In 1979, the middle of the Cold War, Francis Ford Coppola created a masterpiece with a title that has come into common parlance. The story is set in the Vietnam war and unveils tragic scenes that give the impression of what one might think the world would look like if there were an apocalypse. The common image we share of a post-apocalyptic world might be:
The air is dark and smoky, the streets are wet, the buildings are ruined and grimy, and wreckage is everywhere. Fires are burning, motors are roaring. This was once a city. Now it is a nightmare.
Interestingly, I was speaking to my parents the other day and these were real concerns when they were students. They postponed having children for a long time because of the threats posed by the Cold War, thankfully, it was dubbed a Cold War for a good reason, that the real concerns of a nuclear apocalypse were abolished. Thankfully for me I should say! But this brings me to my generation who have a new real concern that is not as instantaneous as nuclear warfare, which makes it all the harder to communicate: I am speaking, of course, about climate change.
This sets the scene for my rant. I’ve seen a lot of apocalyptic sounding commentary recently that, need I say, is very pessimistic about our future. And I’m not talking about next millennium, not even next century, but within this century and even within the next 50 years.
Tim DeChristopher has a certain submissive way of looking at the supposed evidence he has before him In this article:
“Well there’s no hope in avoiding collapse. If you look at the worst-case consequences of climate change, those pretty much mean the collapse of our industrial civilization. But that doesn’t mean the end of everything. It means that we’re going to be living through the most rapid and intense period of change that humanity has ever faced. And that’s certainly not hopeless. It means we’re going to have to build another world in the ashes of this one. And it could very easily be a better world.
I have a lot of hope in my generation’s ability to build a better world in the ashes of this one. And I have very little doubt that we’ll have to. The nice thing about that is that this culture hasn’t led to happiness anyway, it hasn’t satisfied our human needs. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.
It’s somewhat comforting knowing that things are going to fall apart, because it does give us that opportunity to drastically change things.”
He refers to Terry Root, who won a Nobel Peace prize for her contribution to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) in 2007, who is quoted saying,
“There are things we could have done in the ’80s, there are some things we could have done in the ’90s—but it’s probably too late to avoid any of the worst-case scenarios that we’re talking about.”
This doesn’t inspire hope but if we take DeChristopher’s approach then we should entertain curiosity for what it might look like in our futures.
Another I looked at, James Gustave, an ex-environmental policy adviser to the US government, says a little more optimistically,
”I think that the environmental community needs to see political reform as central to its agenda, and it doesn’t now. That’s not what the environmental groups do. And that’s a huge mistake, because right now they’re playing a loser’s game, and they keep losing. Winning some battles, but losing the planet.”
What is the cause of all of this pessimism?
I’ve been reading a rather outdated book The End of Oil (2004) by Paul Roberts. His research on climate change led to the conclusion that if we stabilized out carbon emissions at 450ppm, we would be safe from drastic climate change. But, guess what I’m going to say next, that’s gonna be bloody hard. When he wrote the book the atmospheric concentrations were around 370ppm, and I calculated that the 3% growth rate would put us at 400ppm today - we’re at 396ppm, so not far off. Which means that we’ll be looking at 450ppm by 2020. Is it reasonable to ask for our economy to stop consuming within 8 years?
Advice from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change from the book was:
“‘Given the snapshot of where we are now, we will hit 550ppm by the middle of this century,’ says the Pew Center’s Preston. ‘If we’re to have any chance of stabilizing at that level it means divesting ourselves of fossil fuel sometime during the next four decades’. In other words, Stokes told me, not only do we need a new generation of energy technologies, but we must begin developing them now, and then deploying them on a massive scale “in the next 20 years”.
Current science suggests an even more conservative figure of 350ppm (an NZ climate change organisation 350.org is named after this). This quote comes from a NASA physicist who specializes in atmospheric physics.
“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that… If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.”
~ J Hansen
The “catastrophic effects” are said to be diverse. We have seen huge loss in biodiversity already in the form of mass extinction. Terry Root says in an interview that we are looking at a 20% extinction of known species on the planet if a 2 degree increase in temperature from the 1990 level were to occur.
I just looked up the projection for this 2 degree increase and I found that it is forecast to be beached in 2070. That’s pretty drastic seeing as that accounts for 380,000 species becoming extinct which will cause a huge ecological shift, opening new niches which cannot be filled fast enough.
Of course, that’s not even the start of it. You’ve got effects on water supply, on coastal areas (flooding etc), weather, and then all of the impacts on man - food production, or society, infrastructure and settlement, not to mention the massive health impacts we will (and have already) see. For example the massive heat wave in France in 2003, killing nearly 15,000 people, that’s 14,802 more deaths than expected - it’s not that we need to prepare ourselves for what is to come, we need to help ourselves for now.
What the IPCC co-author suggests, Terry Root, is to “use fluorescent light bulbs”. But her main message is that this needs to come from policy and leadership initiative. The people will not all simultaneously and spontaneously change their light bulbs (I can feel a good joke coming on here) when the light bulb companies are resisting this change with noncompetitive pricing that makes it unattractive to the short term buyer. The light bulb needs to be changed from the top - leaders need to address the companies to create realistic competition between them.
She speaks of having to turn off your appliances when they are not in use, and how much energy it would save globally if everybody did this, but she acknowledges that in California, the government have made a law that “you have to have a chip…” - she is referring to EcoSmart’s technology that lowers the “duty cycle”, that is it limits the supply of power to the load, drawing less current from the electric utility. Again, an example of needing efficient political systems that allow incremental and economical changes towards a more sustainable future.
I think I’ve uncovered enough end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stuff for one day. I’m now going to enjoy some of the delicious oatmeal cookies I made with my girlfriend today and contemplate what I’m going to have for dinner. None of this apocalyptic stuff, cause as they put it in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,
“Everything will be alright in the end and if it’s not alright then it’s not the end!”