Sunday, July 28, 2013

Extract IV from Stephen Emmott's Ten Billion

So what politicians have opted for instead is failed diplomacy. For example: The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, whose job it has been for 20 years to ensure the stabilisation of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere: Failed. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification, whose job it's been for 20 years to stop land degrading and becoming desert: Failed. The Convention on Biological Diversity, whose job it's been for 20 years to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss: Failed. Those are only three examples of failed global initiatives. The list is a depressingly long one. And the way governments justify this level of inaction is by exploiting public opinion and scientific uncertainty. It used to be a case of, "We need to wait for science to prove climate change is happening". This is now beyond doubt. So now it's, "We need to wait for scientists to be able to tell us what the impact will be and the costs". And, "We need to wait for public opinion to get behind action". But climate models will never be free from uncertainties. And as for public opinion, politicians feel remarkably free to ignore it when it suits them – wars, bankers' bonuses and healthcare reforms, to give just three examples.
What politicians and governments say about their commitment to tackling climate change is completely different from what they are doing about it.
What about business? In 2008 a group of highly respected economists and scientists led by Pavan Sukhdev, then a senior Deutsche Bank economist, conducted an authoritative economic analysis of the value of biodiversity. Their conclusion? The cost of the business activities of the world's 3,000 largest corporations in loss or damage to nature and the environment now stands at $2.2tn per year. And rising. These costs will have to be paid for in the future. By your children and your grandchildren. To quote Sukhdev: "The rules of business urgently need to be changed, so corporations compete on the basis of innovation, resource conservation and satisfaction of multiple stakeholder demands, rather than on the basis of who is most effective in influencing government regulation, avoiding taxes and obtaining subsidies for harmful activities to maximise the return for shareholders." Do I think that will happen? No. What about us?
I confess I used to find it amusing, but I am now sick of reading in the weekend papers about some celebrity saying, "I gave up my 4×4 and now I've bought a Prius. Aren't I doing my bit for the environment?" They are not doing their bit for the environment. But it's not their fault. The fact is that they – we – are not being well informed. And that's part of the problem. We're not getting the information we need. The scale and the nature of the problem is simply not being communicated to us. And when we are advised to do something, it barely makes a dent in the problem. Here are some of the changes we've been asked to make recently, by celebrities who like to pronounce on this sort of thing, and by governments, who should know better than to give out this kind of nonsense as 'solutions': Switch off your mobile phone charger; wee in the shower (my favourite); buy an electric car (no, don't); use two sheets of loo roll rather than three. All of these are token gestures that miss the fundamental fact that the scale and nature of the problems we face are immense, unprecedented and possibly unsolvable.
The behavioural changes that are required of us are so fundamental that no one wants to make them. What are they? We need to consume less. A lot less. Less food, less energy, less stuff. Fewer cars, electric cars, cotton T-shirts, laptops, mobile phone upgrades. Far fewer.And here it is worth pointing out that "we" refers to the people who live in the west and the north of the globe. There are currently almost 3 billion people in the world who urgently need to consume more: more water, more food, more energy. Saying "Don't have children" is utterly ridiculous. It contradicts every genetically coded piece of information we contain, and one of the most important (and fun) impulses we have. That said, the worst thing we can continue to do – globally – is have children at the current rate. If the current global rate of reproduction continues, by the end of this century there will not be 10 billion of us. According to the United Nations, Zambia's population is projected to increase by 941% by the end of this century. The population of Nigeria is projected to grow by 349% – to 730 million people.
Afghanistan by 242%.
Democratic Republic of Congo 213%.
Gambia by 242%.
Guatemala by 369%.
Iraq by 344%.
Kenya by 284%.
Liberia by 300%.
Malawi by 741%.
Mali by 408%.
Niger by 766%.
Somalia by 663%.
Uganda by 396%.
Yemen by 299%.
Even the United States' population is projected to grow by 54% by 2100, from 315 million in 2012 to 478 million. I do just want to point out that if the current global rate of reproduction continues, by the end of this century there will not be 10 billion of us – there will be 28 billion of us.
Where does this leave us? Let's look at it like this. If we discovered tomorrow that there was an asteroid on a collision course with Earth and – because physics is a fairly simple science – we were able to calculate that it was going to hit Earth on 3 June 2072, and we knew that its impact was going to wipe out 70% of all life on Earth, governments worldwide would marshal the entire planet into unprecedented action. Every scientist, engineer, university and business would be enlisted: half to find a way of stopping it, the other half to find a way for our species to survive and rebuild if the first option proved unsuccessful. We are in almost precisely that situation now, except that there isn't a specific date and there isn't an asteroid. The problem is us. Why are we not doing more about the situation we're in – given the scale of the problem and the urgency needed – I simply cannot understand. We're spending €8bn at Cern to discover evidence of a particle called the Higgs boson, which may or may not eventually explain mass and provide a partial thumbs-up for the standard model of particle physics. And Cern's physicists are keen to tell us it is the biggest, most important experiment on Earth. It isn't. The biggest and most important experiment on Earth is the one we're all conducting, right now, on Earth itself. Only an idiot would deny that there is a limit to how many people our Earth can support. The question is, is it seven billion (our current population), 10 billion or 28 billion? I think we've already gone past it. Well past it.
Science is essentially organised scepticism. I spend my life trying to prove my work wrong or look for alternative explanations for my results. It's called the Popperian condition of falsifiability. I hope I'm wrong. But the science points to my not being wrong. We can rightly call the situation we're in an unprecedented emergency. We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don't think we will. I think we're fucked. I asked one of the most rational, brightest scientists I know – a scientist working in this area, a young scientist, a scientist in my lab – if there was just one thing he had to do about the situation we face, what would it be? His reply? "Teach my son how to use a gun."
This is an edited extract from Ten Billion, by Stephen Emmott (Penguin, £6.99)


Blogger changeinthewind said...

Hey Maggie,

Sometimes ya gotta wonder if all those lemmings, rushing towards the cliff, but, let's say still back in the twentieth row or there 'bouts, really want to know what's coming up next.

Not all so different us animals.

9:08 pm, July 29, 2013  

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