Warmer, Warmer

John Lanchester

  • BuyThe Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock
    Allen Lane, 222 pp, £8.99, February 2007, ISBN 978 0 14 102597 1
  • Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis Summary for Policymakers: Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
    IPCC, February 2007
  • Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning by George Monbiot
    Allen Lane, 277 pp, £17.99, September 2006, ISBN 0 7139 9923 3
  • The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies by Richard Heinberg
    Clairview, 320 pp, £12.99, October 2005, ISBN 1 905570 00 7
  • The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review by Nicholas Stern
    Cambridge, 692 pp, £29.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 70080 1

It is strange and striking that climate change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism. After all, terrorism is for the individual by far the modern world’s most effective form of political action, and climate change is an issue about which people feel just as strongly as about, say, animal rights. This is especially noticeable when you bear in mind the ease of things like blowing up petrol stations, or vandalising SUVs. In cities, SUVs are loathed by everyone except the people who drive them; and in a city the size of London, a few dozen people could in a short space of time make the ownership of these cars effectively impossible, just by running keys down the side of them, at a cost to the owner of several thousand pounds a time. Say fifty people vandalising four cars each every night for a month: six thousand trashed SUVs in a month and the Chelsea tractors would soon be disappearing from our streets. So why don’t these things happen? Is it because the people who feel strongly about climate change are simply too nice, too educated, to do anything of the sort? (But terrorists are often highly educated.) Or is it that even the people who feel most strongly about climate change on some level can’t quite bring themselves to believe in it?

I don’t think I can be the only person who finds in myself a strong degree of psychological resistance to the whole subject of climate change. I just don’t want to think about it. This isn’t an entirely unfamiliar sensation: someone my age is likely to have spent a couple of formative decades trying not to think too much about nuclear war, a subject which offered the same combination of individual impotence and prospective planetary catastrophe. Global warming is even harder to ignore, not so much because it is increasingly omnipresent in the media but because the evidence for it is starting to be manifest in daily life. Even a city boy like me can see evidence that the world is a little warmer than it was.

Part of the problem is one of scale. Global warming is as a subject so much more important than almost anything else that it is difficult to frame or discuss. At the moment there is a global warming-related item on the news at least once a week. Today, for instance, there are two: close to home, a judge throwing out the government’s phoney ‘consultation’ process over nuclear power, and further away, at a conference in Washington, an ‘informal agreement’ marking a new commitment to ‘tackling climate change’ and resulting in a ‘non-binding’ declaration which reflected ‘a real change of mood’. Just what the world needs – more hot air. And then the news moves on to other things, to contaminated Anglo-Hungarian turkeys and gang shootings and potential schisms in the Anglican Church. There is a kind of falsehood built into this; at the very least, a powerful degree of denial. If global warming is as much of a threat as we have good reason to think it is, the subject can’t be covered in the same way as church fêtes and county swimming championships. I suspect we’re reluctant to think about it because we’re worried that if we start we will have no choice but to think about nothing else. James Lovelock, in his powerful and extremely depressing book The Revenge of Gaia, says this:

I am old enough to notice a marked similarity between attitudes over sixty years ago towards the threat of war and those now towards the threat of global heating. Most of us think that something unpleasant may soon happen, but we are as confused as we were in 1938 over what form it will take and what to do about it. Our response so far is just like that before the Second World War, an attempt to appease. The Kyoto agreement was uncannily like that of Munich, with politicians out to show that they do respond but in reality playing for time.

I may be wrong in speaking of a general sense of psychological resistance; perhaps I’m only talking about myself. In any case, with the whole topic so charged and so difficult, it is best to begin with the agreed facts.

The climate of our planet is not stable. The whole of recorded human history has taken place within what is, from the earth’s point of view, a relatively narrow band of temperature. From a glaciological perspective, we are living in an ice age, because there is ice at the poles – which has by no means always been the case. Fifty-odd million years ago, not only was there no ice at the North Pole, the temperature there was 23ºC. Ten thousand years ago, at the end of the last cool snap of this current ice age – known as a ‘glacial’, to distinguish it from the warmer ‘interglacial’ of the type we are living through now – much of Northern Europe was buried beneath miles of ice. Sea levels were hundreds of feet lower than they are today, and there was a thousand-mile-wide land bridge between Russia and North America. According to some palaeo-climatologists, 700 million years ago, during a period known as the Varangian (for some reason geological ages are named after characters in Dungeons and Dragons), almost the whole planet iced over, well-nigh irrecoverably. Earth was prevented from becoming a permanently lifeless ball of ice only through processes which are not fully understood. This is known, with appropriate chillingness, as the ‘snowball earth event’.

Most of the variation in the earth’s climatic cycles comes from small irregularities in its orbit. These irregularities are magnified by the immensely complicated systems of the earth’s climate. A crucial one of these is the greenhouse effect, without which there would be no life on our planet, since it is the greenhouse effect which prevents the sun’s infra-red radiation from simply bouncing back out into space. The existence of the effect was first posited in 1859 by the Irish scientist John Tyndall, who said that without the greenhouse effect ‘the warmth of our fields and gardens would pour itself unrequited into space, and the sun would rise upon an island held fast in the iron grip of frost’. The Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius added to Tyndall’s work in the early 20th century by pointing out that human activity was adding to the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Because CO2, along with other gases such as water vapour and methane, prevents radiation from escaping, it is a ‘greenhouse gas’, and therefore increased levels of CO2 make the earth warmer – not that Arrhenius was especially worried about that, since he thought that the rate of increase would be low. The basic science of this was not in dispute, but the area was also not one of much scientific interest except to one or two mavericks.

One of them was a young American physicist called James Hansen, whose 1967 PhD thesis studied Venus and came to the conclusion that it was the greenhouse effect which made the planet so warm – 400ºC on the surface, hot enough to melt lead. A probe later the same year showed that the atmosphere of Venus was in fact 96 per cent carbon dioxide, and Hansen became fascinated by the greenhouse effect on earth. At the prompting of a geochemist and oceanographer called Charles David Keeling, the observatory of Mauna Loa on Hawaii had been collecting data on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere since 1959. The result – the ‘Keeling curve’ – clearly showed that levels of atmospheric CO2 were rising sharply. In 1979, Jimmy Carter asked the National Academy of Sciences to look into the question. The Ad Hoc Study Group of Carbon Dioxide and Climate did that, and reported that they had ‘no reason to doubt that climate change will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible’. Dating more or less from that report, a huge amount of work has been done on the science of the subject, and especially on the detailed, sophisticated and controversial computer models on which predictions about the future are based. (One of the world’s leading centres for this research is our very own Hadley Centre, based near Bristol and run by the Met Office.)

It was 1988 before the issue of CO2 and the climate was again raised to public attention. James Hansen testified before a Congressional hearing that he was ‘99 per cent’ certain ‘global warming is affecting our planet now.’ The attention brought by the hearings prompted the UN and the World Meteorological Organisation to found the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with a brief to study and report on the question of greenhouse gases and their effect on the climate. The IPCC’s first report, in 1990, said that there was evidence of global warming to the tune of about 0.5ºC in the past century, that the cause of the warming to date could be as much natural as human, but that action was needed to prevent the build-up of greenhouse gases in the future. From that point on, the panel’s degree of confidence about the causes of global warming grew steadily. Its next report was in 1995, when it concluded that ‘the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.’ By 2001 it had decided that it was ‘likely’ that human activity had caused the greater part of the century’s warming: ‘likely’ means that it put the probability at between 66 and 90 per cent. Last month, the panel reported for the fourth time. (Or rather, it published its Summary for Policymakers – the full report, with all the scientific details and appendices, will come out over the next few months.) The new report says that the observed global warming over the last fifty years was ‘very likely’ to be the result of human activity, a statement which means that they are between 90 and 95 per cent certain.[*] This means that from the scientific point of view there is no longer a debate about human-caused global warming and the only question left open is what exactly to do about it.

Laid out like this, it all seems pretty clear-cut: a story of speculation and research leading to a gradually increasing degree of certainty. But in practice the question of climate change has never been other than bitterly contested, to an extent that reflects structural flaws in three areas: the political context of science; the reporting of science in the media; and the more general relationship between science and the public. It can be argued that the question of how we got here doesn’t matter, especially not when compared to the overarchingly urgent question of what to do next; but I’m not sure that’s right. A maxim in the theory of problem-solving says: if you can’t break it, it isn’t fixed. In other words, if you don’t know how something came to not-work, you can’t be sure that you have reliably made it work. Since a systematic approach to climate change would involve a new relationship between scientific predictions and public policy, it seems a good idea to try and think clearly about how we got to this point.

The simplest issue has been to do with the politicisation of science. The story is clearest in the US, which leads the world in polluting the planet, and in studying the climate, and has set the pattern for the global debate on the issue. Unfortunately, the climate debate came along at a time when the Republican Party was wilfully embracing anti-scientific irrationalism. One way of telling this story – adopted by Kim Stanley Robinson in his novel Forty Signs of Rain – begins with the Scientists for Johnson Campaign, run by a group of eminent scientists who were worried about Barry Goldwater’s apparent eagerness to wage nuclear war. Their campaign had a considerable impact, and when Richard Nixon got to the White House four years later he was convinced that scientists were a dangerously anti-Republican political lobby. Nixon shut down the Office of Science and Technology, and kicked the presidential science adviser out of the cabinet – an effective and still unreversed removal of science from the policy-making arena in the US. Still, the Republicans did not really go to the dark side over science until the second Bush presidency. The first Bush was willing to sign the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a document which was unanimously approved by the Senate, but his son has appeared reluctant to discuss the subject and even more reluctant to act – this being one of the most important ways his administration has acted as a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil industry. James Hansen and other scientists have reported attempts by the administration to prevent them from voicing their views; and the administration has consistently tried to weaken and tone down the language of its own agencies’ reports on the subject. What makes this so bizarre are Bush’s private views on energy and oil, as reflected in the various ecologically friendly decisions he has made at his own ranch in Crawford (it uses geothermal heat pumps, and has a 25,000 gallon underground cistern to collect rainwater), and in this passage from his speechwriter David Frum’s book The Right Man:

I once made the mistake of suggesting to Bush that he use the phrase cheap energy to describe the aims of his energy policy. He gave me a sharp, squinting look, as if he were trying to decide whether I was the stupidest person he’d heard from all day or only one of the top five. Cheap energy, he answered, was how we had got into this mess. Every year from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s, American cars burned less and less oil per mile travelled. Then in about 1995 that progress stopped. Why? He answered his own question: because of the gas-guzzling SUV. And what had made the SUV possible? This time I answered. ‘Um, cheap energy?’ He nodded at me. Dismissed.

More or less the only conclusion one can draw from that under-reported passage is that W. is well aware of the realities but has been knowingly acting as a stooge for the oil industry. He is not alone. It is shocking to learn from George Monbiot’s book Heat just how systematic the oil lobby has been about spreading a smokescreen of doubt around the question of climate change. The techniques in play were learned by the tobacco lobby in the course of the fights over smoking and health. ‘Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the minds of the general public,’ an internal memo from one tobacco company states. ‘It is also the best means of establishing a controversy.’ Or, as the Republican pollster Frank Luntz put it in a memo to party activists during W.’s first midterms, ‘Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.’ Oil money and tobacco money have gone to bodies such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, the Reason Foundation and the Independent Institute. Exxon, in particular, is a great one for sponsoring climate-denying websites and lobby groups.

This policy has been remarkably effective. While the peer-reviewed science on global warming is overwhelming – a 2004 survey in Science showed that of the 928 peer-reviewed papers on the subject, ‘none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position’ – the balance in the media has been split almost 50-50 between the scientific evidence on the one hand and ‘sceptics’ on the other. On Monbiot’s account, the BBC has recently woken up to the way in which it was ‘fooled by these people’, which is good news if it is true; but the corporation has hitherto been weak-minded about its reporting of climate change. The ideology of balance has led it to include the ‘other side’ of a debate which has, among scientists, only one side; a recent highlight was an appearance by Nigel Lawson on Newsnight, arguing, or ‘arguing’, as follows: ‘the whole science is extremely uncertain – that is well known to anybody who has studied it.’

The problem with ‘balance’ is partly a problem with the way science is reported. ‘Balance’ works, sort of, as a way of discussing politics in a two-party system. (Though it has to be said that the remorseless polarisation, whereby I say yah because you said boo, is one main reason for the decreased interest in party politics.) Since the climate debate has been polarised on left-right lines in the US, it has seemed appropriate to the media to treat it as a polarised issue, one on which there are two schools of thought, which, in respect of the science, it isn’t: there is one school of thought, and a few nutters. (Parenthetically, it’s not too hard to imagine a world in which the conservative parties were more in favour of conservation, and environmentalism in general was a cause of the right. David Cameron is clearly trying to remake this connection in the UK, in the belief that this is the main issue where he can clearly and definitively distinguish himself from New Labour. The option isn’t available to the Republicans, since they abandoned science in favour of the Christianist right and the environment in favour of Big Oil, which may be one reason why, notwithstanding the shift in the evidence, a poll of Congressional Republicans found that only 13 per cent of them thought it ‘proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the earth is warming because of man-made problems’.) The way the issue is reported reflects the fact that there are people who want to believe in global warming, and wanted to do so right from the start, before the evidence had accumulated to the point where it was no longer an issue of belief. Similarly, there are plenty of people who did not want to believe in man-made global warming, and who are continuing to refuse to believe in it even though the balance of the evidence has changed. But we can’t afford to be distracted from the factual position either by the people who want it to be true or the people who want it not to be, and there is an urgent requirement in the public arena for the issue to be considered now as one of plain fact.

When we come to sum up how we got to this point, there is one other factor to add to the politicisation of science and the reporting of science. It is a deeper, murkier consideration, and it bears on the way our society is in thrall to science and at the same time only partly understands it. Our material culture is based on science in a way so profound that our attitude to it approaches a kind of faith. Arthur C. Clarke said that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ This is a remark beloved of SF fans, and endlessly quoted in discussions of what might happen if there were ever to be contact between humans and aliens (or time travel etc). Its real sting is that it is a description of the world we already inhabit. Electric light and power, and television, and computers, and fridges, not to mention cars and planes and lasers and CD players and dialysis machines and wireless networking and synthetic materials, are things we take on trust: we don’t know how they work, but we’re happy to benefit from using them. We may have a rough understanding of scientific method, and even a rough Bill Brysonish sense of some of the science involved, but that is about it; our attitude contains significant components of faith and trust and incomprehension, while at the same time we are grateful for the wonders modern science has brought us.

Our faith-based contentment with science has been challenged before, most particularly by the invention of nuclear weapons. But with global warming, science is bringing us catastrophic news, and is doing so, moreover, on the basis of predictions about the future which demand urgent and radical action in the present. It’s not like being told about some scientific breakthrough, waiting a few years, and then having the breakthrough manifest itself in the form of a technology that gradually becomes more useful over time. The issue of global warming is the opposite of that: we are required to act on the basis of the faith in science which is one of the fundamental underpinnings of our society, but the faith has never been made quite so explicit before, and the need to act radically, urgently and expensively on the basis of scientific models is testing that faith to the full and beyond. This perhaps underlies the note of hysteria or of will-to-persuade that is so apparent in the public discussion of global warming. In general, the more urgent an issue is for the public, the harder scientists try to appear detached and elevated. Whenever there’s a public health scare, whether it’s justified (BSE) or not (MMR), government scientists begin using the word ‘evidence’ in every sentence, which is always a sign that they think that the real issue is a failure on the part of the media and public to understand scientific method. (I learned this through encounters with a senior biologist I got to know while reporting on BSE ten years ago. She would consistently refuse to answer any question I put to her about the implications of the discovery of human-form BSE, and the consequences for public policy: it was always ‘the evidence doesn’t show this,’ ‘the evidence doesn’t show that’ and ‘there is as yet no evidence to suggest’. But I heard that in private she was going around begging other people, and especially people with children, to stop eating beef.) Working scientists have a very low opinion of the way science is reported, which shades without too much difficulty into a belief that the public is too stupid to understand science. In the case of global warming, these factors have come together to create a situation where the scientists involved are not just talking in a new way, one unfamiliar to both them and us, but are in effect trying to sell us something. And we the public might be undereducated, but we know not to trust entirely someone who is trying to sell us something. The impression that some scientists are consciously trying to make us more afraid is a potent aid to the sceptics.

We deeply don’t want to believe this story. The fourth report of the IPCC makes it clear that we are right not to want to. The Summary for Policymakers is a strange document, one which bears out a comment Norman Mailer once made to the effect that ‘form is the record of a war.’ In this case, the war is that between science and the politics of global warming, which is powerfully present in every line of the SPM, mainly in the form of its total absence. The way the SPM works is that the scientists write a report, and then are put together in a room with representatives of the world’s governments, and between them they agree a text that has full support, the idea being that there is nothing left that can be contested: that the SPM has the full support of all the relevant scientists and their governments. Since the governments in question include the administrations of George W. Bush, King Abdullah, John Howard and Hu Jintao, this is not a straightforward process; in fact there is something heroic about the firm stand the SPM manages to take. The price for this is that the SPM makes no policy recommendations of any kind, a fact which has drawn some negative comment; but the consensus on the basic facts is so remarkable that we can live without the unenforceable policy advice.

The first crucial component of the scientific consensus concerns a figure called the ‘climate sensitivity’. This is the amount by which the climate will grow warmer if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubles. It is not a straightforward figure to calculate because many of the values change as the temperature changes; water vapour, for instance, is an important greenhouse gas, and as the oceans warm, water vapour in the atmosphere increases both in amount and in its greenhouse properties. Arrhenius thought that it would take three thousand years for our activities to double the level of CO2, which in 1750, before the Industrial Revolution, was about 280 parts per million (ppm). By now the level is 379ppm and rising sharply. As the Chinese and Indian economies take off and global levels of CO2 begin to rise even more quickly, it seems a racing certainty that we will achieve that level of doubled emissions some time this century; at which point the ‘climate sensitivity’ will become the most important number in the world. So the fact that according to the IPCC ‘an assessed likely range’ for climate sensitivity can now be given ‘for the first time’ is of more than academic interest. That figure is likely – between 66 and 90 per cent probable – to be between 2 and 4.5ºC. The best estimate is for climate sensitivity to be 3ºC. ‘Values substantially higher than 4.5ºC cannot be excluded.’

The consequences of this are listed pretty dryly in the report: cold days and nights will be warmer and fewer, hot ones hotter and more frequent – this is ‘virtually certain’, i.e. more than 99 per cent probable. Increased frequency of heatwaves and ‘heavy precipitation events’ is ‘very likely’ – 90 to 95 per cent. That means that a greater proportion of rain will come in the form of downpours. There will be more and bigger droughts, more and bigger tropical storms, and more and bigger floods – all ‘likely’, 66 to 90 per cent. The sea level will rise between 18 and 59 centimetres, mainly as a result of the ocean expanding as it warms. Increased melting in the Greenland and Antarctic is not included in these figures because there is not enough of a consensus to include its effects in the modelling. That isn’t reassuring. The Greenland ice sheet holds enough water to raise global sea levels by seven metres – which would mean the end of, for instance, London, Miami, the Netherlands and Bangladesh.

What does the picture painted by the SPM mean? The short answer is that no one knows. Although we know more about many aspects of the climate than we once did, the fact is that we are entering a period of climatic change outside the experience of recorded human history, without a confident sense of what those changes will entail. If the events listed above are the whole of the story it doesn’t seem too bad: hotter days and nights, storms and droughts, sound like things we should be able to endure. The trouble is that the global climate is a system of such complexity that we can’t model in sufficient detail what the effects are. The last time CO2 levels were as high as they are today, in the last interglacial 125,000 years ago, sea levels were between four and six metres higher than they are today – a figure which we can take as a proxy for changes which in most respects are beyond imagining. What would happen if the harvest failed all across Europe or the US or Africa? What would happen if it failed again the next year, and the year after that? What would happen if the rain-and-meltwater pattern in the Yangtze valley, the core of Chinese agriculture, changed? What would happen if the glacial run-off from the Himalayas, which supplies most of India with its water, were to change? What would happen if the behaviour of El Niño were to become so unpredictable that agriculture in the Southern Hemisphere became unsustainable at current population levels? What would happen if those glaciers were to melt away? What would happen if the Gulf Stream (the Atlantic’s ‘meridional overturning circulation’, as it is scientifically known) were to shut down suddenly – the Day after Tomorrow disaster scenario? The prediction is that Western Europe would become 8ºC cooler, about the temperature of Canada. But Canada produces enough food to feed 30 million people and enough grain to feed 60 million. Western Europe has a population of about 450 million. So what would they eat?[†] Hurricane Katrina gave us a glimpse of how quickly a meteorological event can destroy a city in the richest country in the world. We may be moving towards a future in which events like that come to seem commonplace. Anything in the paper today, darling? Not much – oh, all the Dutch drowned.

The SPM is silent about these horror scenarios, since its brief is to stick to certainties. It is also silent about the largest source of uncertainty, which as it happens doubles as the largest source of fear: feedback. Feedback is the process by which change increases further change: one example is that already mentioned, water vapour. A warmer world has more water vapour, and the warmer the vapour the more effective it is at blocking the escape of infra-red radiation, so the warmer the earth and oceans become, the more water vapour there is, and so on. Another feedback effect is caused by the melting of ice. Ice has a very high albedo – meaning, it reflects a lot of the sun’s heat straight back out into space. This in turn has a cooling effect, which causes the manufacture of more ice, and so on. When ice melts, it turns into water, which has a much lower albedo, and therefore absorbs more heat, and therefore causes more ice to melt, which lowers the earth’s net albedo even more, which causes it to be warmer, and so on. The wide variations in the earth’s climate over geological timescales is thought to owe a great deal to feedback effects.

Some of these feedback effects are well known; when that is the case they have been included in the SPM. Others are a source of speculation and study but haven’t yet reached a point of consensus where they can be included. One of the primary uncertainties is to do with clouds: no one knows how the changing climate will change the earth’s cloud cover, and whether that will have a net cooling effect (broadly speaking, low cloud blocks radiation from reaching the earth) or a warming one (equally broadly, high cloud prevents radiation from escaping into space). For that reason, the SPM is, for all its scariness, a conservative document: a lot of things that might be very bad news have been left out. Rising temperatures, even in the low and middle range of predictions in the SPM, can affect crop yields, kill off the Amazonian forest (according to a paper quoted by Monbiot, which says that ‘the Amazonian forest is near its critical resiliency threshold’ and risks becoming ‘essentially void of vegetation’) and cause a shift in the fundamental ecological balance of the earth so that by about 2040 ‘living systems on the land will start to release more carbon dioxide than they absorb.’ As the permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere melts, it releases methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon; there are also enormous deposits of methane in the ocean, known as clathrates. The release of this methane on a large scale would hugely compound the effects of man-made greenhouse gases, and would lead to yet further greenhouse effects. Nobody knows when these feedback effects would kick in, but a number of climate scientists have said that they consider 2ºC to be the critical threshhold. Because there is a time lag between the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the consequent rise in temperature, it is possible that we are already too late to avoid going through that 2º limit. That may in turn have committed us to climate change of a type that would destroy civilisation as we have known it. Humanity would be reduced to a small number of ‘breeding pairs’. James Lovelock ends his book with a glimpse of what that might look like:

Meanwhile in the hot arid world survivors gather for the journey to the new Arctic centres of civilisation; I see them in the desert as the dawn breaks and the sun throws its piercing gaze across the horizon at the camp. The cool fresh night air lingers for a while and then, like smoke, dissipates as the heat takes charge. Their camel wakes, blinks and slowly rises on her haunches. The few remaining members of the tribe mount. She belches, and sets off on the long unbearably hot journey to the next oasis.

There are three ways in which disaster might be avoided. First, the scientific consensus might be wrong. We might come out on the lucky end of that 90-95 per cent probability. Second, there might be some as-yet-undiscovered feedback effect that acts to counteract the warming caused by greenhouse gases. Recent years have benefited from the cooling effect of sulphur-based aerosols at high levels of the atmosphere (though that’s about to come to an end, owing to legislation designed to cut pollution). We have also had the cooling effect caused by the explosion of Mount Pinitaubo in the Philippines in 1991. Perhaps a series of similar local cooling mechanisms will buy us some time, or perhaps there will be some huge new feedback that stops all the bad things from happening.

The third way disaster might be avoided is through action. Never before have we, on a planetary scale, so needed to combine pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will. The pessimism is relatively easy to come by; the optimism less so. That is largely because our civilisation is based on the use of fossil fuels; they have been indispensable to the growth of material prosperity, a point made with great force by Richard Heinberg in his book The Party’s Over. Fossil fuels underpin all of modern economic activity, science and technology, and at the moment there is no developed alternative for the future. Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world are starting to demand the very same First World lifestyle which has been bought by the use of those fuels.

The centrality of fossil fuels to our culture is the reason there has been no action on climate change since the UN agreed the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. Fifteen years of inactivity ensued. (Even W. says so. ‘Now is the time to act,’ he said in a speech in 2005. ‘Now is the time to put a strategy [sic] – we should have done this ten to fifteen years ago.’) The single item one can point to as an achievement is the Kyoto Treaty of 1997, which is worthless: even if fully implemented, Kyoto would have the effect of postponing the warming which would have been achieved without the treaty for all of six years, from 2094 to 2100. The reason for the inactivity is simple: we don’t want to change. The prosperity brought by unchecked use of fossil fuels, and the concomitant economic growth of the past decade and a bit, are just too comfy-making. No politician is better informed than Al Gore about climate change, or more publicly identified with the necessity for action to combat it; but during his time as vice president, the US exceeded its stated targets for emissions by 15 per cent. Politicians are willing to talk about climate change but have as yet shown no willingness to act in any meaningful ways. In Britain, for example, climate change is Tony Blair’s latest preferred focus in his grotesque search for a ‘legacy’. At the same time his government is committed to the largest expansion in airport traffic in British history, from 216 million passengers passing through in 2005 to a projected figure of 470 million in 2030. The government is building the runways to make sure that happens; and all this on top of the 500 per cent growth in UK air travel over the last thirty years. The government knows perfectly well that flying is the most potent way of emitting greenhouse gas – it magnifies the effect of those gases by 270 per cent. So why isn’t it doing anything to stop the growth in flying? Won’t this frenzied expansion trash any prospects of meeting targets to curb our emissions? Not a bit of it – because airline emissions aren’t counted in the national figures. So from the government’s point of view they don’t matter.

It would be a mistake to see the orgy of runway-building as a contradiction of government policy in respect of global warming. In practical terms, there is no policy. Monbiot makes a horribly strong point in Heat (and graciously attributes it to his researcher Matthew Prescott): ‘government policy is not contained within the reports and reviews it commissions; government policy is the reports and reviews. By commissioning endless inquiries into the problem and the means by which it might be tackled, the government creates the impression that something is being done, while simultaneously preventing anything from happening until the next review (required to respond to the findings of the last review) has been published.’ The government is dedicating £3.6 billion to widening the M1, seven times what it is spending ‘on spending policies that tackle climate change’ – and if that last piece of ministerial wording fails to set off your bullshit detector, it’s time to get the battery checked.

What is to be done? The first thing to do is to admit that Dick Cheney is right. ‘Conservation may be a personal virtue,’ he said in 2001, ‘but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.’ Rephrase that sentence to state that conservation is indeed a personal virtue, and both halves of it are, it seems to me, true. But there is also a problem with the notion of conservation as a personal virtue. The risk is that awareness of global warming and of the need to act to counter it can be reduced to a form of personal good conduct; to membership of the tribe of the virtuous. It is a good thing to choose to pollute less, to ride a bicycle and take the train and turn down the thermostat, and to fit low-energy lightbulbs, but there is a serious risk that these activities will come to seem an end in themselves, a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change. They aren’t. The changes that are needed are global and structural, and anything which distracts attention from that is potentially damaging. There is a parallel of sorts between militant conservationism and driving an SUV. The SUV driver is consciously choosing to worsen the environment, and to harm the planet, and is trying at the same time to send a signal – a signal to herself – that even if climate change comes she will be able to protect herself from it. Look, the huge car says: I can protect myself and my family, whatever happens. That is a falsehood, and it is a falsehood related to the idea that our individual choices are of any consequence. I’ve just switched my electricity supply to a green company. I did it to give myself the feeling that I’m doing what little I can. But this, too, is a kind of category mistake – the SUV driver isn’t protecting anyone, and neither am I.

The second part of Cheney’s observation is also true. A sound and comprehensive energy policy is what the world needs, with an important rider: that it is based on clean, non-carbon-producing sources of energy. It is over this question that the Bush administration has failed most spectacularly. The Bush congeries of oilmen and corporate shills had the worst possible motives for arguing that global warming could be addressed only through a technological solution; and the damage done over the Kyoto Treaty was not so much caused by the rejection per se (it had already been the subject of a 95-0 rejection by the Senate) as the subsequent refusal to engage with the subject, combined with an apparent attempt to suppress the scientific realities. But this doesn’t mean that the administration was necessarily wrong about the crucial importance of as yet non-existent technologies to address global warming. There are two areas in particular where new technologies are needed. One is in the field of carbon capture and storage. These are techniques by which fossil fuels – coal or gas – are used to provide energy as they are now, but the CO2 they produce is extracted from the emissions. Statoil, a Norwegian oil company (partly owned by the state), already sequesters emissions from gas it extracts from a North Sea oilfield; in Uzbekistan, a technique called gasification is used to turn CO2 emissions into liquid and store them. There are problems with the question of storage – obviously, leaks are a seriously Bad Thing – but this is a technology with proven potential. It has a particular importance in the context of China, which is planning to fuel its future economic growth by building thousands of coal-fired power stations; coal being the dirtiest energy source of them all. So if we – the Western ‘we’ – were to develop an effective and cheap way of capturing and storing carbon emissions from these Chinese power stations we would in one move be making an important step towards controlling the planet’s total future emissions. It stands to reason that the people who believe most sincerely in a technological solution to the problem of emissions would be backing a huge programme of investment in CCS. Except they haven’t been. The rhetoric about technology has not been backed by the necessarily expensive and urgent action. The IEA says that ‘large scale carbon capture and storage is probably ten years off, with real potential as an emission mitigation tool from 2030 in developed countries.’ That may well be too late.

One thing the Bushies are willing to talk about is hydrogen. This is, as its boosters like to point out, ‘the most common element in the universe’, which is true but irrelevant, since the hydrogen we can use is right here on earth, and at the moment takes more energy to extract than it supplies. It has potential, though, because it is practical and easy to use, and super-clean – its only emission takes the form of water. The technology is feasible and in its likeliest form would involve hydrogen boilers, hydrogen fuel cells (which are roughly analogous to batteries) and a new infrastructure of pipes to move the gas. In Monbiot’s words, this would amount to ‘a massive and extremely ambitious government programme’. It is not what the Bushies have in mind, however, and their talk about hydrogen – sometimes, the ‘hydrogen economy’ – has behind it the moonshine of the big car manufacturers. By promising a super cool new kind of car in the middle distance, Detroit has managed to avoid the issue in the present, and continues its enthusiasm for the grotesquely bloated SUVs which both symbolise and enact an indifference to the rest of the planet. It is genuinely bizarre that just as people have become increasingly aware of the costs and consequences of fossil-fuel consumption, the mileage per gallon of American cars has actually gone down: 20.8 mpg, down from 22.1 in 1988, and this despite the fact that the cost of petrol has gone shooting up. A century ago, the Model T Ford did 25 mpg. Monbiot is quite right when he says that ‘it is beginning to look like the last days of the Roman Empire.’ Given these institutional pressures and the level of denial involved, it would seem unwise to wait for hydrogen to become a practicable energy source: we might have to wait a couple of decades, and we don’t have a couple of decades. Bush is also touting ethanol, manufactured from corn, as a possible source of energy. This is popular with farmers and the corn-growing states, as you’d expect, even though it is potentially disastrous as a model for the rest of the planet, since the last thing we need is for even more forests to disappear.

The idea of getting enough power from renewable sources, wind and tide and the sun, is appealing; but the complexities involved in the management of power demand, as much as the sheer difficulty of generating the amounts needed, make me think it unlikely that the UK or anywhere else will ever come close to generating the power it needs from renewable energy. There is a contradiction, or a touch of wishful thinking, in much of the green polemics on this issue. They argue for the extreme urgency of the transition to low-emission energy, and at the same time for the importance of adopting experimental clean technologies. Those two things don’t gel. Much of the green critique of existing arrangements is salutary – to take one tiny fact, it is astonishing that 66 per cent of the power generated by the UK national grid is wasted because of inefficiencies of transmission. But the green solutions – micro-generation, renewable energy and so on – even if not utopian, aren’t right here, right now, where we need them. If we need the non-carbon-producing power urgently, and we do, then nuclear is for the moment our only choice – for the moment, meaning the next couple of decades. Monbiot goes into some detail about the potential for high-voltage DC transmission of power, which would enable energy to be moved over greater distances with little loss. This in turn would enable us to draw our energy from greater distances than before, and use offshore wind turbines and solar energy.

For years, rogue environmentalists have been pointing out that solar electricity generated in the Sahara could power all of Europe, the Gobi could power China, and the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Atacam and Great Victoria deserts could electrify their entire continents. These people have been dismissed as nutters. The development of cheap DC cables suggests that they might one day be proved right.

These are encouraging prospects; in the middle distance there is the potential for clean energy. In the meantime, unfortunately, it is likely that here in the UK we are going to need nuclear power. James Lovelock is a powerful advocate of this line of thinking, which is to me persuasive: the argument, put simply, is that nuclear power is a mature technology whose risks are understood, which would produce all the energy we need, and which is considered in the round the least worst solution to our urgent need for a carbon-free fuel source. It is not a prospect that brings much joy, and it is going to be of more than academic interest to see how the government gets round or forces its way past the inevitable local objections. We can all expect to hear a very great deal about how France gets 78 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power.

It all comes down to the question of political will. The remarkable thing is that most of the things we need to do to prevent climate change are clear in their outline, even though one can argue over details. We need to insulate our houses, on a massive scale; find an effective form of taxing the output of carbon (rather than just giving tradeable credits to the largest polluters, which is what the EU did – a policy that amounted to a 30 billion euro grant to the continent’s biggest polluters); spend a fortune on both building and researching renewable energy and DC power; spend another fortune on nuclear power; double or treble our spending on public transport; do everything possible to curb the growth of air travel; and investigate what we need to do to defend ourselves if the sea rises, or if food imports collapse. If we do that we may find that we develop the technologies that China and India will need. If we can show that it is possible to cut carbon output dramatically without trashing our economy – well, that might be the single most important thing we could do, far outweighing the actual impact of our emission reductions.

We know all this, but whether any of it will actually happen is a different question. It is easy for politicians to stick wind turbines on their houses and ride bicycles, but effective action on climate change is about to require doing things that are not popular. In his eponymous report, Nicholas Stern has argued that it would cost about 1 per cent of global GDP now to prevent a loss of 5 per cent of global GDP in the future. The calculation is tweaked to make the cost now sound manageably small – but it is not yet clear whether Western electorates are willing to pay it. One per cent of global GDP is 600 billion dollars, most of which would be paid by the developed world. The idea is that by paying it now we would be keeping the world’s economy on track so that by 2050 the developed world would be 200 per cent richer and the developing world 400 per cent, while our emissions decline by 60 to 90 per cent and theirs increase by 25 to 50. (One problem is that 17 per cent of that growth in developing world emissions has already been used up.) The promised economic growth is jam tomorrow; we would be paying for it today, in the form of increased taxes and lost jobs. These things are all real to voters in ways that climate change perhaps is not. Are people going to give things up in the present in order to prevent things that computer models tell them are going to happen in 25 years’ time? If they – we – aren’t, then we’re heading for breeding pairs, and camels in the Arctic.


Work consulted in the writing of this piece:

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury, 210 pp., £14.99, June 2006, 978 0 7475 8383 7)

Dictionary of Environment and Conservation by Chris Park (Oxford, 522 pp., £19.99, November 2006, 978 0 19 860995 7)

After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination by Kirkpatrick Sale (Duke, 186 pp., £12.99, February, 978 0 8223 3938 0)

An Inconvenient Truth: A Global Warning, directed by Davis Guggenheim

Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, edited by Alex Steffen (Abrams, 596 pp., £24.95, November 2006, 978 0 8109 3095 7)

Funny Weather: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know about Climate Change but Probably Should Find Out by Kate Evans (Myriad, 95 pp., £6.99, November 2006, 978 0 95493 093 6)

Global Warning: The Last Chance for Change by Paul Brown (Black, 320 pp., £19.95, September 2006, 978 0 7136 8205 1)

The Atlas of Climate Change: Mapping the World’s Greatest Challenge by Kirstin Dow and Thomas Downing (Earthscan, 112 pp., £12.99, October 2006, 978 1 84407 376 9)

Kicking the Carbon Habit: Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy by William Sweet (Columbia, 256 pp., £17.95, April 2006, 978 0 231 13710 2)

The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change by Tim Flannery (Allen Lane, 341 pp., £20, March 2006, 978 0 713 999 21 1)

State of the World 2006: The Challenge of World Sustainability by the Worldwatch Institute (Earthscan, 244 pp., £14.99, January 2006, 978 1 8440 7275 0)

Global Catastrophes: A Very Short Introduction by Bill McGuire (Oxford, 132 pp., £6.99, January 2006, 978 0 19 280493 8)

[*] The Summary for Policymakers employs a distinctive scale for translating probabilities into ordinary language: ‘Virtually certain >99 per cent probability of occurrence, Extremely likely >95 per cent, Very likely >90 per cent, Likely > 66 per cent, More likely than not >50 per cent, Unlikely <33 per cent, Very unlikely <10 per cent, Extremely unlikely <5 per cent’. Some commentators have had fun at the expense of this, but it seems to me to verge on the genuinely useful.

[†] About the only glimmer of good news in the SPM is that this event is rated ‘very unlikely’ to happen this century – less than 10 per cent probable.