Friday, 26 April 2019

Out of the mouths of babes and children

Don’t you just hate it when teenagers insist that they know the answers to all the world’s problems, but we oldies are too stupid to see that they are right?

They say things like this: ‘The scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.’ (‘Irreversible damage?’ ‘Collapse of our societies’? C’mon …)

Or this: ‘If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change.’ (‘Runaway climate change’? What’s that, for goodness sake?)

Typical teenage over-simplification. A failure to understand the complexities and uncertainties of climate science. And a millennial vision of an apocalypse that has more in common with cultish fanaticism than rational discourse among sensible adults.

Ah. Sorry. I may have misled you. Those quotes aren’t, in fact, from the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg but from the sage and living saint Sir David Attenborough, who’ll be marking his ninety-third birthday in a couple of weeks’ time, and the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, who will be seventy next week. Sprightly though they both undoubtedly are, neither could reasonably be labelled a teenager.

(By the way, if you haven’t yet watched Attenborough’s recent TV documentary Climate Change – The Facts, please do. You can find it by clicking here. But I should warn you: it is truly terrifying.)

My point is simply this: yes, Greta Thunberg is only a teenager, but her warnings about the urgency of the climate change crisis are precisely mirrored by what scientists have been saying for ages. Her youth, her pigtails, and her Asperger’s, which results in her speaking with unusual clarity and force, mean that she can capture the headlines and the front-page photos in a way that not even David Attenborough can match.

Take her much-misunderstood demand that governments should commit to zero carbon emissions within the next twenty years. In a speech to MPs this week, she said: ‘Our emissions have to stop if we are to stay below 1.5-2 degrees Celsius of warming. The “lowering of emissions” is of course necessary, but it is only the beginning of a fast process that must lead to a stop within a couple of decades or less.’

How absurd, say her critics, by whom I mean those who will not or cannot understand. How can anyone seriously believe that within two decades, the whole of humanity can simply stop using fossil fuels? Planes, cars, ships, power generation, industry?

After all, according to a report this week in the Financial Times, greenhouse gas emissions from planes more than doubled between 1990 and 2016, and if Heathrow gets its third runway, its capacity will rise from 480,000 to 740,000 flights per year by the mid-2020s. But perhaps Greta Thunberg’s critics and the cynics should try listening more carefully to what she actually said, because her next sentence was ‘By “stop”, I mean net zero.’

As it happens, I wrote about net zero carbon emissions six months ago. (The piece is here if you want to read it again.) All it means is that we aim to match the CO2 we pump out by burning fossil fuels with an equivalent amount that we remove from the atmosphere, either by planting lots more trees or by such technological means as generating electricity from burning plant material and then capturing and storing the CO2 that’s produced underground.

But of course that’s not what we are doing. Instead of planting more trees to act as the earth’s lungs, we’re chopping them down. According to a new analysis by the World Resources Institute, demand for beef (produced from cattle that are fed on soya, which is grown on land which has been deforested), palm oil (produced from trees grown on vast plantations where once tropical forests stood), and chocolate (produced from cocoa grown on land once occupied by forests in, for example, Ghana and Ivory Coast) means forests are still disappearing at a terrifying rate.

It’s nearly eight years now since I reported from the Amazon, at a time when the then Brazilian government was grappling with the dilemma of how to protect the environment while continuing to expand the economy. (My TV report from July 2011 is here.) But now, after the election of the populist, anti-environmentalist president Jair Bolsonaro, there’s no longer any doubt: agri-business interests have won, and the environmentalists have lost.

It’s hard, but not impossible, to find heroes in this dismal tale of impending doom. Greta Thunberg is one of them, for having forced the issue into the political arena. So too are the thousands of Extinction Rebellion protesters, who with immense good humour, discipline and imagination, have risked arrest to draw attention to the seriousness of the crisis.

I also think a round of applause is due to the former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who over the past two years has contributed a total of $10 million to the United Nations Climate Change secretariat to cover the gap left by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2016 Paris climate change agreement.

Yes, I know his personal wealth is estimated at $60 billion, so he can certainly afford it. Even so, I applaud the gesture. On its own, of course, it won’t save the planet. But it might just help.


Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, Robin, across the Western world many people of our generation who live comfortably in retirement continue to spend their money on flying to distant parts, boarding massive cruise liners, and doing their bit to cause the further destruction of this earth and its environment. The Norwegian fjords now have air quality at times on a level with inner cities. A sad British passenger on one of those ships, who left it by helicopter earlier this year when it lost engine power during a storm, told the press that he'd been about to enter the cinema on board when he was forced to leave! Oh, such a disappointment for him. He didn't say what the film was but I'm sure it was a terrible missed opportunity.

There are dozens of US cruise liners visiting the Antarctic each year, doing their bit to destroy it. Do they look at where the ice used to be, or where the emperor penguins used to breed, or are they too busy watching films in the cinema? And don't you just love to see a shot of Venice with a huge liner suddenly appearing in view? And are these tourists going to give up their comfortable lifestyles when they're at home? Not the ones I know. It's not just the governments, though they're bad enough at keeping the blinkers firmly in place. It's the general public right across the Western world.

“How can anyone seriously believe that within two decades, the whole of humanity can simply stop using fossil fuels? Planes, cars, ships, power generation, industry?” I'm certainly not Greta Thunberg's critic, nor David Attenborough's, but I can't seriously believe we'll all stop. We've turned a blind eye for over 30 years now. We're not going to change. Not until it's way too late, anyway.

Sarcen said...

So, are you saying may as well go down burning then?

Unknown said...

But what I want to know and what no-one is actually talking about is what does life in that "net zero" world actually look like. And what does it look like if we want to get there in 2030 v 2050. There's a lot of people saying "governments must do something", but what? And anything governments do decided to do will impact the lifestyles of everyone living under those governments, so we need to know. How do we have a sensible conversation about what sacrifices should be made or what people can actually do when we don't know what the options are and what impact they have. How much offsetting will actually work? Can we keep emitting what we do if we plant enough trees? Is it that easy? Can we theoretically do that but "enough trees" would take more land than we actually have in this country? Realistically how far away is working, effective, economical carbon capture tech? If we're talking about net zero 2030, how much of a part of that can technology take? If we need to accelerate tech development how much will that cost, where will the money come from? This is all stuff that doesn't have to come from government - media and public should be talking about the reality of this, not just waving hands and saying government should do "something". When people saw plastic inside whales, there was a really easy win - they could go out themselves and pick up litter from beaches etc - and you can see the benefit. It doesn't solve it, but it's a start. There must be genuine easy wins on climate too, but we don't know what they are because campaigners are so busy blaming governments, no-one's giving us the practical information we need to start solving it. Yes, theoretically I can make a difference by not having a foreign holiday, but how much difference? And how do I affect the economy of the country I might have visited? Is it better to keep travelling and contributing to other economies and offset that carbon with trees? This is complicated stuff and we need practical, sensible people to give clear routes through it.

Gregor McGregor said...

Greta is indeed a breath of fresh air, as it were, but I find her demands somewhat nebulous, as it were. Let's get real: turning modern civilisation on its head overnight is not going to happen because of mankind's innate greed, which, ironically, has brought us to the high level of achievement civilisation now enjoys. To improve our situation we need to appeal to man's avaricious side. More, CHEAPER, eco-friendly energy? No problem: wind, wave, solar energy surrounds us, there for the taking. Of course, we have to overcome the oil lobby, which means we elect BETTER politicians, not the Trumps of this world. This is in the hands of the electorate, who need BETTER education as to the state of things, not lies. The plastic threat? Recycle, recycle, recycle, or don't wrap foodstuffs which don't need wrapping. I recently spent a decade in HK. Because of SARS and other recent pestilence (Spanish flu in the early 20th C) they TRIPLE wrap foodstuffs. A trip to the supermarket results in a mountain of plastic in the kitchen. Crazy! (We, now back in London, buy a lot of fruit and veggies in a street market where nothing is wrapped, and the quality and prices are excellent) These are all things we can address quite quickly. The elephant in the room is the world population explosion: 'The world is expected to add another billion people within the next 15 years, bringing the total global population from 7.3 billion in mid-2015 to 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100, according to new estimates from the UN.(17 Aug 2015).' We now number 7.7 billion. Many eminent scientists regard 9 billion as the maximum the planet can sustain with our current lifestyle. We have to slow the growth rapidly with a China-style 'one child policy' or similar. This can also be implemented quite quickly, but again we need education. The vast bulk of this explosion is set to take place in the Third World, especially India. Badgering our current political class is pointless. We need BETTER, more knowledgeable politicians and EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION.

Anonymous said...

Well, trying to predict what will actually happen: I think modern civilisation will turn around. But ...

It's 130 years since the problem was first identified, it's 50 years since it first became detectable, and it's 20 years since it was first quantified.

The impact of CC depends entirely on when counter-measures are taken. The later we leave it, the more people will die, the more disruption in affected nations, and the more it will cost. It will be addressed properly, sooner or later

Has anyone made any forecasts of these ? It's not easy, but it might focus minds a little more