more important, Brexit or climate change? Allow me interrupt your usual
stream of news and social media gossip with a reality check.
In the grand scheme of things, Brexit doesn't matter, nor does the EU.
Can we stop obsessing about
these relatively minor issues? Turkey's EU dreams, despite its
appalling treatment of the Kurds and the
continuing denial of the Armenian genocide, is another relatively
unimportant topic. Hungary's failure to
improve the situation of the Roma and the US neglect of their native
peoples may seem more important, but I wish to argue
that in the end none of this matters very much, either. The callous
responses of Australia and Europe to refugees who risk their lives in
overcrowded boats, China's continuing suppression of Tibet, and the
shocking human rights violations in the USA, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and
Uganda - all these things are relatively insignificant. The continuing
denial of womens' rights, female genital mutilation, forced marriage,
the stoning of adulterers, rape and domestic violence, the continuing
failure to punish the perpetrators, unequal pay for equal work
- absolutely shocking, but unimportant in a broader
threat of terrorism in Europe, France's labor law crisis and the nuit
debout - trivial. The crisis on the Crimean peninsula, the Russian
military threat (which is nothing compared to the American threat), the
murder rate in the USA and Mexico, the fate of nuclear waste from
France, the risk of nuclear meltdown following an earthquake in
California, plastic pollution in the oceans...
None of this matters much compared to global poverty, global warming,
and their future interaction. Can we get things in perspective, please?
In a world overflowing with wealth, poverty is still killing some ten
million people every year. People are mainly dying of
hunger, preventable/curable disease, and violence, all in connection
with poverty. This ongoing catastrophe is mainly playing out
in Africa (most African countries are still seriously affected),
but also in central Asia (Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Laos) plus other regions (e.g. Solomon Islands, Haiti, Mexico).
The death toll in connection with poverty is far bigger than the death tolls from other
problems and disasters of any kind, including violence in Syria and
Iraq. And the biggest problem - the granddaddy of them all - is global
warming, because it will push up this death toll. A lot.
Have we forgotten about the foundations of our morality? Every life and
every death have equal value. Call me speciesist, but for us human
beings, human beings are evidently the most valuable things. They are
our fundamental unit of value. Our value system is not primarily about
gold or dollars - it's about people. Have we forgotten that?
Have we also forgotten the meaning of large numbers? That a million is
a thousand times bigger than a thousand, and a billion is a thousand
times bigger than a million? Have we forgotten what it means to speak
of millions or even billions of deaths?
The death rate in connection with poverty will probably double later
this century due to global warming, given the long list of catastrophic
consequences of climate change: rising sea levels, wet-bulb
temperatures exceeding body temperature, ocean acidification,
desertification, more frequent and more destructive storms and
flooding, species extinction, loss of biodiversity, deglaciation
affecting water supplies, wars over limited resources, and mass
migration. Add to all that the self-reinforcing effects of reduced
solar reflection from ice, methane release from the earth's crust, and
unprecedented forest fires. If you consider such a list, it is hard to
imagine how the death rate could NOT double. All of those things will
exacerbate hunger, disease and violence. You can't "prove it
scientifically", but you can certainly imagine a scenario in which the
current death rate is multiplied by three or even ten, so my estimate
is on the conservative side.
Global warming and Brexit have one thing in common. Both are
practically irreversible. Or are they? Brexit could be
relatively easily, in fact. But future generations will be stuck with
global warming for centuries - effectively, forever. Without a miracle,
they will essentially be powerless to solve the problem.
Geoengineering solutions are unlikely to work - or if they do, the side
effects will devastating.
Future generations will witness the slow destruction of much that was
ever beautiful on this unique planet. Their lives will be destroyed by
turmoils worse than we can imagine. They will blame us, the people in
the 2010s who knew exactly what was going on and failed to take the
problem seriously. We who had a great time at their expense, and left
this toxic legacy. We who allowed ourselves to be constantly distracted
by deceptively urgent storms-in-teacups such as Brexit. We who lived
our luxurious lives not noticing how uniquely lucky we are, and not
realising that this is about as good as it will ever get.
We of the Western middle classes - we who are enjoying the highest
standard of living and the best school education and medical services
ever on this planet, fit for kings and queens in previous centuries,
yet still complaining about our middle-class problems - are stubbornly
refusing to talk about the true human consequences of our greenhouse
gas emissions. Those consequences include the future deaths of perhaps
a billion people. We are acting as if those people did not exist, or
did not matter.
This is not a hoax, nor is it Nostradamus. I am merely attempting to
express the horrific implications of mainstream climate science in
simple, direct language.
The logical implication of all this is that we should stop talking
about everything else and solve the climate problem first, because
everything else depends on it. Logically, all burning of all fossil
fuels, provided it is not necessary to save lives, should stop now. Not
in 20 years, not next year, but now.
This is not a passionate plea, nor is it an angry demand. It is merely
a logical argument based on we know about the situation. I am assuming
that everyone agrees we should not knowingly cause the deaths of
millions of future people. Does anyone disagree with that? Hardly.
I haven't given up hope that people will finally start talking about
the true human cost of climate change in the scientific literature and
mainstream media. The day will come when we will face the truth about
the hundreds of millions of climate deaths that will almost certainly
happen later this century as a result. We will finally admit that we
are causing this future calamity right now: cause = emissions, effect =
The day will come when we will stop dismissing the
truth-tellers as crazy, or perhaps just slightly barmy. The
will dawn that the consequences are far, far more serious than the
Paris agreement or any other such agreement would imply. People will
finally start to act as one would expect people to act in a global
emergency. Better late than never.
We like to blame those stupid Brexiteers for dragging the UK into a
situation that will be bad for everyone - including the Brexiteers
themselves. How could they have been so stupid? We can similarly
criticize the irrational far-right voters in Austria, France,
Poland or the US for shooting themselves in the foot, and dragging
others down with them. But by ignoring the human cost of climate
change, we are being even more stupid and immoral. By failing to give
climate change the attention it deserves, we are effectively shooting
future people in the head - not the foot. These people may even include
our own children or grandchildren.
Some people say it is bad to make people feel guilty about climate
change. They may have a point. One can achieve a lot merely by pointing
out the environmental, social, and economic advantages of alternative
energies. Walk on the sunny side of the street. The trouble is, this
approach is a form of denial. Climate denial comes in many forms - and
this is one of them. It is also a subtle way to suppress the truth and
freedom of speech. If Charlie Hebdo is right, we don't want that. On
top of all that, the alternative energy revolution is happening far too
slowly. Every year, according to my calculations,
we are still killing some ten million future people with our continuing
emissions. Besides, guilt is a tried and tested method of ensuring that
society works smoothly and individual rights are respected. That's what
the law does: establish who is guilty and then decide if and how they
should be punished. I am perfectly happy to talk about my own guilt,
having regularly flown to conferences
for most of my working life (I have given up now, unless under special
conditions - better late than never). I guess no-one will convict and
punish me for that. The same applies to most other people who "come
out" about their carbon footprint. So let's just expose and reconcile
our guilt, and get on with the task of solving the problem.
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