NO PLANET B: AN UPDATE
There has been a sea change recently in how the effects of global warming on the Earth’s climate are perceived, with the world’s media and public opinion now seized of the seriousness of the issue, which has moved centre stage in recent weeks. This has less to do with the solemn pontifications of world politicians at the latest UN Climate Summit, nor indeed to the youth demonstrations and protests spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, though these last have certainly helped dramatize and publicise matters.
More important has been the growing evidence of the accelerating pace with which glaciers and icecaps are melting and, above all, the awesome spectacle of the Amazon rainforest on fire, a human engineered catastrophe, both brought daily to a world audience through television and the Internet . The critical importance to the Earth’s ecosystem of the Amazon basin is obvious to even the most ardent deniers of climate change – are there any still left apart from Trump and some industry hirelings? Arguably even Trump has done his bit to help sensitise world opinion with his ham fisted attempt to buy Greenland, focussing attention on a country where the icecap is visibly melting away daily.
This shift in public awareness is shot through with the growing realisation that the tipping point for effective action may already have passed. The “Economist” magazine has just devoted a special issue to facing up to the reality that the crisis is here and now. Novelist Jonathan Franzen, in a recent seminal piece in the New Yorker headed “What if We Stopped Pretending,” argued that the climate apocalypse was under way, could not be prevented and that we should accept this and try to take measures (“ half measures are better than no measures”) which could ameliorate or delay the inevitable; measures that would prevent even one devastating hurricane would be worth taking. There’s also the point, which he does not labour, that “engaging” the issue sensibly could have a dialectic effect on the process. His article should be required reading as indeed should Wallace-Wells “The Uninhabitable Earh” which posits a rise in temperature of up to 4 degrees Celsius.
Warnings by scientists for decades have been ignored or, where politicians acknowledged their pleadings, little was done and then only in a select few first world countries. The heavy hitters, pollution wise, have ploughed on regardless, the top six accounting for sixty percent of all Greenhouse Gas Emissions; China and the USA accounting for almost 40% followed by India Russia Japan and Brazil. The EU 28, with 7% of the world’s population, produces 9% ofglobal emissions.
Last month’s UN Climate Summit gave little grounds for optimism. The usual rhetoric was served up in speech after self –satisfied speech by the world’s leaders but little new or concrete beyond incremental improvement was proposed and certainly nothing of the radical nature now necessary to reach even the minimum Paris 2015 target of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees or less. 77 countries are now committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Over 60 have undertaken to come up next year with tougher revisions to the national targets set in 2015; however these 60 contribute only 7% of global emissions.
Ireland’s contribution, outlined by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, at least got away from some of the rhetoric about Ireland becoming “a world leader” in combatting climate change. We’re not; we’ve catching up to do to meet even the unrealistic targets signed up to in the EU for 2020 and 2030, have a particular problem with the percentage of our annual emissions attributable to agriculture, our predominant indigenous industry – one third – and in any event account for only a tiny fraction of EU, let alone global, emissions. The Taoiseach outlined some of the targets in Ireland’s Climate Action Plan and added one incremental sweetener for the Summit with a commitment to end offshore exploration for oil ( though not yet for gas). Again, incremental only; there is little evidence that Ireland, with zero oil production, will ever become another Norway, and for most the limit of our expectations was that we might become self-sufficient in oil production, thus ensuring energy security.
The Taoiseach’s announcement also incidentally addressed demands from the Irish left that this be done; though given that the Action Plan contains 183 specific proposals, some long term, some short term, the whole programme provides a virtually inexhaustible supply of materials for those claiming some notional moral high ground with which to beat this and future governments. Even more depressing is the bland assumption that, should we, and the EU, achieve or exceed the targets set, that this will rectify matters. Even if the EU becomes fully carbon neutral by anytime soon, this will merely reduce emissions by 10%. Unless the heavy hitters do more, with several brazenly pursuing policies that will exacerbate not improve the situation, any EU “achievement” will count for nothing. It may give us all in Ireland, in Europe, a sense of moral rectitude and superiority, amid pious hopes that the rest of the world will follow, but as Stalin queried rhetorically in a different context “ How many divisions has the Pope?”
There in a nutshell is the conundrum of how to proceed, aspects of which I have touched on in previous columns. The post-1945 prosperity in the “First World” was one based on energy generated by burning fossil fuels. These were relatively cheap and available. Indeed the middle aged will recall the several scares in the 70s and 80s that fossil fuel supplies would become exhausted, causing economic collapse, concerns that led to a flurry of new exploration and exploitation to meet an expanding world demand. Any attempts to diversify and explore other energy sources such as wind and solar, were until recently, limited in scope and ambition, sidelined by the blitzkrieg of cheap carbon produced energy.
Since 1950 the world’s population has trebled, overwhelmingly outside Europe and North America. And one of the major achievements of the last thirty years has been the lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty and into the middle classes, particularly in China, India and (less so) Brazil. This has happened overwhelmingly through the same economic development model, i.e. growth based on burning fossil fuels. The downside of this is that half of all greenhouse gas emissions in history have occurred during those thirty years.
Moreover there are the increasingly less silent ghosts at the feast, those other billions who aspire to similar higher standards There’s nothing virtuous in being or staying poor, whatever some patronising fools in the comfortable sheltered First World cocoon may assert or believe. These people want what those better off have. There is even the argument of ”climate justice”, that those in the countries first to industrialise bear some moral responsibility (for what? developing first and utilising fossil fuels to drag themselves out of poverty?) and should do more. Where does Ireland (an agricultural backwater until fifty years ago) fit into this? There is the added irony that even if the EU all its greenhouse gases were to disappear down a black hole today the problem of global warming would remain.