There’s a grand old British tradition which argues that in any crisis the best solution is often just to sit tight and hope we can muddle through. Quite often it works, but not always.
Many people are now convinced that there’s an environmental crisis heading our way very fast, made up partly of a warming climate and partly of vanishing wildlife and unspoilt wilderness.
Not everyone thinks things are really that bad. Some think there isn’t even a crisis at all. Others (including me) think the crisis is real and urgent, and that there’s no certainty we’ll be able to solve it. But whichever group you belong to, you’ll probably know people who say: “Can’t we just go on as we are? Somehow we’ll muddle through. We always do”.
The crisis worries me for two reasons. It’s been worsening just as scientists have warned us it would since they began studying it minutely more than 30 years ago (their evidence often goes back hundreds of thousands of years before that). And people living in the worst affected areas (for instance the Arctic, and low-lying Pacific islands) can tell you already the effects of rising temperatures and the disappearance of the animals and fish they depend on to survive.
The extremes of what could conceivably happen? They really are pretty extreme. One scientific group reported in June that human civilisation could end by 2050 if we don’t act. Other scientists disagreed, with one calling the report overblown, exaggerated, and unsupportably doomist. But others praised it.
In May the United Nations said about a million of the world’s different kinds of animals and plants are now at risk of extinction the largest number in human history ever to be facing the threat of oblivion. Their plight, the UN said, is caused by humans, and it will inevitably affect us too.
I think the evidence presented in both reports is robust and that the scientists are basically right: we should be worried, we should be
acting to protect the atmosphere and the rest of the natural world from further damage, and we’re very unlikely to be able to muddle through. But I also think we have to be very careful.
Yes, the breakdown of global society could happen in thirty years from now. And we could find even sooner – by 2030 – that we’ve run out of time to cut greenhouse gases significantly enough and move rapidly towards a world with zero emissions of greenhouse gases, especially the main one, carbon dioxide.
There could be some nasty surprises ahead, the sorts of things scientists call positive feedbacks. The speed at which the ice is melting in the Arctic and the Antarctic is one example: it could mean that climate change happens faster and ends up feeding on itself. The polar ice melts, the brilliant white surface is no longer there to reflect the Sun’s rays back out into space, the seawater and rock which replace it are darker and therefore absorb more sunlight . . . and bingo! climate change causes itself to accelerate.
Feedbacks like this, or increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, or other changes which we can’t foresee – they could all mean that climate change happens faster than we expect. Or slower. Either way, dates like 2030 and 2050 may be too inexact to pinpoint the disasters we’re being warned about.
Climate change and the damage we’re doing to the natural world aren’t events, with a definite start and end date. They’re processes, which may play out over years, decades or centuries, or longer still. That means several consequences to remember:
• it’s never too early to start preparing for possible disasters; for some people, disaster is here already
• it’s never too late to start preparing for them either; there’s always hope that we can reduce the damage ahead
• acting now to protect the Earth will be expensive, but leaving action to our children will probably cost far more, because the longer the damage is left, the more likely it is to worsen
• some losses are inevitable, some now can’t be put right: once we’ve lost a particular sort of animal, bird, fish or plant, it will probably stay lost • and that will affect other creatures, including us. We’re not living in Jurassic Park: extinction is
That prompts a couple of other thoughts.
Here’s the happier one. Facing up to the environmental crisis brings gains. It can save us money: think of the jobs there’ll be in making sure every British home is properly insulated; in building the huge fleet of electric vehicles we’ll need. It can save our health too: a zero carbon economy that emits no greenhouse gases will give us cleaner air to breathe and improved life expectancy (poor air quality is a killer). For those of us in the Ouse Valley it’s likely to mean fewer devastating floods.
The other thought is not encouraging: not everybody is willing to act in the common interest. There are people who query the scientists’ findings on both climate and wildlife loss. Some have sincerely-held reasons. With others, it’s hard to see what reasons they have, apart from a desire to go on making money by polluting the planet.
The UN report published in June says climate meltdown by 2050 would mean armed conflict is likely and nuclear war possible. Think on.