Saturday, 16 April 2011

Climate Change, Survival and the Human Condition

It is impossible not to be deeply saddened by the human suffering in Japan. We watch harrowing images daily with what is, in truth, a detached lack of true understanding. We are safe in our homes, warm and dry, with our families and possessions cuddled close and utility at the flick of a switch or turn of a tap. We discuss, we admonish and we utter overt and well-meaning pledges of support whilst deep down we inwardly whisper - there but for grace of God go we. But for how much longer will we be immune to the planet's idiosyncrasies?

I know that some will argue there is a scientific link between what we refer to wholesale now as 'climate change' and the earthquakes and ensuing tsunami in Japan. Many will respond, equally vociferously, that Japan has suffered earthquakes and been at the mercy of the sea for centuries and, on which, climate change has not had any demonstrable impact. The vagaries of both empirical academic study and global geopolitical gamesmanship, although each are different beasts entirely, have both produced a terrifying uncertainty about the future of our planet and the nature of humanity's response to the most serious threat to our existence since time immemorial. Although not a complete failure, throwing climate change into stark relief as it did, the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen did not achieve anywhere near enough. No commentator could possibly disagree.

On Sunday 3rd April 2011 in Thailand the international community began further formal United Nations talks on climate change and global warming. For more than two decades, the UN has been chipping away at this issue, but so little has been achieved. Expectations within the international community are low - they have probably never been as low. The 2009 conference in Copenhagen that was intended to secure a new treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto protocol. That ended in deadlock. Last year's talks in Cancún ended without agreement on most of the important new issues. This is hardly surprising. The principle cause of the man-made shifts in our climate is the burning of fossil fuels with no legitimate or effective regulation of emissions. Observe, for example, emissions trading - the trading of emissions allowances on the stock market - 'I haven't used my allowance - do you want to buy it from me?' Not quite the point, I would suggest. I will deal with international geopolitical obstinacy in another post.

On any view, reducing our reliance on carbon will take decades and a budget measured in the trillions. There is no incentive for many nations to even consider such a course, citing as they do the fact that the developed nations contributed the most to this issue and now seek, having reached a satisfactory level of development, to impose restrictions on those nations still developing. Economic crises across the globe have inflicted even greater poverty and the poorer nations look inwardly and with a short-term view, as they necessarily must to safeguard to survival of their own people.

The UN, as many have recently observed, is unlikely to secure co-operation giving a voice as it does to each nation on the planet. Discussions will always have the potential to be stymied by even one small nation whose self-interest does not match that of the larger players or the rest of the planet. So what does this mean for the global population as a whole? Whether the tsunami in Japan was caused by a geological or meteorological reaction to climate change or not, it highlights the trauma that natural disasters, which will inevitably grow in number as the climate of our planet changes, can cause. How we as individuals, as communities and as nations respond to that is just as crucial as the global geopolitical response to climate change and emissions reduction. The wholesale destruction of whole communities in Japan engenders debate as to the modus operandi of the emergency services in each and every nation and how well equipped they are to deal with natural disasters. 

And once the worst has abated, the clear-up must begin. In many coastal towns, where families have lived for generations, Japanese citizens refuse to move and start again in a safer location. They opt instead to stay and rebuild, but are they permitting sentiment to trump safety? If the climate is going to make disasters on the scale seen in Japan more frequent then surely governments must start to look at emergency and disaster management in a more constructive way? And this is still an 'if' - consensus is divided on issue of the true effect of climate, which is the principal problem caused by the lack of agreement on climate change issues among the international community. Relocation of entire communities is, within decades, likely to be an issue facing nations across the globe and the UK is not immune. Earthquakes in Kent are not unheard of - in 2007 and 2009 - and a flood of the Thames would have a near fatal impact on London and, consequently, the UK (and European) economies. In 2006, when New Orleans was destroyed by flooding, the BBC examined the Thames and its potential for flooding up to 2100. That was before a major economic crisis hit the planet. Even at that stage, the Thames Estuary 2100 project was moving just about quick enough to meet its targets for enhancing the Thames Barrier (and other flood defences). As of November 2010, the project had just submitted its Final Plan. Four years on, and little substantive work has actually been done. How much did we learn from New Orleans? How much will we learn from Japan? When will it be too late?

Neither immature conspiracy theories nor unhelpful doomsaying can detract from the scientific and political reality that the world must change and it is not going about it quick enough. Many lament at the short-termism of modern politics and the lack of political will to ask the right people the right questions - scientists or academic experts whose opinion does not fit, experience a sometimes fatal restriction on freedom of speech. There can be no doubt that whatever your opinion of climate change, we are fast losing the margin of appreciation we need to exist as a species. Indeed, it may well fall to local communities, supported by governments who are unlikely to have been forward-thinking enough to prevent or ameliorate disaster and will be reactive rather than proactive, to survive. Will we move from our homes to seek new places to live? Will the current infrastructure of modern economic society permit us to do that? Land is owned across the UK - upping sticks and setting down elsewhere will have major consequences, if it were even possible. So little is achieved on so major an issue as climate change purely as a consequence of self-interest, even when small players are involved. It seems unlikely to me that the freedom of the Wild West to settle land that is 'safer' to live on than coastal land might well become will be offered to those at risk. Are the communities in Japan that obdurately refuse to move right to do so? Do they even have an opportunity given the development of Japan? Is there even space? Giving up generations of history is an emotional wrench that is hard to quantify but there comes a time when emotion must give way to reason. Perhaps that time is not yet, but it's closer than we think. It's time governments began thinking about our children and where they will be safe. If we cannot secure agreement on an international scale, we should certainly secure it domestically.


  1. When you get to my age you start to despair at the stupidity of politicians and even more so at the people who actually vote for them. Who in their right mind would vote for George Bush or even consider taking Sarah Palin seriously. There are glimmers of hope as major car manufacturers seem to be investing in electric/hybrid cars. Unless science comes up with alternatives to carbon we are doomed. As India and China become more affluent they are going to want the trappings of civilisation. More cars, tvs fridges ...more energy more resources.
    I didn't think the Japanese Tsunami was caused by global warming but by geological events to do with plate techtonics.

  2. I intend over the coming months to post more on this topic - in particular why governments are failing to deal with the issues and what we on a more local and national level, rather than internationally, should be doing. I agree that there is a glimmer of hope on many levels but it's simply not radical enough. We need wholesale changes in attitude and focus, it seems to me. I don't think Japan is a victim of climate change either, the scientific evidence is against that proposition, but the issues are the same.

  3. Hi Maz,
    Very well put together post. The reason that politics fails is because we let it. We don’t do enough to change our politicians views. They think that once they are elected that we have to agree with them. It’s about time that the people decided on the policies and they worked for us implementing what we want, not where they can get the biggest cash handouts, a cushy number after office and an easy life and retirement on a yacht in the Bahamas or similar.

    Also do we really feel that the idiotic human race can make changes to anything that nature will not foresee and counter? It only takes one massive volcano eruption or some dictator setting oil wells on fire to completely undo all the so called good work the populous are being conned into thinking will help save the planet.

    It’s all about big money for the select few in my opinion. Rant over! Thanks Maz.

  4. We can only change the view of our politicians by making sure we elect the people who understand the importance of this issue and then ensuring they remain faithful to their policies. I don't think the planet bears us any ill will and will seek to counter our efforts - I think we could do more to understand and work in harmony with the planet rather than acting in a way contrary to the interests of the planet - cutting down vast swathes of rainforests which produce the oxygen we need to exist seems like one rather stupid lack of forward thinking but climate change will get us long before that does - it is, however, an example of our short-termism. That is why I agree with you - it's all about big money.

  5. you may be interested in plans already underway:

    this place has some very revealing investors, some of whom are also buying up huge tracts of high land in other countries. Preparations, but for who?

  6. Maz, my head hurts contemplating all the possible and impossible answers to the questions outlined in your post, but...
    ...I believe that first we as individual human beings must wrestle with our own moral conscience regarding what we need and what the global media tell us we must consume.
    We need to evolve as a species and rise above the greed of our animal instincts. I laugh at my dog in the park, attempting to pick up a second ball in his mouth where he already has one. He'll drop one for the other and so on, I laugh, but aren't we humans being just as absurd?
    There are too many powerfull players juggling all the balls, maybe in time if enough individuals wake up to the plight of our human existence, we can turn to the jugglers en masse and tell them "keep your balls, we have what we need.". It probably won't stop the sun from overheating our earth, but at least it might give us a little while longer here.

    "The Earth is but one country and mankind it's citizens."

  7. Thought provoking comment, Eric. Thank you. Our own conscience is the crux of the issue as it so often is when we juxtapose 'want' with 'need'. We are a consumer society and soon that may well change. Maybe not in my lifetime, maybe not even in my son's but such short-termism is what got us in this mess in the first place. Greed is natural for human beings and that is what makes me pessimistic about our future.