The Elders, originally founded by Nelson Mandela and currently chaired by Ireland’s former president, Mary Robinson, deplored the recent COP26 in Glasgow as a “dereliction of leadership”. Optimists cling to the hope that a 1.5-degree Celsius ceiling on global warming remains alive, with a ratcheting up of national climate ambitions by next year at COP27. The prospect of more “blah, blah, blah” in the land of the fairies rather than the Pharaohs, as Greta Thunberg might put it.
There is something deeply worrying about the COP process – it is not working. A recent comment by Professor Dieter Helm from Oxford goes to the heart of it:
“As at Paris, Glasgow sang from the same old hymn sheet, whilst all around the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere marches on at the relentless 2 parts per million (ppm) per annum, all in the naive belief that one more heave, one more COP, is going to crack the climate change problem" (article available at www.dieterhelm.co.uk).
A growing number of people believe the 1.5-degree red line will be breached this decade. Moreover, with temperatures in areas like the Arctic increasing by over 3x the global average, there is an exponentially rising risk of regional or even global tipping points being triggered. The irreversibility effects of dramatic climate events are scary, as detailed in a previous blog co-authored with Professor Rod Cross.
With temperatures in areas like the Arctic increasing by over 3x the global average, there is an exponentially rising risk of regional or even global tipping points being triggered.
Because our lives are a blip on geological timescales, we tend to dismiss such cataclysmic events as fantasy. However, major regime changes in the Earth’s history, driven by complex feedback loops, are all too real. Many of us will have enjoyed holidays in the Mediterranean. Fewer will realise that its water evaporated some 6 million years ago to expose a vast desert, as a delicate balance of water inflow and outflow involving the Straits of Gibraltar was disrupted by seismic activity.
So, what can be done? The first thing is to reframe the problem. Over 4.5 billion years of history ought to be enough to persuade us that the Earth is perfectly able to look after itself, with or without us. Saving the planet can be a deceptive metaphor. The real issue is how to save ourselves. To achieve that, we need a broad, not narrow, vision that comprehends our place in nature. As just one example, using our minds to stretch into deep time is not fantastical thinking or ‘alarmism’ – it is simply to represent the fuller context of our existence.
So, it starts with re-assessing our relationship with the environment. It is not even primarily about technology – we already have the kit to meet our environmental problems, and it improves every day. If anything, it is about education, broadly defined. As individuals, we need to re-organise our consumption and investment in a way that is compatible with respecting nature’s cycles and rhythms.
The foundations for this lie in a combination of basic human decency and justice, pricing environmental costs properly, and environmental law built on the ‘polluter pays’ principle. This can give the right signals to all of us in terms of our economic decisions while protecting the vulnerable. Aggregated up, it will allow us as a society to repair and eventually enhance our nature-adjusted national balance sheet, which ought to be the new economic barometer of progress, rather than a myopic and potentially catastrophic focus on GDP.
This need not be a Sisyphean task, as there are plenty of ways for willing coalitions to encourage others to join this race for survival. Alas, it is now too late to wait for global unanimity in climate conferences. That will almost inevitably come when it is too late. We urgently need to embrace a sustainable future now, built up on our individual actions. Otherwise, the journey to Egypt might one day be by camel only.
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