References can be found at the end.
Dear friends one and all
Greetings for the equinox and the arrival of spring, and whatever else you may be celebrating over the next few days.
Hoping you will be blessed with a pause which allows time for reflection and reconnection, here is something to reflect upon which ought galvanise and realign the lives of everyone alive, if only they take on its full implications.
Last Friday The Guardian reported that Tony Blair is to lead a new international team aiming to secure a global deal on climate change, including a cut in carbon emissions by 50% by 2050. In this he is reported to have the backing of the White House, the UN, Europe, Gordon Brown and The Climate Change Group (a not for profit organisation representing big business interests). He is supported by a team of experts including the economist Nicholas Stern and specialists from China, Japan, the USA and Europe.
This is news of the most profound significance, both positively and negatively. Yet despite being the paper's lead story and the disquieting quotes included, its full implications remain obscured behind the narrow scope of the reportage.
It is their absolutely critical nature that causes me to write to bring them to the attention of as wide an audience as possible as issues of the utmost urgency which demand an immediate and intelligent response from everyone of us.
On the upside, the very fact that this initiative is being launched offers a ray of hope in what is otherwise a very grim future. It is as if the generals have, after dithering for so long, finally got around to despatching the cavalry, and if we are exceptionally blessed they may actually arrive in the very nick of time to save the day. For whatever one may think about Tony Blair and his crimes against humanity, he is indisputably exceptionally able at brokering strategic deals over issues that have proven the most intractable and entrenched, as in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. Why it wasn't Al Gore and why it hasn't happened far sooner remain mysterious.
But it is the downside that is most portentous. First, it is finally being acknowledged publicly at the highest level that our situation is already perilous and that time available to resolve it has almost run out already.
Blair says the world has less than two years to secure a deal or accept that global warming is irreversible. But nothing to bring home what that actually means. The closest we get to it is that he is quoted to say:
“The fact of the matter is that if we do not take substantial action over the next two years , then by 2020 we will be thinking seriously about adaption rather than prevention.”
The almost universal tendency with statements of that kind is to take them lightly and relegate them to the back burner. Adaption to changing circumstances is what we do all the time to, say, the vagaries of the economic cycle, so is merely normality and nothing much to trouble ourselves about. 2020 is more than a decade away – few are tempted to sacrifice even the slightest detail of the good life now for something so far in the future which may never happen anyway. Even if it does their relative success today proves them to be at least as well-adapted as anyone else to bend successfully with adversity. Thoughts like that, which seem very prevalent over climate change.
Or simply to decide the future, or more often the changes demanded by reality, are simply too frightening or overwhelming to deal with, and repress them by some mechanism or other. Keeping ourselves forever busy and distracted; booze, drugs and sex; straight denial of the facts; the ability to simply blank out on unwelcome realities as if they do not exist; fanatical dedication to some other interest despite the fact that our beds are burning. The mechanisms of denial seem almost infinite, though for anyone struggling with this type of problem - which must be all of us directly or indirectly - The Ecologist has done an exceptional job of identifying them and dealing with the issue, referenced below.
Those responding along such lines need to look closely at what irreversible climate change actually means. According to Peter Harper of Zero Carbon Britain and the Centre for Alternative Technology in his presentation at the Gaia Foundation on 07 February, the scientific consensus changed around 2003/4. Prior to that, a linear model of climate change had held sway. In it the effect of human activity on the climate was considered directly proportional to the amount of greenhouse emissions we generate on a one to one basis.
Three or four years ago that was replaced by an exponential model, which remains as universally accepted as a scientific theory ever can be. It had become clear that increases in global temperatures were starting to trigger the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases previously locked up in such sinks as the tundra ice and the deep ocean sediments, facts only recently discovered and unaccounted for in the linear model. As a result, rather than a one to one relationship, small increases in greenhouse gasses caused by man's activities can produce extremely large increases in total greenhouse gasses and hence massive increases in global warming. It is these that are forecast by the exponential model.
What is most disquieting is that with this model there is inevitably a tipping point, and one which must be avoided at all costs. Once this has been passed, even were man's activities and greenhouse emissions to cease immediately, a mechanism cuts in which leads inevitably to runaway global warming. What happens is the rise in global temperature already triggered leads to a further release of greenhouse gases from these sinks, which by themselves are sufficient to cause a further increase in temperature, triggering the release of more gases, and so on and so on. This process will continue until the mechanism somehow exhausts itself in a way that can only be guessed at, say by all the sinks being released, or perhaps resultant cloud cover blocking out the sun on a major scale. In the meantime global temperatures would have spiralled into the stratosphere, taking much of what we know and depend on for life as we currently enjoy it with them.
It is not a pretty picture, nor one anyone sane would wish to experience.
Yet this is what Mr Blair is alluding to when he says that we have less than 2 years to get a global agreement, and that if we do not take substantial action over the next two years we will be thinking seriously about adaption rather than prevention. We are that close to Armageddon.
Peter Harper was fairly similar in his predictions. He said that by 2012 it would be clear whether the trigger point had been crossed, and considered it a fate impossible to avoid without a binding global agreement to radically cut carbon emissions.
What are the inescapable conclusions?
First, that it is imperative for our survival, at least in the lifestyle we currently enjoy, that the trigger point must never be reached or exceeded.
Second, that to prevent that it is absolutely imperative that cast-iron global agreements are put into place with the utmost urgency, and that even a delay of a year or so may render them too late.
Third, that those agreements must be sufficiently robust in the measures they encompass to be absolutely certain - if such a certainty is still possible - that we fall on the right side of the tipping point by the greatest possible margin.
Therein lies the rub. We have almost no room for manoeuvre as we are very clearly balancing on the brink already, if we did not crossed it some time ago. In addition, Peter Harper was very clear that all of the limits and reductions currently proposed, negotiated, or in force were based upon the old linear model. In other words they are scientifically inadequate and probably insufficient to avert disaster. So why are they still in vogue? Partially for historical reasons, primarily because of political expediency - politicians will only go as far as leaves them re-electable, so will normally quarantine anything that might prove unpopular with voters as politically undeliverable. That is why Tony Blair said:
"People often say to me there are a lot of climate change plans out there, and I say 'how many of them are doable? So the experts are providing technical knowledge, and specialist insight, but what I am trying to do is guide it politically".
"Essentially what everyone has agreed is that climate change is a serious problem, it is man-made, we require a global deal, that there should be a substantial cut in emissions at the heart of it, and this global deal should involve everyone, including in particular America on the one hand and China on the other, so it is the developed and developing world.
" The question is what is the framework that gets everyone in the deal?"
"This is extremely urgent. A 50% cut by 2050 has to be a central component in this....We need a true and proper global deal, and that needs to include America and China."
From all of this we can conclude there are three great risks in the process he is taking forward. The first is that no agreement is reached. The second is that it is reached, but too late to avert disaster. The third is an ineffective compromise: that in making it politically doable, the remedy is too diluted to prevent the tipping point being reached anyway.
To put the last of these in perspective, recognising the inadequacy of proposals to cut emissions by 50 or 60% by 2050, Zero Carbon Britain has instead proposed a blueprint for reducing the UK's carbon footprint to zero in 20 years time, a target it believes is necessary to prevent runaway global warming from cutting in. While acknowledging it inevitably involves a fairly radical change to life as currently lived in consumer society, Peter Harper emphasises the positives of a change to a more relaxed and locally-based lifestyle. And let's face it, who can you point to who is genuinely peaceful, happy, content and fulfilled living frenetically in the rat race anyway?
Why bring all of this to your attention? Simply because it is now clear what we are bringing down upon ourselves and everything else on the planet, how quickly we must react and reorder our lives to avert irreversible catastrophe, and that on present form the inevitable conclusion is that we are not going to make it.
We have precious little time to alter that. We now have less than two years to make the critical changes and put our house in order. If we do not, we face absolute disaster which will see much of what has been depended upon and taken for granted since the emergence of humanity swept away irretrievably or put in the deepest jeopardy by changes that are permanent and irreversible.
So it is absolutely imperative that a workable and effective international response is up and running with the utmost urgency. But given the enormous political obstacles, that is very much an uphill process, and the reprehensible lack of progress to date provides absolutely no grounds for being optimistic that it will happen. Negotiating international agreements is a notoriously slow process, and the sacrifices demanded by this one are such that it will be a difficult deal to close even though it is in everyone's self-interest.
Further, any agreement reached will take further time to implement, and when we are talking about industrial processes and consumer behaviour the benefits are unlikely to start feeding in quickly. On this note well that that Mr Blair said:
"The fact of the matter is that if we do not take substantial action over the next two years , then by 2020 we will be thinking seriously about adaption rather than prevention.”
Even if an agreement can be hammered out in time, it is currently hard to see much concrete action having resulted by then.
So what does it mean for us as individuals?
Fundamentally that the chips are now irrevocably down, and there will be absolutely no second chances.
It is absolutely critical to find the time to do everything in your power to make sure that this does not happen. Whatever your priorities, whatever excuses you have employed to date, no matter how worthy the causes and other things you currently occupy your life with, if you do not do now what is required by this moment it will be too late. Permanently.
It calls for a response at three levels. First, it is vitally important to do everything in your power to make reaching the most powerful international agreement the most urgent political issue on the agenda. However exaggerated this might sound, bear in mind that everything else is rendered entirely futile if there is no viable planet to live on.
And that the new British 'national security strategy' unveiled yesterday by Gordon Brown, states that climate change is potentially the greatest threat to global stability and therefore to national security.
This requires action in the political sphere, doing your utmost to hammer home to your government and your representatives at all levels that this must happen with the utmost urgency and not be diluted for political expediency. It is only if politicians globally are made pointedly aware of the degree of public support that an effective agreement will result. And persuading everybody you can to do likewise. Even if you have never been active ever before.
The second is to make the changes that are demanded in your own life now, even before such an agreement comes into force. After all, laws and treaties are only necessary when the population will not do what is prudent of its own volition. And if you do not act very quickly, it will be forever too late. The quicker you make the change, the bigger the impact it will have. In addition it hits home with the politicians, since unpalatable measures become infinitely more doable politically if there is a proportion of the population already putting them into effect of their own volition.
Bear in mind that although we can be sure where things are heading and approximately when, chaos theory tells us that we can never tell the precise amount necessary to tip the balance until after it has happened. In the end it will be triggered by just one more molecule, and that will be because of all the ones each of us have already added through having other priorities in life, through not taking the trouble to cut our ecological footprints. It is down to each and every one of us.
The third is to convince everyone you possibly can to do likewise. In which nothing helps more in that than having already put it into practice yourself. Not to mention the mutual support and encouragement from which everyone benefits.
For those who remain sceptical, reluctant, or emotionally opposed to so doing, I would simply say this.
Time has almost run out. If runaway global warning does kick in, everything you are currently doing and consider more important will be rendered increasingly, and finally absolutely, futile as a result. That the risks of not behaving prudently are simply too great to contemplate. That it is in your own self-interest to evoke the precautionary principle and act prudently whilst that is still possible
While for those who simply cannot contemplate giving up their gas guzzlers for good, try looking at it this way. By 2012 the situation should be clear. If runaway global warming has kicked in, you can get the thing out of the garage and burn up to your hearts content for the rest of your lives. Because by then the amounts of greenhouse gases being released out of deep storage will be so great that it will make no difference.
Or to put it another way, we are doomed anyway.
But for now, we all need you to restrain yourselves for what may be our very last breathing space, and by all accounts appears to be our very last chance.
And the same for consumers generally. It is time to stop.
Thanks for reading this far. My apologies for labouring. And for finding myself again in the role of prophet of doom over all of this. That said, things could be worse. Unless I am hallucinating badly, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are next up and not far behind, as they are already strutting their stuff in the poorer parts of the globe not fortuitously cushioned by wealth and a benign climate.
Nonetheless, may you remain positive always, have a happy holiday, and the greatest of strength with whatever you decide to do in response.
The last word rests with Tony Blair who in his new role said that the world now faced catastrophe. This happened to be reported in the Guardian in an article announcing that the world's glaciers appear to be melting at the fastest rate for 5,000 years...
'...revealed in the latest report from the World Glacier Monitoring Service and will add to growing alarm about the rise in sea levels and increased instances of flooding, avalanches and drought.
'Based on historical records and other evidence, the rate at which the glaciers are melting is also thought to be faster that at any time in the past 5,000 years, said Professor Wilfried Haeberli, director of the monitoring service. 'There's no absolute proof, but nevertheless the evidence is strong: this is really extraordinary.'
'Experts have been monitoring 30 glaciers around the world for nearly three decades and the most recent figures, for 2006, show the biggest ever 'net loss' of ice. Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), told The Observer that melting glaciers were now the 'loudest and clearest' warning signal of global warming.
'The problem could lead to failing infrastructure, mass migration and even conflict. 'We're talking about something that happens in your and my lifespan. We're not talking about something hypothetical, we're talking about something dramatic in its consequences,' he said.
'Lester Brown, of the influential US-based Earth Policy Institute, said the problem would have global ramifications, as farmers in China and India struggled to irrigate their crops.
'This is the biggest predictable effect on food security in history as far as I know,' said Brown.'
In the same report, Mr Blair is reported as saying:
'We have reached the critical moment of decision on climate change. Failure to act now would be deeply and unforgivably irresponsible. The scale of what is needed is so great that the purpose of any global action is not to ameliorate or to make better our carbon dependence; it is to transform the nature of economies and societies in terms of carbon consumption and emissions.
If the average person in the US is, say, to emit per capita, one-tenth of what they do today and those in the UK or Japan one-fifth, we're not talking of adjustment, we're talking about a revolution.'
Folks, better get with it while you still can.
20 March 2008
1 Blair to lead campaign on climate change
The Guardian Friday 14.03.08 pages 1 & 2
2 The Ecologist – Beat denial 12 point plan
3 Zero Carbon Britain
4 “Climate change is potentially the greatest threat to global stability and therefore to national security”
The Guardian 20 March 2008 p15 reporting on the 'national security strategy' announced by Gordon Brown on 19 March.
5 Glaciers melt 'at fastest rate in past 5,000 years'
The Observer 16 March 2006
'politics:policies may be unable to keep pace with the environmental changes of the future.'
The Guardian 20 March 2008 p23, reporting a forecast by 35 leading environmental sciences on factors affecting biodiversity in the UK. Risks cited include nanotechnologies, invasive species, especially pathogens, and policy responses to climate change.