Brexit versus climate
Richard Parncutt

Draft June 2016

What's 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 context. The 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 reversed - 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 = mass death.

The day will come when we will stop dismissing the truth-tellers as crazy, or perhaps just slightly barmy. The light 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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