I’m not sorry for sounding somewhat melodramatic, here: what we face is nothing less than the archetypical existential threat. You may well dismiss me as ‘alarmist’: but if you were in a crowded theatre and you were to hear me shout “FIRE!” — what would you do then?
When, in late 2009, I first saw The Age of Stupid, I was struck by one scene in which ‘a man in a shed’ stated, quite categorically, that humanity’s carbon emissions had to peak by around 2015 in order for us to avoid the risks of passing beyond 2°C above the average pre-industrial global temperature. Almost everyone agrees that two degrees centigrade of warming is the threshold beyond which we will face serious risk of uncontrollable planet-wide climate change effects of potentially catastrophic proportions. And I do mean ‘civilisation-ending’.
This is not histrionics; it’s based upon very solid science. The ‘man in the shed’ is Mark Lynas, whose book ‘Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet’ won the Royal Society’s science book of the year award in 2008. In the short video clip below he speaks from that same year, and his message is blunt: he says we have “seven years” to stabilise global carbon emissions to avoid the risk of climate change accelerating beyond our ability to control it.
The problem is that 2008 + 7 = 2015. Those seven years are up: we’ve squandered them.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention — perhaps you’re more focused upon the fortunes of your favourite football team, or the latest antics on ‘Strictly’ or Eastenders; maybe your mind is firmly on your house or job move, or where your children are going to school next year, or any one of the myriad of (relative) trivia such as the ‘immigrant problem’, or the ‘war on terror’ — so in case you’re not familiar with the current situation:
Global carbon emissions are not slowing towards a peak in this coming year. On the contrary, emissions are soaring beyond anything humans have ever previously managed. I’m talking BIG numbers. Yay, us: we’re beating all records.
The Archivist (Pete Postlethwaite):
We had an unspoken, collective pact: to pretend climate change wasn’t happening, as though, as long as we ignored it hard enough, it wouldn’t be true.
Not absolutely everyone: a few were shouting, “Fire!”
Hello! Come on in.
One of the greatest difficulties with climate change is that the effects of our emissions of today are not actually realised in terms of the temperature for thirty to forty years; so there’s this time-lag in the system, which makes it difficult for us humans to respond because we’re evolutionarily equipped to deal with very immediate threats like advancing armies or dangerous animals. We’re not so well-equipped for dealing rationally with very long-term problems like climate change.
So we have to act now to stop something happening in the future: if we wait until the full temperature effects are already upon us then it’s far too late to stop.
If you remember one single number above all else, make it two degrees. Now, everyone in the world, pretty much, the European Union, big multinational corporations, Greenpeace, political parties: all agree that we have to stabilise global temperatures within two degrees above pre-industrial levels. And the reason for that is because if you cross that threshold, then there are tipping points in the Earth’s system which could drive the warming process essentially out of control. A huge amount of carbon could be coming out of the world’s trees and the soils, methane could be coming out of the permafrost in Siberia; and it’s that extra input of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which then leads us up the worst-case scenarios to six or more degrees and the eventual wipe out of most of life on Earth.
So: our emissions have been going up, between, let’s say 1950 and now; they need to level out, stabilise, and then decline just as rapidly to sustainable levels — about an 80% cut — by 2050. But, crucially, to keep the temperature rise within two degrees, this point of stabilisation needs to be at around 2015. So that means, really, the timeline we’ve got — the ticking clock — is that we have to stabilise global emissions within just seven years from now, as we speak, 2008.
And the scale of this task, to achieve a transformation to a low-carbon economy for the entirety of human civilisation, obviously it’s a huge, monumental task: probably the greatest that humanity’s ever faced.
So… What are your new year resolutions?