Time to face up to the realities of climate change

Public expectations about the future give every impression that no substantial changes in the carbon-based aspects of our lifestyles are anticipated. They are founded in a belief of ever-lasting optimism – progress is not possible without hope of a successful outcome. The statements of highly influential policy-makers, practitioners, scientists, industrialists and others reveal a widespread refusal to acknowledge the undeniable evidence that it is already too late to avoid rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, a worsening situation and eventual catastrophe. There are now no means of preventing sea level rises associated with the melting of the ice caps and glaciers and methane release from tundra regions in northern latitudes. A burgeoning future population, forecast to rise by a third later this century, will have to live on a shrinking habitable land mass and at higher temperatures.

One explanation for this failure is that national leaders cannot reconcile the interests and pre-occupations of the electorate with the requirements of unavoidable radical environmental policies. While it is true that primary responsibility for policy lies with governments, this position fails to take into account the fact that, for electoral reasons, governments are strongly motivated to pursue strategies which appeal to people’s short-term self-interest, with little or no regard to the social and environmental consequences. This severely limits what they are prepared to do and, to a large extent, explains their unwillingness to inform the public of the gravity of the ecological situation. There is broad-based acceptance of the necessity of continued fossil fuel-based activity: ‘I can’t do without my central heating’, ‘my business needs a Shanghai branch’, ‘skyping cannot replace an annual flight to visit my Australian brother and his family’.

Governments therefore aim as far as is possible to help their electorates to do as they wish – getting on with their lives with minimum intrusion into their individual freedoms, effectively encouraging them to ignore the significance of their choices. Indeed, whose brief within government is it to speak out about the effects of current decisions for the medium and long-term future? Remarkably, no one! Instead, the public are allowed to believe that they have an inalienable right to travel as far and as frequently as they can afford. Yet, above all else, logic indicates a global solution as the only one that will work. The unilateral decisions of right-thinking individuals make virtually no difference.

It is surely wrong that the most important societal institutions, governments, fail to ram home the unavoidable links between their environmental policies and the planet’s environmental capacity. Existing constraints are clearly both insufficient and ineffective. Carbon dioxide emissions have a life of over 100 years. It is all too apparent that fossil fuel-dependent economic growth driving capitalism is the prime cause of the alarming rise in the concentrations of emissions. Governments’ emphasis on reducing emissions belies the fact that zero emissions are essential. In their absence, emissions will go on rising.

Yet, in democracies, the approval and acquiescence of the majority of the population are essential prerequisites of the decision-making of governments. They cannot move too far ahead of public opinion though they surely have a responsibility to push everyone up the learning curve, but don’t exercise it. They tie their own hands to a significant degree by their dependence on public and industry support in areas such as high carbon-emissions international tourism, and on the effects of policy decisions on the economy and employment – and shareholder profit. Attention too has to be paid to the trades unions, whose primary role is protecting their members’ interests, a role which clearly takes precedence over consideration of the effects of the retention of jobs on the growth of carbon-based lifestyles.

Nevertheless, the critical contradiction between support for the wishes of the majority of the public and industry and radical policy on dangerous climate change is all too apparent. A long-term strategic decision has been reached to build effective and efficient infrastructures aimed at raising economic output by improving competitiveness and ‘connectivity’, the latter an objective with no limits as it has infinite application in terms of reaching more distant destinations at faster speeds. This poses huge challenges for public servants, academics and consultants in professions which affect fossil fuel-dependency – construction and manufacture, engineering, planning, transport and building. Although aware of the climate change implications of their work, it is clearly difficult for them to challenge decisions on expanding the transport infrastructure – nor is it in their short-term interests to do so. However, most aspects of policy and practice are directly or indirectly related to energy use and must therefore be incorporated into the decision-making process. The volume of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere during all the stages of any physical venture, especially its use, must be taken into account and a totally safe location for its sequestration found, if that is possible.

No longer can we draw comfort from finding more reserves of fossil fuels. The more that are found, the more will be burned thereby adding to the concentration of greenhouse gases in an already dangerously overloaded global atmosphere. We look to the energy renewables industry in the form of solar, wave and wind to solve the planet’s energy needs. But the global solution requires that all countries exploit these replacement sources, though not all are able to. Even those which can, have to rely on some use of fossil fuels the emissions of which continue to add to their concentration into the atmosphere. And, of course, the expansion of global trade, through freight transported by sea or air remains very largely dependent on fossil fuels as for, the foreseeable future, energy renewables cannot substitute for them.

In the circumstances, should professions involve themselves in work that they know will cause an escalation in the scale of climate change? Is it sufficient for them to justify their decisions by shielding behind the statement that this is a policy area that they can ignore as it is for governments to determine whether the delivery of economic growth is more important than living within the planet’s means – as they do? Consider the legacy we are bequeathing to the generations succeeding us owing to our inability to face the realities of climate change:

  • regions of the world becoming uninhabitable, leading in due course to hundreds of millions of ecological refugees attempting to escape to countries spared the worst depredations of climate change yet whose populations are highly unlikely to welcome them;
  • wars with catastrophic hardship and loss of life as survival at all costs is very likely to be an unavoidable motivator of decision making;
  • extensive water and food shortages, including degradation of soil quality and, through acidification, a marked decline in the protein obtained from the sea;
  • further decreases in and loss of species diversity and genetic variability;
  • our children becoming increasingly aware of our disregard for their interests, and our failure to adopt the necessary stratagems that could have prevented the depredations of human-caused climate change that is engulfing them.

The latest evidence indicates that, by mid-century, a mean surface temperature rise will be much higher than that on which hegemonic current calculations are based. The fact that the figures are global averages, with countries in extreme latitudes likely to experience sharper increases, provides more alarming grounds for concern. The concentration of global carbon dioxide emissions must be brought down from its already too high level of over 400ppmv (parts per million by volume) – only ten years ago, it was 380 ppmv – but that is only possible when a proven and globally applicable way can be found through an as yet to be discovered method, if that is possible, of extracting the gases from the atmosphere for permanent burial, all within the requirements of the necessary funds being available (out of ecologically safe economic growth) and the negative time available to do so. The solution requires that all countries commit themselves to that end, but not all can, even in theory. Even those countries that do so still have to rely on some use of fossil fuels.

In this area of policy, the undesirable outcomes can all too often be laid at the door of decision-makers all over the world subscribing to many challengeable assumptions – close to tenets of faith. These have enabled maintenance of the view that transfer to zero-carbon lifestyles, practices and patterns of development is both unnecessary and certainly not urgent. Just consider these examples.

Progress continues to be measured in terms of dedication to low carbon developments. And policy is focussed on their reduction. These are then carelessly interpreted as contributing to the goal of zero emissions. But carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere remains there for over a hundred years. Switching to energy renewables and sources of low-carbon energy makes no contribution to reducing the concentration of emissions. They can only reduce the rate at which the concentration continues to rise – a very different outcome.

Governments affirm their belief that economic growth is the primary way of improving their populations’ circumstances and that growth can be absolutely decoupled from fossil fuel use. Remarkably too, it is seen as unnecessary for the sectoral components of growth to be differentiated according to their contribution to climate change. Yet, most growth as is currently measured is very largely associated with burning fossil fuels. According to this line of reasoning, any adverse consequences of the pursuit of growth can be dealt with at a later date when technological advances will have made it far easier and in all likelihood cheaper to do so and when the world will be in a better position to afford such action out of the proceeds of future growth. So, the public are encouraged to look to ever-rising improvements in their material standards. Indeed, in the next 20 years, globally, GDP per person is predicted to double.

It is thought that increasingly energy-dependent lifestyles can be provided by finding more fossil fuels. And the more resources that are found, the more will be burned, thereby adding to the concentration of greenhouse gases in an already dangerously overloaded global atmosphere.

Widespread support is given to the belief that science and technology will provide the solution to any serious problem arising from growth. It is supposed that we can rely on them to lower the amount of fossil fuels the world population needs to meet its aspirations and that this can lead to a sufficient reduction of emissions so that the pursuit of economic growth can continue into the foreseeable future. However, new evidence is indicating many previously unforeseen technical, environmental and cost problems associated with using fuels more efficiently, and with carbon sequestration, methane emissions, biomass use, extraction of oil from tar sands and nuclear-based electricity and electric vehicles. It is almost as if all types of electricity generation are seen to be fossil free.

Then there are the claims of future generations on reserves of fossil fuels. Insofar as decision-makers presumably believe that life on earth will be able to continue to be enjoyed for hundreds if not thousands of years, surely these claims should be factored into calculations of what, at predicted levels of consumption, is being left for them – and for how many generations?.

Policy on taxation is aimed at ensuring that a charge on activities is based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle, with carbon-based activities costing more. But can a price be set that adequately compensates for the impacts of emissions over the many years that they remain in the atmosphere? Can a realistic value be given to cover the unquantifiable but nevertheless adverse effects of the inevitable mass migration and resettlement of ecological refugees? And do we continue to ignore the ecological costs of burning fossil fuels when comparing them with the equivalent near-zero costs from renewable energy?

Individuals will not voluntarily make at best more than minimal changes to their fossil fuel-based lifestyles (apart, of course, from those with no choice in the matter). Realism suggests that only a small proportion of the global population is going to respond in this way, especially when they see others not following suit. Yet, it is surely wishful thinking to believe that compulsion will gain sufficient popular support from electorates especially in democracies reflecting the will of the majority.

The outcome of subscribing to these questionable assumptions is that the essential transition to near-zero global fossil fuel use is now near-impossible. They have enabled maintenance of the view that the transfer to zero-carbon lifestyles, practices and patterns of development can be delayed and is certainly not urgent. What is entailed is the immediate adoption of a very different strategy in which it is recognised that no capacity for further greenhouse gas emissions remains in the global atmosphere.

The history of the last few decades suggests that, when presented with unpalatable evidence of the undesirable effects of our decisions, we bury our collective heads in the sand in the hope that the problem will go away. We ignore the fact that present and future decisions about the use of fossil-fuels will have a major impact on the quality of life of the generations succeeding us.  What will we do in the decades ahead when justifiably challenged by our children and grandchildren for our wanton disregard for the impact of our decisions on them and our woeful failure to have acted in time?

There is no prospect of success unless every country’s population can be relied upon to contribute its fair share of the reduction. At present, when put to the test, the responses reveal, at best, tokenism rather than sufficiency of action. If the challenge is not met, is there not an obligation on those who recognise our inability to deliver to indicate whom they consider better equipped to shoulder responsibility for calling those who can to do so?

Future generations will judge us on decisions made in full knowledge – as accessories before the fact – of the devastating effects of our energy-profligate lifestyles. The now irrefutable evidence on climate change means that we cannot excuse ourselves, either by disingenuous claims that we could not foresee the consequences of our actions or, in many ways even more reprehensibly, by just pleading guilty. The longer we procrastinate, the greater the certainty of environmental degradation, social upheaval and economic chaos. We cannot look to energy renewables – solar, wave and wind – to solve our energy requirements. The global solution will need all countries to work to the same end, but not all are able to: those which continue to rely to some degree on fossil fuels, will add to atmospheric concentrations. And of course, shipping and air transport cannot substitute renewables for fossil fuels.

We have long passed the time at which we can simply turn a blind eye to the damage we are causing. The reduction to zero emissions must be seen as an urgent imperative, not as an aspiration.

Is it then too late? If we accept that to improve the quality of human life, and indeed to ensure survival, a complete cessation of fossil fuel burning is essential, then the future is indeed bleak. But it is bleak if we don’t. Our moral responsibility now is to slow the speed at which we ‘hit the buffers’, using every conceivable means to do so. The overriding message is that our lives must reflect the planet’s ability to support us, that is – a zero carbon future. In all conscience, we are currently locked into a process whose inevitable result will be a planet with little life left on it. The issue is the most important one facing the world. As such, it must top the international political agenda.


Written by Dr Mayer Hillman in April 2018

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