It’s still not too late to prevent catastrophic climate change but it’s now almost certainly not going to be stopped. It’s not so much the disastrous outcome of the Paris conference (we always knew that it was going to be a failure) but the reaction of the world’s population. When faced with solving the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced most people went “meh that that sounds a bit hard. @!#$ it I think I’ll buy a new tv, or car, or house, or wardrobe or all of the above”. At least that’s what they did in the rich world. In the poor world most people went “what crisis?”
I think that was the most depressing part of our journey. In many countries most people were simply unaware that the climate could change so rapidly that much of their country would be rendered uninhabitable within their lifetimes. Although to be fair most people in Europe were also unaware of how serious things could get in so short a timeframe. I think that’s probably because most people have an unfounded belief in the ability of human ingenuity and technology to solve the problem. And yes it is true it can. We already have most of the technology to create a zero carbon society but that alone cannot avoid catastrophic climate change. It must be combined with absolutely massive cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases beginning immediately yet that is exactly what the Paris agreement avoids doing. As I explained here the Paris agreement delays affective action by at least another 10 years.
There is no magic technological bullet to remove carbon from the atmosphere either. A recent investigation into the technology capable of doing so concluded that the most efficient method developed after billions were invested in various techniques was ……. Trees. Wonderful things though they are they are simply not capable of absorbing carbon in sufficient quantities to solve the problem. Removing the equivalent of one year’s emissions would take trees covering an area twice the size of Australia to be grown to maturity. And by the time we get our act together we will need many years of emissions to be removed, just precisely when the growing conditions in many areas become more challenging as consequence of the very problem we are trying to solve.
Things wouldn’t be so dire if a zero carbon society could be created with a simple change in technology. However it just isn’t possible to power everything that we do now – the way we work, travel, consume and live – using renewable energy. It’s not just the huge number of wind turbines, solar panels, wave power arrays, solar thermal plants, etc. etc. that would be required but all the copper, steel and concrete required to build them. It would be hard enough to generate enough renewable electricity to meet the current demand for electricity never mind to meet all the energy requirements that are currently provided by burning fossil fuels. To reach a zero carbon society we would have to completely change the way we live our lives. Do a lot less, work a lot less, buy a way lot less and travel less far. This cannot be achieved under capitalism. Nor could it be created very quickly without creating such upheaval that society would destroy itself. Yet this is what will be required to avoid catastrophic warming if we delay action for another 10 years.
As I explained in my previous post warming of 2C is almost certainly unavoidable. At 2C of warming climate feedbacks begin to kick in. Then no matter what we do climate change becomes unstoppable and catastrophe becomes unavoidable. Huge amounts of methane will be released from the artic permafrost. As the ocean warms methane hydrates will begin to bubble up from the sea bed releasing plumes of methane into the atmosphere. As the world warms many of the world’s forests will dry up and begin to burn turning from carbon sinks into a massive source. Even the soils themselves will start to release carbon as warmer conditions begin to speed up the rate of decomposition. As it gets even warmer even more carbon will be released leading to yet more warming creating a self-perpetuating cycle of warming that will continue for hundreds of years eventually leading to average temperatures 15 – 20°C higher than today.
Whilst warming on that scale may be hundreds of years away warming which will prove challenging for the continuation of human civilisation could be a matter of decades away. The biggest challenge will be food. As areas get warmer and drier large parts of the globe will see agricultural yields decline by as much 30% within as short a time frame as 40 – 50 years. At the same time the population is projected to reach 9 billion. Millions and then billions will starve and the world will descend into increasingly bloody wars for food and water. Eventually deserts will sweep across much of the earth and the planet will be capable of supporting less than a billion people if they haven’t all been killed off in the preceding wars. But the scariest aspect is that the most vulnerable will start to experience devastating consequences much more quickly, perhaps as soon as 20 years.
Of Course there is still time to prevent such an outcome but I can’t see it happening. Creating change of the necessary breadth and scale would require garnering the support and participation of most of humanity within the next couple of years. Yet despite decades of activism the climate movement can only mobilise a paltry few million. I have to salute the countless inspiring, dedicated and wonderful people who have been struggling tirelessly against the odds to try and preserve a habitable planet. You are amazing and have helped to create some of the most memorable experiences of my life. Thank you. But now is the time to be realistic. So rather than wasting my energy on a task which is almost certain to prove fruitless I’m going to devote my time to something more positive. First and foremost having fun but also helping those facing the brunt of climate disasters. Of course if a billion strong movement to create a post carbon world suddenly appeared in the next couple of years then I’d join it on a flash, but let’s face it that’s not very likely.
However there are still somethings you can do to ameliorate the effects of climate change on your own life. If you plan on living more than 20 or 30 years and you’re from one of the places most at risk from climate change – most of Africa, much of South and Central America and the Southern USA, the Middle East, South Asia, Australia, low lying coats, Islands or deltas. Or if you have children who live in such areas then make plans to leave. Now. Already the razor wire is beginning to go up and migration is becoming increasingly hard. And we are currently seeing only a trickle of people compared to the tide we will experience over the coming years. Choose your destination carefully too. Don’t go to Australia and the USA probably isn’t a good idea. Canada, Russia and Northern Europe are your best bets although stay clear of Belgium and the Netherlands.
If you’re not from any of those places then do what I’m going to do. Take advantage of the next 20 or so years of relative calm before the shit really hits the fan to travel the world. Visit the myriad of beautiful places that may not be around for much longer. Coral reefs, tropical rainforests and mountain glaciers. International travel itself will become much harder as countries begin to put up barriers in response to the tide of refugees unleashed by the climate catastrophe. As crops dry up and fields turn to dust many more countries will descend into chaos making travel to them impossible. The Middle East is unlikely ever to see stability again. Now is the time to take in places such as Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia before they start to resemble their neighbours. Things won’t be much better in Africa or South and Central America and India and Pakistan will be going the same way too.
If you’ve always wanted to go on a trip but haven’t got round to it then go. Heck even if you’ve never fancied it still go. And think of what you’re going to devote the rest of your life to. Basically make sure you have as much fun as possible because fun is likely to be in very short supply in a few decades.
Oh yer and one last thing. Don’t have kids. Whilst their first few decades may be ok their middle and old age is likely to be deeply unpleasant and they’re probably not going to really appreciate you having them.
*well actually your kids are f$#%ed if they are under 30 or you are if you happen to be that age.