Why do we all turn to stone in the face of the climate change debate?

by georgehep

The ancient civilisation of Easter Island almost died out sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth century when it ran out of trees. “ What on earth could they have been thinking of “ Jared Diamond asks in his book ‘Collapse’, “when they cut down the last tree?”

This was an intelligent community, famous for building a series of stone statutes that fascinate anthropologists to this day. They must have seen this problem coming  as deforestation continued apace. Perhaps, Diamond suggests, it crept up on them slowly and imperceptibly and that no one was prepared to take a stand until it was too late?

I was reminded of the story on Saturday listening to Mike Berners-Lee address the Hexham Debate on the subject of global warming. His book, ‘The Burning Question’. co-authored with Duncan Clark, is a disturbing  read without a happy ending.

The few readers who deny the link between global warming and carbon emissions will already have moved on to the business and culture pages. Make no mistake; the scientific community is unequivocally of the view that extreme weather is linked to rising temperature around the world due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Ask anyone living on the Somerset Levels this past weekend, where there has been a ‘major incident’ following further rainfall.

Readers still on this page should reflect on why we  do not get more worked up about the continuing  increase in carbon energy use that  rises at 1.8% a year despite all the recent attention to global warming. Nothing is changing. The upward exponential curve continues.

I had not realised that the coal, oil and gas companies already hold more than enough reserves to kill the plant. Their balance sheets  show  reserves ready for excavation of   2795 gigatonnes  worth well over $10trilion.  They spent $674billion in 2012 in research and exploration for new reserves and a further $1billion on lobbying and political donations.

Now here comes the maths. The scientific community’s best estimate is that global warming must be kept to 2 per cent celsius. In fact, even this  figure now looks highly risky; one campaigner calls it a “prescription for disaster”. To have an fifty per cent  chance of keeping temperature below the two degree target, we must limit future carbon emissions to  565 gigatonnes. Beyond 2 per cent,, the so called ‘tipping point’, serious discontinuities in climate are predicted.

As Bill McKibben writes” We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think it is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 % of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate.  Before we knew those numbers, our fate had seemed likely. Now barring some massive intervention, it seems certain” ( read his article at  bitly.com/new-math )

We kid ourselves in thinking that installing solar panels and tolerating wind farms that will make everything alright. Alternative forms of energy, only contribute a small of our current energy use. Carbon emissions need to fall rapidly as well. There is no avoiding the need to change our lifestyle.

In the same way  that the Easter islanders depended on trees to build their homes, construct their canoes and cook their food, we depend on carbon based fuels for heating, transportation and to manufacture the conveniences that run our homes. The history of civilisation is of increasingly heavy use of energy – the equivalent these days of everyone employing 100 servants. How would we manage our lives without such luxuriant amounts of energy?

At what some considered the most important gathering since the second world war, at Copenhagen in 2009, world leaders agreed that deep cuts in global emissions were required. But the Copenhagen  conference failed to agree measures to cut carbon emissions and there has been no further progress.

The trouble is that everyone needs to agree to take a cut and then keep their promises.  There are some awkward questions in working out who should bear the brunt or how economies like the United States and China, which between them account for 40% of world emissions, can be brought into line. Any form of binding international agreement is difficult in the extreme.

Most politicians shy away from  domestic measures that would increase the price of fuel. They are loathe to take steps that might hold back economic growth – even though the influential Stern report showed that the threat to our economic future is far greater if we do not tackle climate change. There is not yet any political groundswell to tackle rising temperatures.

It is also fanciful to place too much hope in a  science fiction solution like pouring iron filings into the sea to absorb carbon or shielding  the earth from the sun’s rays. But as Mike Berners-Lee pointed out, if the massive sums spent on exploring for oil were turned to finding ways of extracting  the carbon dioxide from fossil fuels instead, we might find a way out of our dilemma.

So why isn’t there a greater sense of urgency about tackling climate change? It is  just too abstract, too complex and too big a problem to get our minds around. There are powerful vested interests. We are too comfortable with our lifestyle and unduly worried by the thought of a faltering economy. We appear blasé about a problem that will hit our children and grandchildren in twenty years time.

We could all ‘do our bit’ by adopting alternative energy sources, cutting back on air travel  and coming to terms with wind farms. More importantly, we should take every opportunity to make clear to anyone without political clout or influence in the media, that climate change must return to the top of the agenda. Otherwise  we will be forever seen by the anthropologists of the future as a selfish and short sighted generation  alongside the tree fellers of Easter Island.

At the next Hexham debate on Saturday 8th February, 11am Andrew Feinstein  will describe the secretive world of the global arms trade.