Climate change – how bad can it get?

“A bullet fired through the head can have an adverse effect on brain function”. This is the sort of language in which the risks from climate change are sometimes discussed.  In other circles the language of catastrophe is preferred, with the possibility of human extinction sometimes thrown in.

Those of us who are concerned about global warming and other environmental threats have various motivations. For some, the injustice of what rich-world carbon emissions have inflicted on other countries is paramount. For some, a deep love of the natural world and a perception of environmental vandalism comes top. I feel both those things strongly but, most of all, I feel that human civilisation at its best is glorious and remarkable but fragile. We seem in danger of throwing it away by our lack of concern for the biosphere that supports it. I fear a possible future in which much of the world is rendered uninhabitable, civilisation has broken down and most of human life is nasty, brutish and short. That’s what I call catastrophe.

The received wisdom, at least until recently, seems to have been that it’s counter-productive to talk about global warming in apocalyptic terms. That may be right but it risks our under-estimating the damage that climate change could cause. From the evidence I have encountered, I simply can’t rule out the possibility of a global catastrophe resulting from climate change.  That possibility is amplified by the fragility of some of our political systems and hence of our civilisation.

Looking at regimes governing some of the most populous countries in the world, not to mention politics in the USA and the UK, I can’t feel confident that catastrophe will be avoided.

Most of the scientific literature reported in the main news media dwells on the present and near future – heat waves, floods, wildfires, melting glaciers and ice-sheets, disappearing wildlife. The “nasty, brutish and short” scenario is rarely discussed.

Last week we had an exception – a paper from a group of scientists, well-reported in The Guardian, in which the authors bemoaned the paucity of analysis of the risks of global catastrophe. They called for a special report on catastrophic climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  I agree, as long as a promised report doesn’t become an excuse to delay action.

If rigorous scientific and risk analysis indicates that the threat of a global climate catastrophe is vanishingly small, I shall be delighted. Otherwise, I would much rather we look the threat in the face than turn a blind eye to it.

* John Medway has been a Liberal Democrat member since the merger in 1988 and was an SDP councillor before that. He has an active interest in the economics of sustainability and is on the Executive of the Liberal Democrat Social Democrat Group.

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  • The Guardian article also made a chilling point. Thirty years ago climate scientists thought it wise to exaggerate the dangers in order to instil a sense of urgency; now they underplay them in case we go into shock and give up. Jared Diamond’s book Collapse made a similar point. People tend to put off making unwelcome lifestyle changes until they can tell themselves its too late and there’s no point in trying.
    I recall writing in the LDV some years ago that the UN needs to instruct Brazil and others to stop destroying the rainforest instead of merely asking them, and to enforce it, on the grounds that vital resources belong to the world, not individual countries. Some Lib Dems thought me a fascist, but as John Medway hints rather more delicately than I did, “some regimes” in “populous countries” need to realise how urgently we must end the exploitation of irreplaceable nature resources. It’s usually fuelled by corrupt payments to government officials and politicians, and it won’t stop just because of a few tears from Alok Sharma.

  • The challenge, in my opinion, to those who wish to see truly radical change – be that massive restrictions on the ability to travel (especially to fly), a massive shift to vegetarianism, restrictions to family size etc, is the reality of democracy: voters prefer to vote for parties that promise better times than for those that promise to make their lives worse.

  • John Medway 18th Aug '22 - 4:29pm

    @AndyDaer – I agree. I see you are a prolific contributor to LDV and I’d like to read your posting that you refer to. Can you give us a link?

    @Sadhbh – Yes, I think you’ve identified the challenge.

    There sometimes comes a time when the electorate realises that something has to be done. This happened, I think, in 1939 after Hitler took over the remainder of Czechoslovakia. By then it was too late for a painless solution the problem of Hitler but the painful solution worked after six years of war, though it left the problem of much of Europe being dominated by Stalin.

    It seems to me that it’s now too late to avoid some very serious consequences of climate change but those consequences might fall short of a global catastrophe if we’re lucky. Anything we can do to bring forward the moment when a majority of the electorate accepts the need for some sacrifice will be helpful. The present state of politics in the UK doesn’t inspire confidence that the moment will be soon but I think we should looking for every conceivable way to tackle the problem in the hope that we can turn a corner.

  • Neil James Sandison 19th Aug '22 - 2:13pm

    Perhaps its a case of carrot and stick extol the benefits of renewable energy sources over fossil fuels , how wastes can be recycled ,reused and recovered rather than digging out and depleting raw materials . How healthy living and walking buses is better than all those Chelsea tractors clogging up our roads outside schools . That home grown produce is better than imports with less air and lorry miles . That carbon fees and better than excise duty on fuels . Hitting people with a big stick just makes them defensive . demonstrating there is a real alternative is more likely to change minds and actions .

  • Peter Hirst 19th Aug '22 - 4:55pm

    Homo Sapiens has not even begun its spiritual evolution. Except in rare people, we still live in a materialistic, thought derived reality. It would be a shame if human life was extinguished by climate change before we could all experience our true reality and live a life of peace, love and unity.

  • John Medway 19th Aug '22 - 9:38pm

    @NeilJamesSandison – I think your final sentence pinpoints a weakness in my article. In my final sentence I wrote “Otherwise, I would much rather we look the threat in the face than turn a blind eye to it.” I never said who “we” was. It could be various groups – the whole of humanity, the electorate, the Liberal Democrats, the people who are involved in making policy, those Liberal Democrats who are deeply concerned about climate change etc.

    What worries me is that so many people in high places (particularly Tories) speak and act as though climate change was no concern of theirs. Some are even outright deniers of the seriousness of the issue and talk of “giving in to the climate alarmists”. I feel like saying to them “Are you really in favour of bringing civilisation to an end?”

    However, if “we” is the whole population or the electorate, a different approach is needed. Hitting the population at large with a big stick, as you say, won’t work. As you imply, positive, practical action to tackle the problem is needed, with an emphasis on the positive benefits other than reducing the risk of highly destructive climate change. For that reason, I am interested in the concept of the “well-being economy” as a major component of a strategy to accelerate our move towards a sustainable society in a sustainable physical environment.

    Another essential component is revitalisation of our democracy, in particular by creating mechanisms, such as people’s assemblies, where issues can be discussed in depth with expert knowledge on hand to help inform the discussion.

    @PeterHirst – Long essays could be written about your concepts of spiritual evolution and true reality but I won’t start one here. I think I broadly understand and agree with what you are saying. There is so much more to life than what money can buy and I could give you a long list of things that give me deep satisfaction largely unrelated my material circumstances – but I won’t list them here.

    Your approach chimes with what some important thinkers are saying. You may have come across the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) and browsed their website – Although much of their work is down-to-earth, you may well detect a strong undercurrent of what might be called spirituality.

    Thank you both for your comments.

  • @John Medway, thanks for your comments. The link to my Feb 2021 article is here
    The 54 comments were largely a two-person debate led by a climate change denier, not really what I wanted !
    Re your most recent comment, what amazes me is how the extinction disaster is treated by many people, including our current government, as roughly on a par with whether or not reducing taxes is a good plan, or what to do about doctors’ pay. It seems they are incapable of realising that this problem is of a different order of magnitude than anything the current life-forms on our planet have ever faced.

  • John Medway 21st Aug '22 - 7:25pm

    @Andy Daer – thanks for the link to your posting about the supranational council to enforce emissions reductions. It was an interesting read though I couldn’t help wondering with what enthusiasm Messrs Putin, Xi, Modi or Bolsonaro would subject themselves to a such a council.

    I think there was an important message. In the face of an emergency, the principal criterion for a remedial measure is whether it works or not. Ideology sometimes has to be ditched. Even Rishi Sunak, an arch-neoliberal, ditched his ideology in order to subsidise furloughs in the face of the original onset of Covid. I would say that even Lib Dem ideology might need to be ditched in the face of the climate emergency, except that I think it’s part of our ideology not to let the ideology stand in the way of an effective solution to a problem of catastrophic proportions.

    I see what you mean about the intervention of a climate change denier in the comments section – though he did stimulate me to graph the annual increase in CO2 atmospheric concentration against emissions to see if one of his early comments made sense. To my mind it didn’t but the issue doesn’t seem very clear-cut.

  • @John Medway, I think we’re largely in agreement. Looking back on the thread from my article, it seems odd that so much was written about the science (much of it very technical, but still dubious, and often irrelevant). Then, and now, the key issue is that we are in a world where national boundaries don’t (and can’t) contain the effects of pollution, over-fishing, over-exploitation of land for short-term profit (leading to the permanent loss of priceless species), and most of all, climate change.
    I try to use the perspective of a conversation with our descendants. How would I explain letting vast rainforests be destroyed by a few people chasing short-term profit from palm oil, plundered timber, soya, or beef cattle, when we know it will have a catastrophic impact on the world’s climate for those who will live in it after we have gone ?
    I’m afraid I would describe those who say such concerns are trumped by the need for Liberal Democrats to be nice people who don’t generally try to boss people about, as (using the politest expression I can come up with, LDV editors) barking mad.
    I’m going to be at Conference next month on the LDFP stand, if anyone wants to discuss these issues in person.

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