Tue 7 Aug 2018
This is the summer when, for many, climate change got real. The future looks fiery and dangerous. Hot on the heels of Trump, fake news and the parlous state of the Brexit negotiations, despair is in the air. Now a new scientific report makes the case that even fairly modest future carbon dioxide emissions could set off a cascade of catastrophe, with melting permafrost releasing methane to ratchet up global temperatures enough to drive much of the Amazon to die off, and so on in a chain reaction around the world that pushes Earth into a terrifying new hothouse state from which there is no return. Civilisation as we know it would surely not survive. How do we deal with such news?
As a research scientist in this field, I can give some nuance to the headlines. One common way of thinking about climate change is the lower the future carbon dioxide emissions, the less warming and the less havoc we will face as this century progresses. This is certainly true, but as the summer heatwave and the potential hothouse news remind us, the shifts in climate we will experience will not be smooth, gradual and linear changes. They may be fast, abrupt, and dangerous surprises may happen. However, an unstoppable globally enveloping cascade of catastrophe, while possible, is certainly not a probable outcome.
Yet, even without a hothouse we are on track to transform Earth this century. The world, after 30 years of warnings, has barely got to grips with reducing carbon dioxide emissions. They need to rapidly decline to zero, but after decades of increases, are, at best, flatlining, with investments in extracting new fossil fuels continuing, including last month’s scandalous announcement that fracking will be allowed in the UK. Temperatures have increased just 1C above preindustrial levels, and we are on course for another 2C or 3C on top of that. Could civilisation weather this level of warming?
The honest answer is nobody knows. Dystopia is easy to envisage: for example, Europe is not coping well with even modest numbers of migrants, and future flows look likely to increase substantially as migration itself is an adaptation to rapid climate change. How will the cooler, richer parts of the world react to tens of millions of people escaping the hotter, poorer parts? Throw into the mix long-term stagnating incomes for most people across the west and climate-induced crop failures causing massive food price spikes and we have a recipe for widespread unrest that could overload political institutions.
It is then easy to see these intersecting crises dovetailing with calls from the new far-right populists for strong authoritarian leaders to solve these problems. Inward-looking nationalists could then move further away from the internationalism needed to ensure the continuation of stable global food supplies and to manage migration humanely. And without cooperative internationalism serious carbon dioxide mitigation will not happen, meaning the underling drivers of the problems will exacerbate, leading to a lock-in of a deteriorating, isolationist, fascist future.
However, taking a step back from the gloom, we face the same three choices in response to climate change as we did before this scorching summer: reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation), make changes to reduce the adverse impacts of the new conditions we create (adaptation), or suffer the consequences of what we fail to mitigate or adapt to. It is useful to come back to these three options, and settle on the formula that serious mitigation and wise adaptation means little suffering.
Despite this basic advice being decades old, we are heading for some mitigation, very little adaptation, and a lot of suffering. Why is this happening? This is because while the diagnosis of climate change being a problem is a scientific issue, the response to it is not. Leaving fossil fuels in the ground is, for example, a question of regulation, while investing in renewable energy is a policy choice, and modernising our housing stock to make it energy efficient is about overcoming the lobbying power of the building industry. Solving climate change is about power, money, and political will.
And that means talking about climate change and engaging in politics at all levels. One way to put climate change centre stage in the next general election could be to approach the candidates of key marginal seats to discuss whether they would support serious climate-related legislation. In return hundreds of supporters of climate legislation would door-knock and leaflet these constituencies to support them. A serious grassroots conversation would occur, it would become an election issue, and a large group of people outside parliament and inside it would be poised to lobby for the necessary transformative legislation on mitigation and adaptation.
Thinking about climate change as a practical political problem helps avoid despair because we know that huge political changes have happened in the past and continue to do so. The future is up to us if we act collectively and engage in politics. To quote Antonio Gramsci: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” Looked at this way, we can see the politics as a battle between a future shaped by fear versus a future shaped by hope.
That hope is built on a better story of the future and routes to enact it. The outline of this story is that given the colossal wealth and the scientific knowledge available today, we can solve many of the world’s pressing problems and all live well. Given that our environmental impacts are so long-lasting, the future is the politics we make today.
• Simon Lewis is professor of global change science at University College London and the Univesity of Leeds, and co-authored The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene (Pelican) with Mark Maslin