W Stephen Gilbert
The salient point about Cassandra the mythological princess, and Dr Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and Chief Brody in Peter Benchley’s Jaws is not that they predicted calamity or that they were proved right after several individuals (thousands in Cassandra’s case) had unnecessarily died. It was that they were ignored and even reviled. So it is with the most significant issue of the age, indeed the most significant event in the history of the world: climate change.
Predictably enough, the coverage of the on-going worldwide action by the groups acting under the umbrella Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes inspired by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has concentrated on their conduct rather than their aims. Sitting down, skipping school, sleeping over and supergluing are of more interest to the mainstream media than the survival of the planet. Politicians and media commentators prate about irresponsibility, civil disobedience, disruption and cost, unmindful that these are but a drop in the rising ocean.
Peter Harper, the pioneering prophet of alternative technologies, was telling our local Labour party the other week that the expert consensus now is that we have, at best, fifteen years before the whole of eastern England including London, along with Toronto, New York, Florida and the eastern seaboard of the United States, and the low countries and much else of western Europe, disappears under permanent flood water.**
The window of opportunity for pre-emptive action that will limit, let alone prevent, this outcome is fast closing. Some time in the next decade, the tipping point will come, the damage will be irreparable, irrevocable, irreversible.
My partner and I have no issue. We fear for the children and even more the grandchildren of our friends, but for ourselves we need not wonder what fate we bestowed on anyone we have brought into a doomed world. We have always assumed that our deaths would precede Armageddon. And long ago, we moved to the west country. But if we were ever tempted to feel smug about our relative age and our choice of base, we can no longer comfort ourselves. While the end of the world appeared to be a far-off fantasy, we could enjoy its fictional representations in the scenarios of disaster literature and movies. But gradually, alongside the possibility of nuclear catastrophe returning to consideration, especially in the hands of death-cult groups, the spread of uncontrollable bacteria or global epidemic became credible.
And now climate change has overtaken all other threats, not as something far off and largely imaginary but as terrifyingly imminent. My partner and I, hitherto immune to the danger because of human life expectancy, may well still be around in fifteen years, by which time the vulnerability of old age will be rather more apparent to us.
The prospect of huge numbers of English refugees fleeing west – by then perhaps as many as 30 million of them – fills one with dread. Look how unsympathetically the European nations have handled the comparatively small numbers of refugees seeking help from them over the last few years. So the breakdown of order is a given. What proportion of desperate people, many exhibiting the Londoner’s characteristic sense of entitlement, would be content to wait patiently for the provisions that the authorities have made for them? Indeed, in the nightmare scenario that Theresa May is still the prime minister in 2035, scant provision will have been made because parliament will have been wholly engaged in dispute about the precise depth to which the floodwater is predicted to rise, with the grande dame determined to push through her policy based on a flooding projection merely to the depth of a couple of centimeters.
Politicians, particularly in Britain, like to sit back and congratulate themselves on the pitiful restrictions they have enacted and the puny long-term goals they have set, promising to reduce vehicular emissions just a tad when what they face is the impossibility of travel by any means save boat and raft. We are all fetishising small, targeted causes and ignoring the scale of the overarching disaster. What is the good of saving the tiger or the honey bee, the rain forest or the coral reef when, in a foreseeable future, flora and fauna will be globally decimated, surviving only in random pockets until they too are hunted to extinction for food? As half of England disappears under water, how many creatures, save those that can fly distances, will perish as we struggle to save ourselves?
It’s not as if these warnings are new. In her seminal book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson identified the extensive use of pesticides as having a profoundly deleterious effect on the environment. That was in 1962, 57 years ago. Who listened?
The UN’s recent report on climate change anticipates a million extinctions of plants and animals unless action is taken, and taken now. Who can doubt that the extinction of the human race will follow, and sooner rather than later? We are the authors of our own fate. In his recent BBC programme on the subject, Climate Change – The Facts (still available on iPlayer), David Attenborough limned “our greatest threat in thousands of years”. Among the experts consulted, the Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, Chris Stark, drily noted: “The costs of action are dwarfed by the costs of inaction”. Stark enough for you?
For the mainstream media, the UN report was a big story but played second to the obviously much more significant news of a royal birth. One wonders whether the Sussexes have pondered where they will flee to once the London palaces are flooded. Of the 25 current royal residences, only four may be expected to be untouched by the imminent inundation: Highgrove, Gatcombe, Llwynywermod in Carmarthenshire and possibly Barnwell Manor in Northants. The rest, even those in Scotland, are vulnerable because of successive royals favouring eastern counties. Perhaps the Duke of Cambridge could be persuaded to speak up louder about what we face. As monarch, he may be presiding over an unimaginable crisis.
Labour has urged the government to declare a climate emergency, a gesture that will be no more than that if not followed up. As Jeremy Corbyn put it, in proposing a number of large but unspecified measures, “it’s a chance that won’t be available to succeeding generations”. But we have to ensure that the ‘could’ in his hope that “we could set off a wave of action from parliaments and governments around the world” is in practice a ‘will’. The world is swinging hard to the right and governments of the hard right are not exercised by the global emergency; indeed, they doubt its very existence. Trump calls it a hoax. Brazil now has a president whose policy is to clear the Amazon basin for short-term profit, with no thought for the global implications. Why has not the International Court of Justice already sought pre-emptive measures to prevent his carrying through this policy? Why is Trump being permitted to reactive the American fossil fuel companies, purely to obtain the workers’ votes in 2020?
Despite Trump, New York City is enacting a $20 billion programme to combat the local effects of climate change, addressing such issues as coastal protection and drainage capacity. The coastline around Lower Manhattan is being raised twenty feet above the current sea level. Millions of additional trees have been planted across the city to help to control rising summer temperatures. All new builds have to meet stringent green requirements. New protections have been created to prevent the flooding of the subway system. “Managed retreat” plans have been enacted as a result of Hurricane Sandy more than six years ago. Congestion pricing will be introduced in the next two years and vehicle emissions are intended to be halved by 2025. Will that be sufficient? And how much is London investing in something similar?
Late last year, London mayor Sadiq Khan and civic leaders in other cities also declared “a climate emergency”. Khan’s plan is to make his city carbon neutral by 2050, but he does not explain how you achieve such a target in a metropolis that has by then been under water for fifteen years. The London Assembly wisely passed a motion to bring forward Khan’s target by twenty years. But is it realistic?
What seems clear is that politicians generally, ever mindful of this week’s measure of popularity, have no will to do more than nibble at the edges. They may have calculated that they’ll be dead by 2050 and so they won’t care. But if they are out by as many years as the scientists now fear, some at least of them will live to see their names reviled and perhaps find themselves hunted down by starving and vengeful refugees, many of those refugees being people who thought they were immune to tomorrow’s disaster. Then the politicians might learn too late something about irresponsibility, disruption and cost.
**UPDATE 12/05/19: Peter Harper points out that the timeframe sketched by him and mentioned in the article refers to the opportunity to put measures in place to prevent the seas rising by more than three feet by century’s end, rather than the time shortly after which a large landmass will be inundated. He says: “In my view the best avenue for the Labour Party would be a major infrastructural renewal programme that would bring millions of new jobs. They could forge rational alliances with appropriate businesses and redirect the universities to provide the necessary research and training. They should reorganise the tax system to be revenue-neutral but make carbon visible in prices”.