There is something disconcerting about the rhetoric of climate change. Some of those who seek action to tackle it talk about ‘saving the Planet’. However, while science predicts that the Earth will be destroyed along with the rest of the solar system, that, irrespective of climate change, is unlikely for about 5 billion years we are told. Others talk of ‘destroying life on Earth’. However, life on earth has survived far more catastrophic episodes than even the gloomiest forebodings of climate-change activists, including mass extinctions. Yet others talk about ‘destroying the balance of nature’ or humankind marring ‘a perfect Planet’. Yet the one thing we know from science is that life on Earth is in constant flux. All species face eventual extinction and replacement by new species as the environment changes. Even the crust of the Planet is replaced as tectonic plates side down into the molten core and volcanic action and weathering produce an ever-changing surface. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a definition of ‘perfection’ that could describe a system that changes constantly precisely because it never was or ever will be in balance, complete and so never perfect: ask Darwin or any passing geophysicist. Finally, some limit their worries to the ‘extinction of humankind’. Always possible at any time and, given time, it is inevitable. However, the science currently suggests that the species is no more at risk of immediate mass extinction now than it always has been, say by gift of a global winter brought on by a nuclear war, Yellowstone going pop, a visit from an unwelcome asteroid or the arrival and onslaught of a killer pandemic.
So, if the threat is not to Planet, the perfect but non-existent balance of nature, life on Earth or humankind, what does the immediate and ongoing climate change threaten? The answer may seem obvious: the comfort and safety of individuals affected by the change. Of course, it might be said that part of that comfort is achieved by preserving the status quo in nature for our human appreciation and recreation. However, not only is the status quo never on offer in a dynamic world, but we easily transfer our sentimental attachments from the glories of ‘the old’ to the glories of ‘the new’. For example, we Brits find horrific the scenes of devastation left after existing ancient forests and their denizens are destroyed both here and in places like the Amazon Basin and the North West of America. Yet, we find our countryside and moorlands beautiful and protect them with draconian laws despite their having been created by obliterating such ancient forests and replacing them with a man-made industrial landscape of devastated, scarred, overgrazed and scrubby moorland, units of land marked off by stone walls, laid hedges and fences all crisscrossed by ditches, deeply eroded lanes and hard trodden footpaths, green lanes and bridleways and dotted by industrial buildings like workers houses, storage units and the monumental residences of those who led and profited most from the clearances and enclosures that destroyed what many conservationists today would call ‘nature’.
Having established that the threat is to the safety and comfort of we individuals, what are the means and the chances of addressing this burgeoning and immediate threat to your and my welfare?
Some scientific silver bullet and/or radical changes in behaviour might enable humankind to take sufficient control of the climate to bring about predictable outcomes in ways that are supported by all or at least by those wielding overwhelming power. Possibly but not perhaps probably. Why?
First, other than knowing that we have no means of returning to the status quo ante and that change is underway and will continue, we cannot predict with any confidence how any particular alteration or development in behaviour or technology, if effective, would turn out for all the different regions of the globe and its multifarious life forms including human populations. However, without some degree of clarity and predictability and some degree of assurance about the outcome, it seems unlikely that any action which noticeably diminished people’s existing comfort or the existing international standing, pretensions and power of nations would be supported by all or a majority or even those wielding the kind of power that could impose such measures.
Secondly, even supposing we knew what to do and what its outcome would be, like all public policy issues, we can already see that climate change and action to address it will create winners and losers both within societies and between societies, even if the end-winners are no more than those who survive as against those who do not, or those who suffer a smaller erosion of their quality of life than others. That said, climate change may offer opportunities for some individuals and societies to flourish as never before while others face disaster. The result is that any action will have its supporters and its opponents both internally and externally. What is more, climate change is not a discrete issue. It cannot be dealt with separately from the realpolitik’s of international relations. Hence, it would arguably take the alignment of foreign and economic policies across the globe on an unprecedented scale and on a wide range of currently contested issues to get collective agreement and action on the climate.
Although distressing to some, this situation is nothing new. The determination of individuals and groups striving to protect and benefit themselves irrespective of the expense to others arguably sums up the whole of human political, legal and economic history and not least that of we Europeans. Until well into the 20th Century, we enthusiastically plundered the Americas, Africa, Asia and the sub-continents, squabbling amongst ourselves and committing genocide, injustice and violence as we went, in order to protect and increase our comfort and power. Indeed, the UK government still insists that the UK’s contribution to that squalid adventure should be a matter of national pride and, who knows, action on climate change may be just the opportunity for the new Global Britain to get back to what it thinks it does best, kicking the hell out of those it can dominate militarily either alone or in league with allies.
It may be that the likelihood of such internecine conflict, of mass migrations and of other horrors explains the resort to the misleading rhetoric which strains credulity and science in suggesting that as a Planet, as part of nature and as a species we are ‘all in it together’; that any sacrifices will be in a ‘noble and global cause’ and that nobody can prosper unless we all prosper. That delusion excuses us from contemplating and confronting the bare-knuckle struggle that may likely envelope us in the coming years. It is a rhetoric with which politicians will go along for now because confronting such a harsh prospect publicly would be premature, and too dangerous until the implications of climate change and the best options for their individual countries are clearer.
COP26 may, of course, astonish us by coming up with a realisable ‘master plan’ that will convince and attract enough support for the world to go forward hand-in-hand in rationally and effectively controlling climate change so as to minimise and compensate for loss and to take shared advantage of its opportunities (albeit the developed world’s hoarding of vaccines in the face of a global pandemic does not auger well). However, even if COP26 does not ‘deliver the goods’, it will at least have helped postpone the confrontation to come. And, given that extinction comes to us all individually and to all species and even planets eventually, postponement is not to be sneered at. It is the best we can ever do and we should use the time gained to best effect.
To that end, any competent government in the current situation should devote as much, if not more time to thinking through how it will deal with the huge political, societal, and economic conflict that climate change will likely wreak as it devotes to minimising climate change itself. That should include, along with the likes of coastal flood defence, with whom best to ally itself in the coming and probable conflict, the strength, competence and appropriateness of its military, the adequacy of its other security arrangements and the robustness of its supply chains if the imminent and any future COPs prove to be cop outs.