Climate summary, 16 11 10.
I’d long followed the adventures of the climate change campaigners and their ilk. They had my full sympathies and I quite envied them the freedom to travel recklessly around the country setting up camps to protest against a host of outrageously guilty targets. It looked like the hippies reborn but this time with an outstretched social consciousness and not just liberal free love. Looking to amend for the guilt of their parents generation although slightly riding in their wake. Perhaps methought they did protest too much but it was so genuine to see and so I could not really criticise .
Truth was, though, they were wrong. Well, technically not “wrong” just the outcomes they were threatening us with were largely seen as ludicrous. Sadly it seemed to me that they’d all seen too many disaster movies and consciously or possibly subconsciously had consolidated such scenarios with the worst hyperbole that career progressing scientific teams had thrown up.
For a good two decades climate change measurement had been an astute area to build up one’s profile within. OK, you might not become a UN “Weatherforcaster General” but many a glowing reputation had been built on attesting to the problems resultant from mankind’s super-fast and astoundingly messy industrial and agricultural expansion picking up from the tailing off of post Second World War austerity. Actually the organisational and investigative spirits of the conflict may well have been the spark that set it all going.
Belatedly cries of “Tidy Up” had been heard shouting weakly in the background and Northern Europe demanded redress for the gross acidification of their rainfall and death of their forests – caused by power stations such as Yorkshire’s Drax and most of the Ruhr billowing out highly acidic clouds of effluent in colossal volume to drift eastwards and fall as a potent cocktail of our favourite bench reagents – Sulphuric acid and Nitric acid.
Hosts of dead salmon in previously bountiful rivers was a powerful image – perhaps echoing Rachael Carson’s equally powerful but less noticed observations on the effect of pesticides on bird life twenty years earlier in her seminal book “Silent Spring”. A lot of effort then went into cleaning up or sending further up the emissions so that they rained considerably further away. In Sweden they just had to dump truckloads of chalk into their lakes to neutralise the acid. I imagine they’re still doing it!
As a result UK rivers were much better twenty years later and at the same time other environmental damage was being repaired, after a fashion. Sewage spillage and both farm and industrial waste scrupulously prevented from any future leakage into watercourses. The coastline was similarly improved, in some places beyond recognition.
My own Menai Straits backyard went from “leaving aside the rather muddy shores of the MS” – in a 1960s British geology handbook – to a pristine nature reserve and the extensive mudflats changed (back) into sand banks and beaches. Overwhelmingly impressive. Protecting nature gained considerable credence and a range of public monies was directed to providing increasing numbers of natural havens. Green became good not freaky and the environmental repair and management “industry” grew rapidly, mostly resultant from public or semi public funding.
This all masked our continued industrialisation and the further speeding up of the economy. Even the catastrophic financial meltdown of 2008-9 seemed to only cause a brief reduction in the expansionist structures beloved by Government and Commerce alike. We were totally addicted to “growth” as being all that would prevent the Globaleconomy from mortal seizure.
The World’s population had grown from two billion in 1920 to four billion by 1970 and on to six billion by the year 2000. Whereas we could still provide food for all, the projected additional four billion by 2050 scared many, including myself. In any case, this huge population created vast demands for the basics of life – shelter and clothing, food, health, education and work – let alone the more interesting matters. With each individual consuming more and the population having thus trebled in ninety years it was no wonder industry was overheating and stuck on this eternal escalator upwards. There had been more industrial output in the previous thirty years than in the total history of mankind.
Caught between the superficially cleaned up local environment and visions of accelerating damage elsewhere in the World, UK Greens were in a very confusing place. Derided as do-nothing-killjoy-troublemakers they were obliged to make strong statements, which they certainly did. Although they could back this up with film from around the World the UK remained stubbornly unaffected by these disasters. “Climate Change? What Climate Change – this is as bad as it’s always been” the average Mancunian would say and indeed it was. In school, children were taught at great length about the issue but only that by the time they themselves retired sea levels might have increased by a few inches. Please, though, they were implored, make sure to recycle your old newspapers or otherwise things could be even worse. Even worse than no trouble at all is not much of a worry and anyway recycling’s a bit of fun. Sometimes.
Within the Climate Activist groups it was possible to depict far grimmer “worst case scenarios”. In fact it was necessary. So the talk was of Climate Crisis and Tipping Points beyond which [principally carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration] there could be no rescue and “run-away global warming” would be initiated. Without this who would climb chimneys or sit down on airport runways? It was not quite like the three line whip in the House of Commons but dissent was not really encouraged by quite a large segment of the group. Really a faith thing, you had to believe in the nature of the crisis and so accept the solutions that the group derived.
Yes, anyway, I have long given these good people the moral high ground and supported them in as much as I could. My thing has been to plant trees and encourage as many people as possible to do the same. I could see that woodland was without doubt the best way we had of fixing down some of the excess climate change gases from the atmosphere and wondered why so few others came on board. There were even Scientific papers that suggested any forests outside the tropics were at best “carbon neutral” or could even make matters worse.
An intense additional six months intensive book-net work allowed me to delve deeply into the subjects involved. By the end I had corresponded with and seen several of the scientific stars mentioned above and read and balanced masses of diverse source material. I ended up with the stark realisation that our overriding state of understanding was mostly faith, based on a subjective gathering of appropriate information and that the truths were buried in so many masses of inappropriate utterings. It would take a considerable time to untangle all these leads and maybe I will one day, to add my ha’porth of objectivity, but for all the tens of thousands of scientists plus far more observers, activists, politicians, journalists, administrators, teachers and other interested parties we are no nearer agreeing the actualities than ever. And don’t mention Milanchovich, please.
However, a good instance is paleoclimatology – a discipline invented to cater for the new concerns. Has the World seen this before? Yes –we’ve had ice ages. Carbon dioxide rose by 100ppm after the last “glacial maximum”, though from what source is outstandingly unclear. (I, of course, have an unpublished theory which, er, holds water!) Levels increased to 100ppm below present levels ( to 285 from 185). But temperatures were soon higher than at present. And sea levels considerably lower – we still had Doggerland instead of the North Sea.
These facts are derived from a variety of sources and are all “accepted wisdom” who’s logic I can go with. Ice cores, to date carbon dioxide levels are perhaps hardest to fully accept and OK even if they do measure carbon dioxide concentrations from these frozen snapshots in time they perhaps do not record the rate at which the gas was being released from “stocks” entombed Globally (At sea, in peats moved by glaciations, glacial debris dumped into oceans, vegetation and soils swamped by raised sea levels etc) and taken up by increasing global vegetation. Around this time Earth achieved its “Post Glacial Maximum” for forest/woodland cover which has been declining pretty much ever since to a level now of half that maximum. (800 BT aot 1600BT, my calculations, unverified, but I’m quietly confident!)
Using the above scenario, our present 100ppm increase in carbon dioxide concentration could lead to an equal rate of sea level rise ie it was 120 metres in 10000 years. That was mean rise of 1.2 centimetres per year. Any measurements taken have been considerably less than that over the last few decades. Why were temperatures higher when Carbon dioxide levels were a lot lower than present? And why does it take so long for ice to melt?!
So, yes, some people can see that our present global economy is dumb and destructive. For a lot of other people, however it obviously works very well and who can blame them for wanting to continue in their good fortune. Most people do not want to be involved in the discussion and can only struggle on or continue to enjoy their “once–only-chance-to” lives.
Burning fossil fuel in general is still done in a grossly irresponsible way, releasing not only carbon dioxide but much other waste as well (Yes, there’s still lots of acid rain, for example. Just not in our pretty places!)
Even worse is the inequality of use, by and large directed for far the most part into developed, Western laps, except the pollution is often elsewhere. Though significant, the carbon dioxide released is a small percentage of the total present in the atmosphere (15BT added to 3500BT or 0.43% per annum, per annum).
All that excess would be taken up if all the lost forest were replaced. I feel that will probably not happen. The UK alone could so remove a billion tonnes were she to restore all her woodland to Arthurian forest types. The Welsh uplands, now sheep grazed deserts would then have been dense forests. Similarly the Pennines, Scottish highlands and Dartmoor and the South Downs.
OK, OK, there may actually come to be a sudden tipping point and catastrophe might ensue. Ice melt in Greenland and of glaciers Worldwide needs to be watched lest they go exponential (Yes, Antarctica, too) If so, we’ll all have to move to the uplands and the North (Siberia) or far South (Argentine Pampas, Patagonia). I prefer to think that a slow but steady sea level rise will be a background to an increasingly fraught set of Global stand-offs as more people witness the inequalities in distribution of slices from the Global cake. Climate change may well be an issue used to try to restrain less well off regions from being allocated fair resources to maintain and develop their countries in what will, inevitably, be a period of increasingly intense competition for those resources. Furthermore their remaining undeveloped may even be the price it is attempted to extract from them for any part in Global discussions.
The current financial crisis demonstrates the fragility of our trading systems and how we are enslaved to maintaining their function. New systems will need to be evolved speedily that entail slower but more effective development to be achieved with ever decreasing inputs of fossil fuel. Far greater local reliance appears to be required to underpin this, together with a filtering out of the more flamboyant and wasteful features of recent human societies.
Without this the tensions generated between social groups and between countries and religions will be magnified ever greater and, more and more, will snap increasingly destructively. That’ll make the Taliban look like a garden party and Al Qaieda more lame than Al Gore.
Perhaps we need to look beyond Nationalism to the emergence of Global citizenship. What criteria should be guaranteed to entail this and could that ensure a collective responsibility, that we can build mechanisms to maintain a truly Global environment which enshrines our collective futures as paramount?