It’s like being in a disaster movie or novel.  Not in the main story, though, not in the drama itself, but in one of those little flashback scenes where the narrative glances back at how it all began: the small apparently innocuous signs, the little details that people noticed but didn’t think much about, the other preoccupations that now look so trivial, but which seemed more pressing at the time.

This is the hottest year on recordNext year looks like it may be even hotterFourteen of the fifteen hottest years ever have been in this century.

The movie returns from the flashback to the main narrative.  “Why didn’t they see it?” the characters ask one another in bemusement.  “Why didn’t they do anything about it?”

Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer

Dyer Climate Wars coverWhile the political class still appear to give a very low priority to the problems that will be caused by climate change, the military are already planning for them.  The following quotation, cited in this book, is from a federally funded study called National Security and Climate Change, published in 2007.  Retired generals and admirals from all four of America’s armed services were invited to comment on the the security aspects of climate change.   This observation is from a Marine Corps general:

We will pay for this one way or another.  We will pay to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind.  Or we will pay the price later in military terms.  And that will involve human lives.

Conflicts occur when different groups of people are competing for scarce resources.   As climate change plays out, areas of the world that can now feed themselves will no longer be able to do so, in some cases because of flooding (for example Bangladesh) in others  because of low rainfall (southern Europe and much of Africa, China and central America), in some cases because the loss of mountain glaciers mean that rivers will run dry in the summer (Pakistan and California are both dependant on glacial meltwater to irrigate their farms.)   This will lead to pressure on land (China, for instance, might resurrect land claims in Siberia), and disputes over water. (What would Egypt do if countries upstream were to divert the waters of the Nile?  What would happen if India diverted more water from the Indus, on which Pakistan depends?)  It will also lead to huge migrations across the world in which the still relatively viable countries will either have to seal off their borders, or face an influx of climate refugges.  (How will the people of Africa react when they are starving and the North won’t let them in, even though it caused the problem in the first place?)

One of the strengths of Dyer’s book (the second book with this same title that I’ve recently read) is that he offers scenarios set at various dates in the twentieth century that illustrate the kinds of conflicts that would occur.   Another is the clear, bold way it’s written, interspersed with interview material that is woven into the overall narrative.   It is a fairly grim read but a very engaging one nevertheless.

Dyer makes a number of arresting points.   One of these is that as conflict increases, the chances of collective global action to address the underlying cause  will dwindle to zero.  Another is that climate change is itself only one of a series of global challenges that lie ahead of us for the forseeable future: the size of the human population, and its expectations, are pushing the planet’s resources to their limits, and there’s no longer any slack.

Dyer’s concluding message, one that he knows is controversial, is that we aren’t going to be able to cut carbon emissions in time – we’ve simply left it too late – and that, in the short term at least, there are going to have to be some technical fixes which will either extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth.

There are two reasons why this is controversial.  One is that it involves tinkering with some very fundamental things that we don’t fully understand.   (Dyer’s answer is that it’s a bit late to start worrying about that now.  We’ve already tinkered massively, and we’ve long since passed the point where we can simply hand the controls of spaceship Earth back to Mother Nature.)  The other is that it presents a moral hazard: as soon as we get a whiff of a technical fix we’ll stop even trying to address the real underlying problem.  Dyer acknowledges this danger – he’s already argued earlier in the book that human beings always push things to their limits – but what he seems to be saying is that, if we want to avoid the tipping point where negative feedback loops will send global warming spiralling upwards, we really don’t have much choice.

The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley


This is George Bush in Air Force One, flying back from Texas to Washington.  He’s requested that the plane divert over New Orleans, and he has invited the press to come through from their section of the plane to photograph him looking down concernedly at the city whose lower parts have now been flooded for two days, since Hurricane Katrina broke the levees.   If any single image captures the mediocrity of this man, this is surely it.   This was not a leader, but a dull little rich kid whose daddy’s friends had fixed him up with a job, and provided him with helpers to do the difficult parts.  In this case, even the helpers screwed up.

‘You’re doing a great job, Brownie!’ Bush told the Director of FEMA, the federal agency responsible, but of course as we all know the agency’s performance was very far from a great job.   In a curiously telling detail, Douglas Brinkley observes that Brownie was not in fact a nickname that anyone actually used.  The dull little rich kid was trying to suggest a level of engagement that did not in fact exist.

The Great Deluge is an account of what actually lies below him as he gazes down for the cameras: a devastated city, where bloated corpses are floating in the streets, sick and elderly people are dying alone in flooded houses, and thousands are crammed into a sports stadium without adequate food, water or medical attention, waiting for an evacuation which, for no obvious reason, has still not arrived.

There is lawlessness.  Some of the local police have simply abandoned their posts and run.  Women waiting for rescue have been raped.  Looters raid shops not only to steal but in some strange attavistic ritual (of revenge?  of triumph?) to defecate on cash registers and on goods that they can’t carry away.  But the lawlessness has been taken by many of those who should be helping the survivors as a reason for treating them all as criminals.  (Another telling moment: a new general arrives in New Orleans to get a grip on the military efforts, and one of his first acts is to instruct is to instruct National Guardsman not to point their guns at people when they’re talking to them.)

The very boundary between lawful and unlawful has in any case been blurred.  Is it really looting to break into a store for bottles of clean water, when the only other option is drinking polluted flood-water in which human and animal corpses are floating?  (Is it even exactly looting, I wonder, to steal a TV or some other valuable piece of hardware, when you’ve lost your home and have no savings to fall back on?)  In the Morial Convention Centre, some gangsters are taking it upon themselves to provide protection for the vulnerable in the absence of any formal forces of law.  Other are just terrorising the weak.

The fact that nearly all the people trapped in New Orleans are black and poor almost certainly doesn’t help.   Police officers and Guardsmen frequently treat them with undisguised contempt, and suggest that it is their own stupid fault that they stayed in the city after warnings were given that they should move.  But where would you go, if everyone you know lives in the streets around you, you have no money to pay for accomodation elsewhere and the government, though it can afford to pay for wars on the far side of the world, has provided nothing?  Some people who try to leave on foot are stopped at gunpoint by police from neighbouring areas which don’t want to take them in.

It’s outside the scope of this book but we know too that other communities which did initially respond generously were quickly to grow tired of the burden of caring for the incomers, and to begin to stigmatise them as lazy and undeserving of help.  In another book I read recently*, a woman relocated to Austin, Texas, describes her children being bullied and stigmatised at school because they are ‘people from the storm’.

I wasn’t completely enamoured of the way The Great Deluge was written – I could have done without some of the long, folksy biographies of various characters with which the account is punctuated, and the numerous quotations from songs and literature which never seemed quite as apt as the author seemed to think they were – but it provides a detailed and vivid overview nevertheless of what actually happened during that dreadful time, as well as of the things that one would expect to happen in the world’s wealthiest country but in fact did not.   I was left with a powerful sense of how quickly we human beings can shut down compassion when it asks too much of us, simply by relabelling our fellow humans as something other than ourselves.

Any one seriously interested in writing or thinking about the future should be reading this book, and books like it.   The way things are going, there are going many more flooded cities before this century is out, many more people who don’t have access to food or water, a lot more ‘people from the storm’.

*Community Lost: the State, Civil Society, and Displaced Survivors of Hurricane Katrina, by Ronald J Angel, Holly Bell, Julie Beausoleil and Laura Lein.

New wells of violence

When I was young I studied at Bristol University, and stayed there for a year afterwards.   I still have friends and relatives living there, and visit regularly.  It is the first city I came to know and love as a place.  I still love it, with its famous and dramatic gorge, its stone-faced houses, its hills, its green spaces, the way that any street corner can open up a whole new vista.

But the things that made the city what it is are not so beautiful: Bristol grew rich on the slave trade, the tobacco industry and, more recently, the arms trade.  And of course, as in any city, there is a dark side hidden away out of sight of the parks and the gorge and the gaily painted terraces winding up and down the hills.  Behind all this, as in any British city, are pockets of grimness and deprivation (something I tried to portray in my novel Marcher) which few people ever see if they don’t have occasion to see them out.   So, like Ursula le Guin’s fictional Omelas, Bristol’s charm and beauty stands on a base of hidden suffering.

Climate wars coverThe same could be said of much that we value in the developed world.   We all know of course that what counts as an average sort of life-style in our part of the planet – car and house ownership, TV, computers, smart phones, annual foreign holidays, meat every day, an office job, a hot shower every morning – is in fact, in global terms, exceptionally wealthy and privileged.  Most of us are probably also aware that part of the reason for our ability to access so much in the way of consumer goods, is that the producers of the raw materials, and very likely the producers of the goods themselves, are paid much much less than we are.   We may also be dimly aware – Harald Welzer makes this point rather well in his interesting book ‘Climate Wars’ – that our way of life is also underpinned by more or less constant violence and warfare.  Long chains of responsibility can make this less obvious – the violence typically takes place far away from us, and is rationalised in various ways – but it takes constant and large-scale application of brute force to secure our access to the resources required to maintain our lifestyle and to secure our frontiers so that not too many people come and share our bounty with us.

There are several strategies for dealing with the potential for discomfort arising from these facts.  One is simply to shrug them off, ask ‘Who ever said the world was fair?’, and indicate our intention to defend what we own and have worked for.  Another is to place responsibility for poverty on the poor: ‘It’s up to them to sort it out.  No one ever helped us.’  Another is to absolve ourselves by pointing to some abstraction – ‘It’s capitalism!’ is a common one, as if capitalism had some sort of autonomous existence, and was not simply a name for a nexus in which most of us are complicit – or to people even wealthier than we are: ‘SUV owners’, for instance, are great targets for ordinary car owners to point to.

Another again is to argue that, wealthy as we are by global standards, we are somehow helping to bring the rest of the world up to our level (there are various versions of this last one, including a capitalist narrative of world development, socialist narratives about building a new world order, and more personal narratives built around activity such as charitable work).

What is clear though is that the whole world never can come up to our level.  There is a finite and, in many cases, steadily diminishing supply of resources: agricultural land, water, copper, zinc, coltan, oil, phospates  There is a steadily increasing number of people.   Meat every day for everyone, for instance, may require more agricultural land than actually exists (because growing crops to feed cattle is a much less efficient use of land than growing crops for human consumption), even before one factors in the future lack of availability of phosphates for fertilizers.

So the comforting idea that, wealthy and privileged as we are, we are helping others to one day reach our level, is false, because we are rich not only in purely relative terms (that is: rich by comparison with the world average), but rich in absolute terms.  We are already using more of the world’s resources than could ever be available to the entire population of the planet.

No wonder all that violence is necessary!

Pressure on resources will become more acute as increased population, and increased competition from emerging economies, and as climate change (itself a side product of our consumption of resources) increasingly provides an additional stressor: large areas of the world may soon no longer be able to support the population that they once did.  In this context, violent conflict over resources and borders will proliferate – Welzer proposes that the Darfur conflict in Sudan is an early instance of a climate war: two ethnic groups, who were once able to coexist, have there been brought into conflict by a water shortage which means they both need access to the same land – and wealthier parts of the world will have increasingly to deploy force to protect their privileged position.

It is difficult to visualise a political way out of this.  Human reason, human political structures seem so weak when compared to the magnitude of the changes that are required.  There are even moments when I think what is really needed is something more akin to a prophet, a Moses, a Mohammed, a Joseph Smith, a Mary Baker Eddy, who will come down from a mountain with a new set of commandments: Thou shalt not have more than two kids, Thou shalt not eat meat more than once a week, Thou shalt not throw anything away that can be used again…

The Burning Question, by Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark

The-Burning-Question-book-coverIf you are looking for an introductory book on the climate crisis, this is as good as any I’ve read.  It sets out the issues in a clear and focussed way, and tours the science, politics, psychology and economics of the subject, as well as providing an overview of the options for the future.

Several things stand out for me after reading this book.   One is that doing something about climate change isn’t just a question of developing alternatives to fossil fuels.  Our appetite for energy is such that we are quite capable of developing renewables and still consuming more fossil fuels than ever.

So we don’t just need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, we need to set a limit to the total amount of fossil fuels we use.  This means leaving a lot of the world’s known reserves of coal and oil permanently in the ground.  No wonder the people that own them are unhappy!

Another thing that stood out (and this of course is linked to my previous point) is the dishonesty and virulence of the multi-million-dollar climate change denial industry.   ‘They call it pollution.  We call it life,’ said one US TV ad, as if anyone had called carbon dioxide ‘pollution’, or denied its importance to life.  Another billboard campaign by the Heartland Institute

showed mug-shots of serial killers alongside the words: ‘I still believe in global warming.  Do You?’  Heartland’s president, Joseph Bast, said on the accompanying press release, ‘The most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists.  They are Charles Manson, a mass murderer; Fidel Castro, a tyrant; and Ted Kaczynksi, the Unabomber.  Global warming alarmists include Osama bin Laden, and James L. Lee.’

The savagery and cynicism of this, not to mention its utter weirdness, is fairly scary (see also Tom Burke’s piece on this here), but perhaps there’s some hope to be found in its sheer desperation?  It suggests (doesn’t it?) that the deniers are pretty worried, don’t really believe they have a real argument, and don’t necessarily think they’re going to win.

Which of course they won’t.  Because ultimately we’ll either do something about the problem, or find out the hard way just how wrong they were.

I recommend this book.

Hell on a handcart (2)

This is one of more bizzarre examples I’ve come across of hostility towards doing anything about climate change.  Here, in the Times, Tim Montgomerie doesn’t deny that climate change is a fact, he just thinks we can’t afford to do anything about it.

Roughly speaking, his argument seems to be that, yes, the ship is sinking, but we can’t afford to use power on pumping it out, or it’ll slow down the engine.

Why doesn’t he work out the costs of not doing anything?

Going to hell on a handcart

I was pretty staggered to learn that our use of coal in the UK is now actually on the increase.

Given everything we know about global warming, its causes and its consequences for our own children and grandchildren, this is a bit like discovering that, while supposedly fighting a war on terrorism, we were actually busy funding Al-Qaeda.

All those movies where the hero saves the world from an existential threat, and then a real threat comes, and we just shrug and sleepwalk towards it!

Contemptible Boris

I try to avoid liking or disliking people simply on the basis of their politics.  I think it’s important to recognise that honest and decent people may hold views and understandings about society that are radically from our own.  And for this reason, and I suppose because of his obvious personal charm, I was rather slower than many people to come to a negative judgement about Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London.  But this article, which he wrote in the Telegraph back in January, has been preying on my mind ever since I came across it a couple of months ago, and it has finally ended any last vestige of respect I still had for him.

In this piece, adopting his carefully honed, faux-humble ‘what do I know?’ persona, he casts doubt on the idea of global warming.  (Not, of course that he for a moment wishes to ‘dispute the wisdom or good intentions of the vast majority of scientists’, oh dear no!  He no more wishes to do that than Mark Anthony wished to dispute that Caesar was an honourable Roman).  He offers as evidence for his doubts his own observation that winters have been pretty cold lately (ignoring record-breaking average temperatures across the globe). He makes the fatuous comment that it is the sun that warms the earth, not the atmosphere (which is obviously the case, but the same sun feels pretty different, doesn’t it, when you’re inside a greenhouse than it does when you stand outside in the shade of a tree?), and he suggests that ‘we human beings have become so blind with conceit and self-love that we genuinely believe that the fate of the planet is in our hands’.

But it isn’t conceit and self-love that tells us that carbon dioxide levels are rising.  Nor is it conceit or self-love that tells us that carbon dioxide has the greenhouse effect of trapping heat.   On the contrary this information only exists because some people have had the humility not to assume that they know things when in fact they don’t.  It exists because some people have taken the trouble to actually study and measure things and figure out how they fit together, and it comes from years of meticulous, tedious, painstaking work, like extracting gas from tiny bubbles in the Antarctic ice.

None of this touches Johnson.  Here is a man whose own conceit and self-love is so great that he feels able to take the platform available to him as one of the best-known politicians in the UK, and use it, not to communicate the facts about a real global threat (which wouldn’t be hard to do: he’s a bright man and he surely has people who can look things up for him), but to blur, muddy and confuse them.

To obtain so much power and then to exercise so little leadership!

I don’t mean to be a bore, but…

Anyone looking through this blog would see that there are a lot of items about climate change.   I’ve become very interested  in this topic, and I’m going to write a novel about it (Slaymaker), which should come out in 2015.

What fascinates me in particular is the psychology of it.  Have you noticed that, even if you have taken on board that this is a real threat, it’s extremely difficult to hold that fact in your mind?   Or that to mention it too often feels like bad manners?  ‘I’m sorry to trouble you,’ I feel like saying even as I write this, ‘I don’t mean to be a bore, but would you mind if I mentioned just once again that we’re plunging headlong towards a precipice?’

Somehow a whole battery of psychological defences come into play (the very defences, perhaps, that allow us to distance ourselves from the fact of our mortality) and these defences cause us to constantly sideline climate change as if it just were a detail, or some sort of minor irritant, rather than an existential threat to our civilization.  On Monday, for instance, on the Today Programme on Radio 4, there was a discussion about the unprecendently weird weather in the UK in 2012 (not just in the UK either but in many other places including Australia) and the fact that we should expect this to continue.  Later in the same programme there was an interview with Conservative MP Tim Yeo about nuclear power, shale gas and energy policy in general: yet no connection at all was made between the two items, and climate change wasn’t even mentioned as a factor to consider when weighing up the options.

On Wednesday, there was an item about biofuels on the same programme, in which an eminent scientist (Sir David King), questioned whether they really helped reduce carbon emissions, even though they could be used to meet our commitment to produce energy from renewable sources.  John Hayes, the Energy Minister, told him that his concerns were ‘bourgeois’ and that he himself was a practical man whose main concern was to ‘keep the lights on’.   The clear implication was that being concerned about climate change was a bit wet and middle class, and while he was prepared to toss a few sops towards the climate lobby, he wouldn’t offer more than that.

Well, of course many interest groups can be tamed with the judicious use of symbolic placation.  But the physical world isn’t a lobby or an interest group, and it has no interest in symbolic gestures.   We either do something about climate change or we don’t.  It’s all the same to nature either way.  The trouble is that it won’t be all the same to us.