If on a winter’s night a cyclone

Thomas Jones

  • The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh
    Chicago, 176 pp, £15.50, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 226 32303 9

Reading Amitav Ghosh’s book, I realised something that I feel naive for not having thought of before: trying to convince ‘climate sceptics’ of the reality of anthropogenic climate change is a waste of time. By ‘climate sceptics’ I don’t mean the apparently growing number of people who don’t believe in climate change because they were freezing cold this winter and trust what Donald Trump or Nigel Farage tells them on Fox News or the BBC. I mean the people who stand to gain from the Trump administration’s America First Energy Plan, which will increase US dependence on fossil fuels: more fracking, more coal-mining, more pipelines. There’s nothing to convince them of: nobody who has worked in the hydrocarbon business can be in any real doubt that carbon dioxide causes global warming – a fact first demonstrated more than 150 years ago – or that burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide. They already know all that, but it doesn’t bother them. On 28 March, Trump signed an executive order – ‘On Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth’ – to rescind the modest legislative advances against climate change made in the last years of the Obama administration.

Rex Tillerson, Trump’s reluctant secretary of state and until last year the CEO of ExxonMobil, is routinely described as a ‘climate sceptic’, but he has long acknowledged that climate change is ‘going to have an impact’. He isn’t worried, though: as he put it in 2012, ‘it’s an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions.’ That’s a reasonable enough way of rephrasing the question, though the indicative mood in his answer is hardly justified. Yes, you can look at it as an engineering problem, but engineering solutions – i.e. ways to supply our energy needs without filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases – will be found only if rich and powerful governments invest in them. And the government that Tillerson is part of – still the richest and most powerful of all – shows little interest in doing so.

Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is a more committed climate change denier, though even he is circumspect. Last May, when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, he wrote a piece in the National Review attacking Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which he was in the process of suing the EPA over when Trump nominated him to lead it: ‘Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged.’ He’s still plugging that line, saying recently that he ‘would not agree’ that carbon dioxide is a ‘primary contributor to the global warming that we see … We need to continue the debate.’ There is nothing to be gained from trying to persuade the likes of Pruitt and Tillerson of the reality or the seriousness of climate change. It’s exactly what the deniers want. The longer ‘that debate’ goes on, the more those who profit from the status quo can plausibly deny the need to do anything. Still, Pruitt may be out of a job in two years’ time: a bill was introduced in Congress on 3 February that ‘terminates the Environmental Protection Agency on 31 December 2018’. At the end of April, the EPA removed the pages on climate change from its website, untroubled by the fact that the World Meteorological Organisation reported in March that last year was ‘the warmest on record’, with ‘exceptionally low sea ice, and unabated sea level rise and ocean heat … Extreme weather and climate conditions have continued into 2017.’

The US is responsible for around 15 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. That figure has been in decline, but looks set to go up again over the next four years: partly because of the Trump administration, and partly because the world’s biggest polluter, China, currently responsible for around 30 per cent of emissions, is gradually reducing its dependence on coal and massively expanding its renewable energy infrastructure. As a result, global emissions have been flat since 2014, though that’s little cause for celebration. The hope, still, is that the average global temperature won’t rise more than 2°C above its pre-industrial level, and there’s no chance of that happening unless emissions not only level off, but start to come down. On 21 April, Britain had its first working day without burning coal for electricity since 1882 (though it may become reliant on coal again if Brexit means losing access to nuclear fuel). Europeans have no reason to feel smug: emissions from the EU rose 1.4 per cent between 2014 and 2015. In India, the fourth biggest polluter (after China, the US and the EU), emissions went up 5.2 per cent in 2015. Delhi says it has invested $1.8 billion of the taxes levied on coal since 2010 in renewable energy production. Will that make a difference? Ridhima Pandey, a nine-year-old girl who is suing the Indian government for failing to ‘take effective, science-based action to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change’, clearly thinks it isn’t enough.

One of the many virtues of Ghosh’s book is its focus on Asia rather than the nations on either side of the North Atlantic. ‘Asia’s centrality to global warming rests, in the first instance, upon numbers,’ he writes. ‘The great majority of potential victims are in Asia.’ He describes the threats they face in stark terms: 125 million people in India and Bangladesh could be displaced by rising sea levels, along with 10 per cent of the population of Vietnam; 24 per cent of India’s arable land is turning to desert. Worst of all, considering that 47 per cent of the world’s people depend on water that flows from the Himalayas, ‘if the glaciers continue to shrink at the present rate, the most populous parts of Asia will face catastrophic water shortages within a decade or two.’

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[*] The LRB, incidentally, heads Ghosh’s list of magazines whose pieces on climate change are invariably reviews of non-fiction rather than fiction. Here we are, at it again.