The British Museum is one of the world’s few encyclopaedic museums: it tells the story of how civilisation was built; it boasts seven million visitors a year and is committed to free entry; it holds a unique place of authority in the nation’s – perhaps the world’s – consciousness. A few days ago I resigned from its Board of Trustees.
My resignation was not in protest at a single issue; it was a cumulative response to the museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged.
‘Where the fuck is the government?’ posters on Waterloo Bridge said. A road sign at the northern end flashed: ‘Global warming at work.’
Before the cyclone, there was a drought in Zimbabwe. People prayed for rain; and then the rain came, and it was not at all what was wished for. It seems brutally unfair: to have lost so much, in so brief a time, at the ordinance of the sky.
A recent review by scientists in Australia of 73 historical studies of insect decline concluded that insect biodiversity is threatened worldwide, and 40 per cent of insect species are threatened with extinction over the next few decades. But there is a puzzle. The classes that are declining fastest are butterflies, bees and dung beetles. No one is going out of their way to eliminate them. Other insects that we attack deliberately and for which extinction would be a cause for celebration are doing well.
In a world where the 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50 per cent, you might have expected to see massive protests outside the Kongresszentrum in Davos this week. Over the past ten years, however, the once thriving mobilisation against the World Economic Forum has lost steam. ‘We’ve witnessed a slump,’ Mélinda Tschanz told me. She belongs to the Swiss chapter of ATTAC, an ‘alter-globalisation’ organisation founded in 1998. ‘“What happened?” is a question we’ve been asking ourselves a lot lately.’
As the gilet jaune revolt moves forward and another destructive showdown looks imminent tomorrow in Paris, the government – and the president – have opted for the lesser of two contradictions. The greater: to reduce your national carbon footprint, you set aside progressive fiscal policy and tax rich and poor at the same rate, putting social justice – a grand French aspiration – in parenthesis. That didn't work. The lesser: to reduce your national carbon footprint, you get alongside low earners and help them through a difficult transition, even though the climate jeopardy of clapped-out diesel UVs is absurdly obvious. But that hasn't worked either.
Fighting on the Champs Elysées last weekend between French security forces and the so-called 'gilets jaunes' led to more than 100 arrests. According to the police, roughly eight thousand demonstrators took part. Barricades were built – and set alight – by what looked from a distance to be groups of rampaging lollipop people in dayglo yellow tops. But the gilets jaunes are not championing pedestrian safety: their revolt has been prompted by a sharp rise in the price of diesel and unleaded petrol at the pump, which they blame on President Macron's fossil fuel tax. This is a drivers' movement, at least at first sight, and despite the turmoil on the Champs Elysées, it is deeply provincial. Macron responded on Tuesday not with a U-turn, but with a concession enabling parliament to freeze the carbon tax – which is set to keep rising year on year – when the oil price goes up. A freeze is a very different proposition from a reduction and the gilets jaunes don't like it. They were out in force again on Wednesday and another big demonstration looks likely in Paris tomorrow.
Earlier this month, the Republic of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights held public hearings in London for its inquiry into the responsibility of the ‘carbon majors’ (Chevron, Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell etc) for global warming. The petitioners are Filipino citizens and civil rights organisations who claim that the effects of the carbon dioxide and methane emissions for which the carbon majors are responsible violate their human rights. Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines five years ago. It was one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, with maximum sustained winds of more than 145 mph as it made landfall over Eastern Samar in the early hours of 8 November 2013. It killed 6201 people, injured more than 27,000, and displaced nearly four million. The Philippines are hit by more than twenty tropical storms a year.
A quarter of a century has passed since the impact of human activity on the global climate was formally recognised by the United Nations. The latest IPCC report, published on 8 October, calls for the average global temperature to rise no more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels, but climate change has already and irreversibly altered the physical world in ways that are fundamentally altering the human world: extreme droughts, a rising frequency of intense storms and wildfires, the geographic expansion of vector-borne diseases. The collective implication of these changes is uniform: a rising level of risk to your health and stability, regardless of who you are or where you live.
Wildfires break out every summer across Greece. The mountains surrounding Athens have burned on more than one occasion this year. It was just columns of smoke in the distance. It wasn’t news, until it was. When I woke up on Tuesday morning there were 50 dead. Then 60. It would be 74 by the end of the day. Now it’s closer to 80 and likely to go higher.
There are 415 British MPs who don’t take climate change seriously enough. That is the number who voted to build a third runway at Heathrow earlier this week; 119 of them were Labour. The plans sailed through Parliament, despite some vocal but limited resistance. Only 119 MPs voted against it. Most of them weren’t worried that a third runway would make it near impossible to meet the government’s carbon reduction commitments. They were concerned that the plans were London-centric and might sideline transport projects in the north.
For several days now, the Seine has been drawing a crowd. The international press, tourists and Parisians have come to look at the river because it is uncharacteristically high. Before I had seen it myself, I assumed the reason for all the curiosity was novelty. We’ve been told that the chances of the river breaking its banks are extremely low, but Paris can so easily be mistaken for a city frozen in time that changes in its landscape, even temporary ones, ask to be witnessed. Setting eyes on the engorged river, though, mud brown and churning viciously around the bare branches of its towpath trees, stirred in me an unease I had not expected: that one day, though probably not today, the Seine may begin rising like this, and not stop. And it reminded me that Parisians have long harboured a fear of their city ending up underwater.
Britain’s south-eastern coastline is low-lying, and faces relatively shallow waters. This makes London naturally vulnerable to the surges created when high tides coincide with North Sea storms, and shove water back up the Thames. We have records of the city being flooded since the Anglo-Saxon era. In 1236 there were boats rowing through the Palace of Westminster; in 1928 the Tate Gallery was drenched in mud. After a surge in 1953 killed hundreds of people across the Thames Estuary, the government commissioned a report on what to do from the mathematician and cosmologist Hermann Bondi. The result was the Thames Barrier at Woolwich, operational since 1983.
While Donald Trump gives the appearance of wavering over his decision to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Nicaragua has decided to sign it. It was one of only two countries not to sign in Paris last year; the other was Syria. Nicaragua abstained out of principle: the agreement didn’t go far enough. The target – to keep the average global temperature no more than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels – was too high, and in any case unlikely to be met. An unfair burden was being put on developing nations and not enough money was being promised to help them build low carbon economies. I met Nicaragua’s climate change negotiator, Paul Oquist, in June, a few days after Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. I suggested it would be an excellent moment for Nicaragua to change its mind, though claim no credit for the subsequent decision; I can’t have been the only one to think so.
An energy-intensive industrial coalition spent tens of millions of dollars to ensure the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the American Energy Alliance, the Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity and forty other free-market think tanks that signed an open letter urging Donald Trump to pull out were bankrolled by, among others, ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers, the Kansas-based billionaires who control refineries and pipelines that process 600,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
Remove a truck’s catalytic converter, install a ‘smoke switch’ that tricks the engine into burning more diesel than it needs, and before you know it you’re rolling coal, purging impenetrable clouds of soot through your exhaust pipe on I-10 in Texas, enough to repel the prig in the Prius riding your tail. Those of us who consider deliberate pollution a vice can forget that there are others who not only don’t care, but revel in it. But Donald Trump – who is today signing an executive order aimed at unravelling Barack Obama's climate legacy – hasn’t forgotten them.
His Royal Highness the Prince Charles Arthur Philip George, Prince of Wales and nob of much else, has written a Ladybird book on climate change. Naturally, as with other tasks such as brushing one’s teeth and providing one's urine sample, this is not a feat the dauphin has pulled off solo. He’s roped in Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Emily Shuckburgh of the British Antarctic Survey for a spot of authorial toothpaste-squirting and flask-holding. Penguin, which owns Ladybird, apparently tapped seven specialists to wrestle with the 5000-word spider-written MS in order, as Roland White of Penguin put it, to 'amend some of the more assertive language to ensure it was bulletproof'.
Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada, was notorious for one thing: oil sands. That fact is impossible to get away from – the more so now that it’s notorious for something else: burning to the ground. Over the last few days, the images have been apocalyptic: an enormous wildfire approaching houses, hotels and a hospital; lines of cars driving through smoke, sometimes appearing to drive straight through the flames. The blaze jumped over firebreaks, a highway and a river. It was so large it started to create its own weather system: lightning, but no rain. Last Tuesday, the entire city of almost 90,000 people was evacuated. No one has yet been killed by the fire, though two people died in road accidents during the evacuation.
In their report to Parliament last June, the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warned that ‘a substantial proportion of local authorities have reduced effort on adaptation.’ For local government, preparing for the long term effects of climate change was a ‘low political priority’ at a time of historic budget cuts.
On 12 December 2015, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, hailed the COP21 climate agreement in Paris as ‘a monumental triumph for people and our planet’. The UN press office called it a ‘resounding success for multilateralism’. According to the president of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, the agreement signalled ‘nothing less than a renaissance for humankind’. Away from the media spotlight, policy makers speak more candidly.
I lost my watch in York last Tuesday, somewhere between the Shambles car park and Betty’s cafe on Davygate. It was raining, my two-year-old son ‘needed’ to be carried, my backpack was slipping off my shoulder, the streets were heaving with Christmas shoppers. It wasn’t until I was queuing for lunch and wondered what the time was that I realised my watch was missing. I retraced my steps but unsurprisingly didn’t find it. The odd glinting object in the gutter was only a half-eaten packet of mints or a condom wrapper. The watch was a 21st birthday present from my parents; I’d had it for nearly 18 years. Both keepers had fallen off the strap weeks ago, and I’d been meaning to replace them, but hadn’t got round to it because the watch stayed on my wrist OK without them, until it didn’t. Like much of the city centre, the Shambles car park 'is currently inaccessible due to the recent floods in York. All the cars that are currently parked in the car park remain safe and secure.' ‘Mr Cameron is facing a tide of public anger,’ the Yorkshire Postreported on Monday, ‘after it emerged that the government dug deep last December to finance a £300 million scheme to protect the Thames Valley after previously rejecting a £180 million scheme to safeguard 4500 homes in Leeds city centre, one of the areas worst affected by the Christmas deluge.’ The estimated cost of the floods is approaching £6 billion.
Last week the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, announced the total so far of apartment searches (1233), detentions (165) and charges preferred (124) since the state of emergency came into force shortly after the killings on 13 November. Dividing the country’s ‘Muslim’ population by the number of detentions we arrive at a figure of one for every 30,000 or so: this is not an anti-Muslim witch hunt. Nonetheless the emergency has been extended for three months and yesterday the total of arrests leaped, with 200 or more after the COP21 demonstrations in Paris – a big, scheduled march having been banned under the emergency – turned rough.
In the Republican Response to the State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Joni Ernst, a newly elected senator from Iowa, referred to legislation that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline as the ‘Keystone jobs bill’. It’s the latest in a long line of Republican rebrandings.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises that climate change is a moral problem or, to use its cautious language, it ‘raises ethical issues’. The authors of the IPCC’s recent Fifth Assessment Report therefore included two moral philosophers. I am one of them. I have been a member of the IPCC’s Working Group 3 since 2011.
The new issue of Nature Climate Change delivers a massive, multiple slap-down to the notion that the much touted 'hiatus' or 'pause' in global warming since the late 1990s means that the climate isn't changing, or the globe warming.
Two weeks ago, Maplecroft published its sixth annual Climate Change Vulnerability Index. Maplecroft calls itself 'the world’s leading global risk analytics, research and strategic forecasting company'; its 'technological solutions identify emerging trends, business opportunities and risks to investments and supply chains worldwide'. The index didn't get much media attention, though the Philippine Star reported that the Philippines ranks as the ninth most vulnerable country.
On 10 July 1985 a limpet mine attached to the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior exploded, tearing a hole the size of a car in its hull. The ship, which was docked in Auckland harbour, began to list. Captain Peter Wilcox and his crew of twelve disembarked. After a few minutes, with all quiet and the ship having settled but not sunk, the photographer Fernando Pereira went back on board to retrieve equipment. A second bomb exploded, sending the ship to the bottom and drowning him.
In the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld we might distinguish between natural inevitabilities and unnatural inevitabilities. Someday, for example, the precarious flank of the massive Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma in the Canary Islands will collapse and send a mega-tsunami across the Atlantic. The damage from Boston to New York City will dwarf last year’s disaster in Japan. It’s inevitable, but volcanologists don’t know whether the destabilising eruption will occur tomorrow or in five thousand years. So for now, it’s merely a titillating topic for NOVA or the National Geographic Channel. Another, much more frequent example of natural inevitability is the pre-global-warming hurricane cycle. Two or three times each century a perfect storm has crashed into the US Atlantic seaboard and wreaked havoc as far as the Great Lakes. But a $20 billion disaster every few decades is why we have an insurance industry. And even the loss, now and then, of an entire city to nature (San Francisco in 1906 or New Orleans in 2005) is an affordable tragedy. But the construction since 1960 of several trillion dollars' worth of prime real estate on barrier islands, bay fill, recycled swamps and coastal lowlands has radically transformed the calculus of loss. Subtract every carbon dioxide molecule added to the atmosphere in the last thirty years and ‘ordinary’ storms would still collect ever larger tolls from certifiably insane coastal overdevelopment.
More climate change unhappiness – James Lovelock in the Guardian: Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while. The man who invented Gaia has announced that humanity isn't evolved enough, and is 'too stupid' to tackle climate change. The Daily Mail blog and a site called Climate Realists are already all over it. 'You Could Not Make It Up' says the headline of the latter. Actually you could.
I went down to the corner bar last night with a few of my neighbourhood friends. We get together every few weeks down there. It’s a bit young, noisy and yup for my taste – I prefer the old man slob bar across the street – but it’s become our custom to meet there and catch up.
Let me say immediately that I don't doubt that Planet Earth is on its way out. I couldn't be more gloomy about its future. I'm also not much of a fan of Clive James, in fact I was involved in an angry lunchtime argument with him on the subject of Iraq and what he called 'the triumph of Democracy' the last time I saw him, some years ago. I am, on the other hand, constantly interested in how I can know whether what I read and hear is reliable. I couldn't for example put my hand on my heart and say that my belief that climate change is irreversible is based on anything very much more substantial than a tendency to trust in the green and the left, and the fact that I know from history and experience that human beings are inclined to do what they want to do until they use up the ability to do it.
Typhoons Ketsana and Parma, which struck the Philippines, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia in recent weeks, have killed at least 650 people and made hundreds of thousands homeless. The total cost of the damage is likely to be more than $1 billion. Over the past decade the toll of natural disasters in the region seems to have skyrocketed: the 2004 tsunami killed more than 220,000 people in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Burma; in 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed more than 140,000. Climate change has something to do with it. But so has another man-made blunder: throughout Southeast Asia, governments from Vietnam to Thailand to Indonesia to China have favoured a strategy of economic growth at any cost.