-scale disasters are to be avoided. I wonder if the truth is just too awful for people to comprehend, and whether the huge changes which are going to have to happen are too traumatic for most people to imagine – whether they are changes which ensure survival or precipitate disaster, they are going to be monumental.

Caroline Lucas at least talks about radical reform to the economic system, but even she sees a corrected system not fundamentally different to that which is currently failing – just a greener version of it, albeit much greener. “Business has a key role to play” is going to be the platitude that sinks the ship. There is simply no way that a market-driven solution can work when a) there is no factored-in environmental cost to goods and b) the definition of what constitutes a ‘common’ good is so flexible.

Anyway, my own personal forecast seems to hover somewhere around “Year of the Flood”; a few more years of carelessness, and we will be lucky to get away with a “Children of Men”-style scenario; and if things go badly wrong “The Road” is just as plausible. You might think I’m being daft, measuring gloomy future possibilities against works of fiction; however, these types of books and films are perfectly valid as aids to the human imagination with regard to our collective fate. “Day of the Triffids”, “Brave New World” and “1984” all play similar roles, though the changes undergone by society since their writing makes the detail a little anachronistic. That takes only a little imagination to overcome, and it is in the entirely believable descriptions of human behaviour that the value of these books lies. Furthermore, all the while politicians and media barons either avoid or, worse still, actively sabotage the discussion of our future as a species, we will need to draw upon the imaginations of those who have bothered to think these scenarios through.

In Terminal Denial

This recent article discusses the tendency of human beings to take a reactive approach to catastrophes, rather than either to undertake preventative measures or to make survival plans should the worst occur. There is a long-studied psychological basis for this, though that hasn’t stopped someone making a climate change denial iPhone App. When Andrew Simms published his first entry of the “100 Months to Save the World” feature, he wrote this about the public response: “Many worried that in drawing attention to such a stark reality, the consequence would be a disabling sense of powerlessness.” This is really peculiar, but it fits with my anecdotal experience of talking to people about the mid-term future. Whenever the possibility (probability?) of the complete eradication of society-as-we-know-it comes up, the stock response is “it doesn’t bear thinking about.” Which may be true, but if so, people are going to have to get off their backsides to an unprecedented degree or they will have to think about it for as long as they manage to last. By ignoring the possibility, all we are doing is reserving front-row seats to watch the apocalypse unfold, however slowly it happens and however much the wealth of our nations can palliate its effects.

This blog entry by Canadian MP Brian Gordon is really interesting in this regard (and generally worth a read), because he accepts the science and the gloomy predictions, then – with a strange detachment – asks “what would you do if you knew the world was going to end in 20-40 years?” The “if” is the (self-?) denial signifier, and if Green MPs aren’t willing to state that there is a 90% chance that in less than two generations much of the world is going to be largely (and increasingly) uninhabitable, then we’re in even more trouble than I thought. I would also point to the incredibly enraged and bilious comments which any online newspaper article on climate change draws. You get things like this – “it seems to me that the biggest threat to human life as we know it is Greenpeace” – which might elicit a smug titter from someone with a ‘real job’ and ‘real things to worry about’, but does such wrongheaded arrogance do anything other than speed our decline?

Some people compare concern about climate change with millenarianism; the apocalyptic claims of imminent destruction bring to mind the ravings of Fifth Monarchists and so forth. It’s hardly a fair comparison though. People flocked to millenarian cults because they promised an eternal life in paradise. The only reward for those (few) who are looking at the overwhelming evidence that we’re up the creek – and accepting it – is to be given the label of Cassandra. A common slur (particularly from Christopher Booker) is that the climate change lobby is just a scam to extract money from gullible governments and voters. I don’t know where this idea comes from, but if throwing the piddling amounts money we do at research of renewables gives us a chance to survive a potential global catastrophe, why would I complain when I know that much, much more money (in terms of tax breaks, dodgy contracts, ) is extracted by the big oil companies (whose motives for sabotaging the debate are far more obvious).

This detailed piece on Louisiana post-BP disaster is worth the read, because it shows every link in the chain. The demands of a market economy cannot be tamed by goodwill alone, so here we have ample illustration of a market failure with a clear space for aggressive state intervention. This sentence is really shocking: “Horrendous as the spreading oil is, the overall effect on the environment – more climate change – would have been even more irreversibly destructive had the stuff been collected and burned as planned.” Wait, so the blowout might end up causing less net damage than no blowout!? Whether that is empirically true or not (and it’s probably impossible to tell), the fact that it is even plausible is depressingly instructive.

And here’s an important bit that will be easily ignored: “the disaster furthers the arguments for moving away from a carbon economy sooner by putting on display how grotesque these systems – gigantic offshore rigs, drills that go miles below the deep ocean floor – are even when they work.” Even before the blowout there were enormous environmental and erosion problems in the Gulf. This is not a freak event in anything other than scale; it’s just the logical conclusion of the extractive industry.

Faith in Market Democracy

I am staggered by the number of rational, intelligent people whose response to the whole topic of climate change is “markets will adapt to deal with it.” People who scoff at the idea of religious faith demonstrate just such a blind commitment to the benevolent soul of a (by definition) soulless system. Why would this be the case? Nobody has ever claimed the invisible hand is connected to an invisible heart (okay, there is a book called The Invisible Heart but it is not making that point).

Nor are there signs that the technology we are developing will provide serious solutions to environmental problems. The following appears in the Royal Society pamphlet:

“The deliberate removal of GHGs from the atmosphere (negative emissions) may eventually be necessary to help reduce atmospheric GHG concentrations towards pre- industrial levels or to counteract residual emissions from, for example, agricultural activity, which may be impossible to eliminate. However, no technologies for doing so have yet been demonstrated to be effective and economically, socially and environmentally sustainable at the scale likely to be required. Such technologies cannot be considered as alternatives to emissions reductions.”

This also applies to CCS technology (Carbon Capture and Storage, or sometimes Sequestration), which a lot of people are banking on. It has been criticised for a number of years as a pie-in-the-sky solution, but since there is estimated to be enough coal around for another forty years of extraction, both the U.S. and Germany are pinning their hopes on “clean coal”. It must be borne in mind that coal is pretty much the dirtiest fuel we currently use. There seems to me a huge logical fallacy in trying to clean the dirtiest option (which is also both dangerous to extract and much more scarring than a row of windmills) instead of turning towards clean, renewable options.

Another conclusion I have reluctantly drawn is that personal action is never going to be enough. Virtuous and helpful it may well be, on a small scale, but it should only be undertaken in addition to society-level changes, not in their stead. Again, from John Lanchester:

“It is a good thing to choose to pollute less, to ride a bicycle and take the train and turn down the thermostat, and to fit low-energy lightbulbs, but there is a serious risk that these activities will come to seem an end in themselves, a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change. They aren’t. The changes that are needed are global and structural, and anything which distracts attention from that is potentially damaging.”

Leaving Earth?

Now we are in seemingly crazy territory, but stick with me. If we get through the next hundred years but have made the earth uninhabitable (for whatever reason), we will have to look outward. John Wyndham saw us leaving Earth to escape the consequences of nuclear war. When he was writing, the idea of greenhouse gases causing global warming was already known, but can hardly have seemed pressing next to the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. But climate change may accomplish what nuclear war (thankfully) never had the chance to.

The options for flight to another planet are currently far from viable – while SpaceX is developing systems designed to colonise Mars, most private entrepreneurs are focussing on short-haul flights to the edge of the atmosphere or just beyond. While some useful technology might come out of this, it is not offering a significant boost to either deep space travel or colonisation, the two facets of space travel which might actually help the human race in the long term. The U.S. government has taken the odd decision to cut NASA’s budget for exploration while subsidising commercial traffic to low orbit (to the tune of $6bn).

But hopefully it won’t come to this.

Planning for the Apocalypse (and hoping for something milder…)

Mike Davis wrote this piece, entitled “Who Will Build The Ark?”, earlier this year. It is subscription-only, but I will quote extensively from it because it is one of the most provocative and thoughtful – yet ultimately realistic – pieces of writing on the future that I have seen. It is divided into two halves – the first (‘Pessimism of the Intellect’) surveys the existing evidence, dating back more or less to Kyoto, about which he has the following to say: “The Kyoto Protocol, in the smug but sadly accurate words of one of its chief opponents, has done ‘nothing measurable’ about climate change. Global carbon dioxide emissions rose by the same amount they were supposed to fall because of it.” The second (‘Optimism of the Imagination’) brings together examples of “the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias”, the sum of which he hopes might provide a possible route to a civilization-level survival.

Essentially, Davis sees only two possible outcomes for humanity. First, and fairly similar to James Lovelock’s earlier forecasts, the survival of a relatively small number (between 500m and 1000m) of people, determined largely by wealth. This rump of humanity would be able to afford to continue living more or less as we do now, only in heavily-armed, gated communities which are designed to keep out the slowly dying masses. This sounds like Margaret Attwood’s vision of the future, but having lived in Mexico City it doesn’t seem so far away. Middle class houses must be turned into fortresses or ‘lost’; even short trips to the supermarket a couple of blocks away are made in locked cars; the majority of one’s fellow residents are demonised by the press, becoming an internal ‘other’. In this paper, Angela Giglia notes that the word ‘communities’ rather loses its meaning when preceded by ‘gated’, since the level of communal activity inside is often minimal. Rather, they are collectives of individuals and families who have banded together to securitise their existence. Doesn’t that strike you as a huge backward step for mankind? This is the sort of thing we did hundreds of years ago. Perhaps when society was progressing we fortified to keep out raiders, and now, on the way down, we are doing to the same to keep out our neighbours.

The second option is the preservation of modern society (and the bulk of the human population) by the building of (essentially) ‘arks’; eco-cities with efficient buildings, beautiful shared green spaces, excellent public transport and “egalitarian public services”. By reducing ghettoisation and democratising access to facilities, cities could (simply, if not cheaply) become much more pleasant living environments for all their residents.

Davis’ approach demonstrates the necessarily political heart of this battle. Because radical environmental solutions are tied to redistribution of public goods, the right has a huge short-term incentive to skewer the green movement. This also suggests that it will be difficult to win high-wealth individuals to the environmental cause (at least in any serious way – I don’t mean throwing a few thousand, a few million even, at the problem; I mean showing the willingness to compromise on one’s entire way of life for the wider good of society.) When Davis asserts that “the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth”, it is easy to see why we find old political battles being fought in this (nominally scientific) arena.

Most of all, Davis encourages us to think big. The cliched battle cry of “demand the impossible” has never been so relevant (for, after all, hasn’t the politics of the possible been entirely discredited?). He concludes his article thus:

“If this sounds like a sentimental call to the barricades, an echo from the classrooms, streets and studios of forty years ago, then so be it; because on the basis of the evidence before us, taking a ‘realist’ view of the human prospect, like seeing Medusa’s head, would simply turn us into stone.”

What is to be done?

There are two things here, really: first, my impossible idealistic utopia, which would rescue humanity from the jaws of doom, and lay down the roots of a better future society. Britain could take the lead by introducing a medium-term plan to successively nationalise water, transport, telecommunications, energy and subsoil resources. (I’ll leave out land in this context, though it is a personal favourite.) If that sounds dangerously radical, perhaps it is (within the current microscopic parameters of political discourse), but on the other hand, it’s more or less what we had only thirty years ago. With national control of both the resources and tools of society, we’d be in a much better position to introduce and enforce big changes. If it seems like a backward move, it may well be; but it would be a backward move to a safer place, a redoubt which is smaller, perhaps a little poorer overall, but secure, easier to manage and more equal. Other countries with stronger étatiste traditions might follow suit with grassroots pressure to follow a working example.

However, getting the popular support for what would effectively be the eradication of three decades of neoliberal politics may be deemed a little unrealistic. As such, I just want something that will give a little bit of hope; an indication that the brakes are truly going on, and that rules and regulations cannot so easily be bypassed. Some rough ideas for a ‘minimum programme’ might include:

1) In terms of tackling emissions, an immediate introduction of personal carbon allowance. Limited transferability with remuneration. (e.g. total air miles per person per year = 10,000, or roughly one return transoceanic crossing. No more than three short haul divisions of the total due to greater environmental impact of take off and landing.) Fixed price regulated market for sale between individuals and/or corporations.

2) Using the above, as well as road pricing and a huge refocus on public ground transport, to set strict targets for significant reductions in both air and car travel. Abolition within five years of domestic (i.e. within the island of Great Britain) commercial flights, contingent on reopening of branch rail lines, greatly accelerated building of high speed rail [between London and a) Birmingham-Manchester/Liverpool, b)Leeds-Newcastle-Edinburgh-Glasgow and c) Bristol-Cardiff] as well as the subsidising of more frequent and cheaper rural bus services, and improved urban mass transport. Of course, all emissions are not equal. Research shows that some of the pollutants in shipping emissions act as brakes on global warming. They are still pollutants, but this side effect might be leveraged into a decent transitional policy for freight traffic.

3) Twin-track energy policy, with a) the immediate introduction of a phased decommissioning of all fossil fuel plants and their replacement by renewable energy generation plants (diversified across wind, solar, tidal/kinetic, wave and biomass) plus the cessation of new hydrocarbon exploration and b) the interim construction of fixed-life nuclear plants to facilitate the transition. Not ideal of course, but there needs to be a steady and relatively non-polluting supply for the transition to a post-carbon energy grid. Andrew Simms thinks that it is too late for a switch to nuclear (even temporarily); he highlights a reasonably convincing SDC study which claims it wouldn’t even be necessary, but I’m not so sure. I think a blackout of anything more than two or three days would lead to riots, in Britain at least. [As a concrete example, with a projected output of 10MW, the would need to be an array of 50-100 of these newly-designed giant ‘sycamore’ generators to replace each coal-fired power station. They are expensive, and moreso than their land-based equivalents, so in all likelihood a dual approach of vast offshore arrays where possible augmented by less stringent planning laws (to combat rampant NIMBYism) on land.]

4) The construction of new sustainable cities in well-connected locations, based on pedestrian/cycle and public transport and mixed residential/commercial/industrial/leisure districts. (Perhaps not as ‘out there’ as this, but at least utilising the best technology available to achieve low-footprint, high-capacity and – importantly – aesthetically pleasing buildings. And people are really thinking about this stuff – this site has proposals for carfree cities that are pretty close to how I imagine them). Not to facilitate population growth, but to allow the rational redistribution of population along more sustainable grounds (including movement of large numbers of persons from unsustainable parts of nearby cities). Obvious candidates would be the gap between Derby and Nottingham, sites on the M4 and M62 corridors, and somewhere between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

5) Staggered closure of Heathrow, City and Gatwick airports (Heathrow site would be ideal for a new, sustainable, high-density eco-development); their replacement with an offshore airport in the Thames Estuary catering to around 2/3 of the combined current capacity of all three. Perhaps something similar could be done between Glasgow and Edinburgh, where it seems absurd to have three airports serving two cities which are only 45 mins apart (combined with a high-speed rail link, that might go down rather well – twenty minutes between the two cities and only ten each to the airport?).

6) Meat rationing (sharp intake of breath). Eating meat, and above all beef, is as emission-heavy as driving a car. While enforced vegetarianism wouldn’t go down too well with a lot of people – and I do like a good fry up – the cutting of meat rations to two portions per week (or so) would have a hugely beneficial effect (as well as tangential health rewards). Again, this is hardly as radical as it might initially seem; many people in Britain can remember rationing, and though difficult, it was seen generally as a necessary hardship. In this era we have an infinitely wider selection of non-meat options too – we wouldn’t need to be eating dried egg and black bread.

7) Large subsidies for domestic holidays using public transport. The option of a week in expensive St.Ives or on hard-to-reach Mull could be opened to hundreds of thousands of families if transport there was subsidised, and while there would doubtless be hoops to go through regarding competition law, the boost to the national tourist economy would be enormous.

Anyway, I’m just throwing ideas out. There are millions of people who know far more about this sort of thing than I do, but I just wanted to give my impressions of how I see the trajectory both of the known situation and of the associated political debate.

I feel like there will come a point where it is made explicit that the choice people have is between a change in their current life habits and their continued existence full stop. The longer it is left, the more that change will be a painful sacrifice. And if people really do have the opinion that to cut back on driving, air travel, electricity consumption and so forth would render life ‘not worth living’ – which I have heard from people in unguarded moments – then they really ought to do the decent thing, and let the rest of us try to muddle on, getting the best out of our limited resources while trying to preserve as much of our cultural heritage as is possible.

*Just for clarity, in scientific terms “very likely” means a probability of between 90% and 95%. I fear that the scientific vocabulary used to describe probability might be a significant factor in ‘allowing’ people to cling to the idea that it may all be a myth. I don’t think most people would equate “very likely” with such overwhelming odds. We are a species of gamblers and self-deluders, and “very likely” allows a great deal more scope for denial than the bald numerical approach. Incidentally, the other probability terminologies are listed here, though I believe there might be a mistake and 60% should be 66%.

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Published in: on September 13, 2010 at 12:35 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. good blog, continue writing please


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