On the threshold

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

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Climate Change, Moral judgment, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On the threshold

  1. tim says:

    Quentin, many thanks for your careful articles on this difficult and important question. No-one on this blog seems now ready to dissent from your conclusion! That includes me – though I may want to shade it a little. I think the certainty and intensity of the likely consequences may have been overstated. Maybe this is politically necessary to get anything done at all – certainly the ‘Climategate’ scientists seem to have thought so. Nevertheless, prudence requires us to believe the scientific majority, and to prepare to make sacrifices. Where might we start? (giving up meat for Lent, perhaps?).

    Meanwhile, anyone who is interested in a (relatively) even-tempered and even-handed discussion of the science may like to read the discussion at http://www.nature.com/news/2009/091202/full/462551a.html of the Nature news report on the leaked emails. You can’t read the report yourself unless you’re a Nature subscriber, but their ‘climate denialist’ leader is available at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v462/n7273/full/462545a.html .

  2. Tim, thanks for your remarks. I think it would be fair to say that the initial scepticism with which I greeted the scientific consensus (I am deeply suspicious of any consensus) gradually turned in favour of the 90% probability level of the IPCC. This was a human, but not expert, judgment – largely based on the tone and quality of the report itself.
    I strongly support your suggestion that people should at least read the final link you give in your contribution.

  3. Superview says:

    Thank you Tim for the very informative link to the ‘Nature’ leader. It shows just how unreliable the popular press can be when dealing with even very important issues. Thanks also to you and Quentin for nurtering this topic.
    The November 2009 issue of Far East, the magazine of the Columban Missionaries, carried an appreciation of Fr Thomas Berry CP who died at the age of 94 in June. Described as ‘the most significant eco-theologian of the last century’, Fr Berry, as writer and teacher, was among the first to think about our impact on the planet in theological terms, believing that we needed to understand the history and fuctioning of our planet and of the wider universe, like sailors learning about their ship and the vast ocean on which it sails. He once remarked that ‘It takes a universe to make a child’, which I think is wonderfully insightful. In his last book ‘Evening Thoughts’ (2006) he wrote “All the creatures of earth are looking to us for their destiny. Among these are our children and grandchildren, who depend on our decisions for the sustenance and flourishing of the life-systems of our planet. This remains one of our primary challenges in the twenty-first century.”
    Seen in these terms we must act prudentially, and while governments strive on our behalf to get the big decisions right, we can as individuals and families do any number of small things to lessen our own impact on the planet – use clean energy and more efficiently, pollute less by avoiding wasteful journies, support re-cycling and avoid wasting food, and encourage children to grow in appreciation of their planet. This must be part of what it means to be a responsible citizen and Christian.

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