Not The End of the World

I’ve just come back from my first (cancelled) literary festival of the year due to you-know-what and have received notification that the second is also cancelled. I’m not holding out much hope for the third or fourth either. Annoying though it is, mine are minor problems compared with what some people are going through right now and will continue to endure for months. All doom and gloom? No. For a start, people in self-isolation will be reading more books! And then;

The planet gets a break. Oil use is plummeting and pollution has been recorded as clearing in both China and Italy.

Reduced pollution levels will save lives, perhaps as many as the virus will claim.

The sharp reduction in air travel is a massive planet-wide experiment. How will the lack of contrails affect the atmosphere? Will we learn how much they serve to deflect sunlight and how they have masked the true extent of global warming?

Travel habits might change, ultimately good news for local museums, craft shops and other attractions.

Our new fastidious cleaning and social distancing regimes will reduce the incidence of other illnesses such as seasonal flu. Lives will be saved. If better habits become ingrained, more lives will be saved in the future.

Many companies are being forced to ask staff to work from home or work flexibly. Some will find it has positive aspects and it will become a more widespread practice, with all the acknowledged benefits for both employee and employer.

Business travel has seized up and tele-conferencing and virtual meetings have taken over. If nothing else this saves money on travel and hours of management time wasted on trains, planes and waiting for connections. If businesses discover this works as a practical model for normal times too this is a win/win. With less business travel, the planet also wins.

Ideologies are irrelevant when humanity is under threat. The virus hits capitalists and communists, black and white, Arab and Jew alike. Our petty squabbles are thrown into sharp relief.

Local wins out over international and community spirit is rediscovered, as well as brilliantly biting humour in the face of crisis. Those posts harking back to the Blitz are reminding us of how we were once less selfish, less self-absorbed and more concerned about our neighbours and family. Loo-roll hoarders and sanitizer spivs are held in the same regard as the black marketeers of old.

Globalisation has taken a knock. ‘Just in time’ supply chains relying on cheap goods from China have been shown to be fragile. This should encourage companies and countries to be more resilient and think locally again. If consumers see what shortages really look like and get used to paying the real price for what they buy perhaps we will value things more and waste less.

Science has become mainstream again. They’re not just geeks in white coats – smart women and men who have devoted their lives to their disciplines are our defence against extinction.

We have rediscovered the value of international scientific co-operation. Let us not forget it.

Reasonable doubt and mathematical models are being hammered home daily, and it is to be hoped that people start to recognise the scientific method exists. Gut feel and ‘common sense’ are poor guides in a novel situation. Perhaps we will see more appreciation of the subtleties that underly complex issues such as climate change so these do not remain simply a battle between belief and denial.

Even the most diehard Tories are grateful we have an NHS in Britain. Coming out of the crisis we should see a reconfiguring of national priorities. On a purely practical level we will see which world health systems coped best with the emergency. There will be hard, indisputable, evidence as to how effective the NHS is and where it must be improved (rather than blindly chucking money at it based on sentiment and lobbying). “Lessons will be learned” across the world.

The Age of Stupid may come to an end. Can we now eliminate the denial of facts that don’t suit the dogma? The reckoning is here for world leaders who ignore science, maths, economics and the lessons of history. The devastation caused by this crisis may be the final, if costly, proof that Trump is unfit to lead the world’s most powerful nation.

Can we hope that certain Asian countries will stop decimating wildlife for ‘delicacies’ and ‘traditional medicine’ before a pangolin-meets-bat virus kills a billion people?

Perhaps we realise that this planet is not ours to do with what we will. Nature is more powerful than any government.

Finally despite this onslaught against humankind almost all of us will survive, and next time we will be better prepared. We are in this for the species;

“These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things — taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many … our living frames are altogether immune… By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the Earth.” (H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds)

Four Stories to Change the World

Back in November I took screenshots of four stories from the internet in the same 24 hours. Record floods in Venice and Yorkshire, record snowfall in the USA, and the harbinger of the Australian bush fires that are still raging. These were drowned out by election excitement, hence the blog did not appear. What strikes me is there are headlines like this almost every day, often down in the 3rd or 4th story on the page. Yes we Brits love to talk about the weather, and there will be a record being broken somewhere on the planet for something most days of the week simply because it is a big place and so many things are being measured, but these stories are accumulating to become the narrative of the age.

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I was marooned on a train during those Yorkshire floods. It is not fake news.

Climate change has gone from being sci fi hokum to fringe science to debatable science to mainstream acceptance. Okay, it is a massively complex subject that very few people truly understand (including me) but scientific consensus diverges chiefly in the detail rather than the trajectory. Non-expert members of the public picking and choosing between the ever-changing models being developed produces arguments as useful as debating the colour of an orange.

Politicians are in a sticky place. Most are not as stupid and ill-informed as the public believes, and belief is a big part of the problem. People will say they do not ‘believe’ in climate change, but what they mean is that the idea does not fit with their world view. Few of us are equipped to understand the maths, critically review the last few hundred relevant academic papers or contribute to cutting-edge conferences. ‘Belief’ kicks in where there is no science, no hard facts, no experimental observation that can be repeated by others. It is the absence of science. Climate change is a fact, we have a good grasp of the many factors that can cause it, and have masses of proof that it has happened through the whole history of the planet; Ice Ages, Snowball Earth, climatic optimums and so forth.

So back to the Politicians. They have to listen to the people who keep them in power (the electorate, the Party, Big Oil or whoever) otherwise they will not be in power very long. My conscientious recycling will not save the planet, and nor will arbitrary government targets. Fighting climate change can only happen at governmental level, but it needs the will of the people to be behind it first. Governments cannot legislate against the public will – think of the failure of US Prohibition in the ‘20s. Once the government implements its new policies and targets we all have to do ‘our bit’. Policy, law, ethics, science, public acceptance and self-interest must all come together. If we look at the way smoking has been reduced in the West we have seen (a) scientific consensus on the harm it does (b) creeping anti-tobacco legislation by governments that listen (c) progressive price increases (d) health education promoting individual benefits (e) social stigma vs smoking (f) big tobacco losing the moral argument (g) alternative technology/income streams (vaping) (h) spin-off benefits to the economy (health expenditure/reducing premature death).

20191113_204111The Australian bush fires could ironically be good news, in that they should be the wake-up call to the world. It’s a big headline-grabbing climatic disaster – and I hate to say it ­– one that affects white people. Mark Lynas’ excellent book Six Degrees which I read in 2007 includes the projection that Australia could become uninhabitable with three degrees of global warming; we’re already on track for two. It is a salient lesson as Australia has the world’s second highest C02 footprint per capita (the UK comes 8th with just less than half the footprint). Their pilloried Prime Minister, if he survives the fire season, will be forced to confront the realities of climate change, even if Australia is not the sole author of its own crisis. Public self-interest in not being driven from their homes in terror will start to outweigh precious economic and personal freedom issues that dog green policies.

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So is anyone taking note other than earnest Swedish teenagers? The answer hopefully is yes. The big hyrocarbon companies are aware their stock values will tumble if human-driven global warming becomes too obvious to ignore. They must diversify or die, much as the tobacco companies started doing. Geopolitical thinkers know that the eternal crises of the Middle East will fade as we cease to be driven by oil; posturing by Iran or the Saudis will be of little global relevance and the West lose all excuse to interfere. This cannot have been lost on Pentagon strategists; the USA has already spent $5 trillion and 7,000 American lives on the Iraq conflict to no long-term benefit. Smart US politicians must also know this, even if not yet ready to speak it out loud.

Education (aka climate change propaganda) is making its mark and there is a growing tolerance for green legislation and acceptance of initiatives such as recycling as a normal part of life. Much of it in truth just involves being nice and taking life gently. Not being green is starting to be socially unacceptable; the big car, the long-haul holiday and the 16oz beef steak are losing their shine. One day they might become as naff as a fat cigar or a mink coat.

Just as thousands of scientists know there is a climate emergency underway, it has become worthwhile for thousands more to work on solutions; new technologies, new products, new opportunities, knowing there will be a market for the right inventions. The public is at last hungry for carbon-neutral solutions – so long as they can afford them. As soon as the costs of renewable energy approach that of hydrocarbons, the sharper businesses will seize the opportunities and use their promotional skills to pull the public with them, reap the profits and extinguish the hydrocarbon dinosaurs. People will act when self-interest kicks in at a much more tangible level than when aroused by a David Attenborough documentary. Politicians will have no reason not to listen. We need the activists, we need the idealists but ironically it could be big business, not neo-hippy protesters, that end up saving the planet.

 

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