It is clear that the December Copenhagen conference on climate change will not result in a legally binding treaty committing countries to emission targets. The best we may hope for is political agreement, involving immediate action – to be followed, optimistically, by a treaty next year. Even then much depends on the US Congress passing its climate change bill; and several other countries have particular interests they want to protect.
No day seems to pass without at least one new study suggesting that the onset of global warming will be much worse or much better, and will come much sooner or much later. Once again I am thrown back, for reasons of prudence, on the broad, but not universal, consensus of the scientific community. The outcomes it predicts are not precise and cover a range of possibilities. Future assessments will vary the predictions and the time scales, but we must assume that the general thrust will remain much the same. The current general target is to limit warming to the “danger” threshold of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Substantially greater cuts in emissions than have been agreed so far will be required to achieve this.
But the orthodox view smacks to me more of setting targets which countries may be induced to accept rather than the realistic probabilities which face us. Without doubt the world is becoming warmer, but frankly we don’t really know how much warmer. We can hope to alleviate its effects, primarily through reducing industrial emissions, and we can hope to adapt. But the best we can say about these strategies is that outcomes would be worse without them. As Gordon Brown has said, there is no Plan B which will save the world from a “catastrophe” of floods, droughts and killer heatwaves.
Different regions of the world will be affected in different ways, and on different time scales. But the general picture which the IPCC paints is not attractive. Both storms and droughts will become more frequent and more severe. In addition to death and disease arising from these, malaria and other infections will spread to more regions. Heart and respiratory problems will increase with the increase in ground level ozone. Coastal flooding and erosion will overcome large areas in Asia and Africa; small, inhabited islands will be totally submerged.
The impoverished nations, particularly around the equator, will be affected most immediately because they are highly dependent on climate, and lack the resources for adaptation. More temperate climes will have a longer time scale, and the resources to adapt, but, well within the predicted possibilities of temperature change, these too will become vulnerable. Unfortunately more recent studies are suggesting that these effects will be more severe and closer at hand than the IPCC was in a position to forecast. Global warming appears to be accelerating.
So we look, without great optimism, to mitigation and adaptation. The list of possibilities is long but their implementation is another question. The schemes for reducing emissions by replacing fossil fuels are essential but expensive. Ironically it is the developed regions, less affected by climate change, that have the resources to help the developing world. But the developing world can only provide its own resources by industrialisation which will depend on the cheap power which tends to produce high emissions.
There is much expensive work to be done on infrastructure, and there is the likelihood of large-scale migrations towards temperate areas. The danger from this cannot be underestimated: the need for new territory is a common cause of armed conflict. Universal martial law may sound extreme; but it may not seem so one day.
Those who are opposed to genetically engineered crops must leave the room. However good their motivations may have been, these count for nothing now. It has even been suggested that we should become vegetarian because of the methane produced by herd animals. We have now been told that a dog has a larger carbon footprint than a four-wheel gas-guzzler, so the lighthearted suggestion that we should start by eating our dogs is not so lighthearted after all. I hope we won’t have to go as far as Jonathan Swift’s ironic suggestion about the over-fertile and undernourished Irish poor – that they should eat their babies.
Eating babies reminds us that the carbon footprint of humans has led to arguments for the reduction of population through widespread contraception. But contraception, whether through artificial or natural methods, only tends to make a difference in settled and prosperous countries. Then it needs no advocates, for people take to it like ducks to water. In any event, it is grabbing a tiger by the tail. Developed nations have shown that widespread contraception is a one-way street: population fertility cannot be turned on and off like a tap.
So I must return to my starting point of several columns ago. Climate change is not the only issue. We still have the daily struggle of conforming our petty lives to the love of God. We still live in a society which is riven through with corruption and selfishness. Yet none of us can neglect climate change as an overarching, cataclysmic threat to our children and grandchildren; nor can we – who have benefited from industrialisation – ignore the countries which cannot help themselves. What was once the scenario of science fiction is now all too likely to become science fact. It will demand great sacrifice, and great political will. And that political will is simply a euphemism for what you and I, as voters, choose to do. The rest is in God’s hands. As for me, I shall either be in heaven or undergoing a severe global warming of my own