What must be done, and what could go wrong

Stumbled on a great article on climate change, ‘Warmer, Warmer’ in the London Review of Books. Worth a read, despite being two years old. Here’s John Lanchester’s summary of What We Must Do (written from a UK perspective):

The remarkable thing is that most of the things we need to do to prevent climate change are clear in their outline, even though one can argue over details. We need to insulate our houses, on a massive scale; find an effective form of taxing the output of carbon (rather than just giving tradeable credits to the largest polluters, which is what the EU did – a policy that amounted to a 30 billion euro grant to the continent’s biggest polluters); spend a fortune on both building and researching renewable energy and DC power; spend another fortune on nuclear power; double or treble our spending on public transport; do everything possible to curb the growth of air travel; and investigate what we need to do to defend ourselves if the sea rises, or if food imports collapse. If we do that we may find that we develop the technologies that China and India will need. If we can show that it is possible to cut carbon output dramatically without trashing our economy – well, that might be the single most important thing we could do, far outweighing the actual impact of our emission reductions.

And if we don’t get it right?

The last time CO2 levels were as high as they are today, in the last interglacial 125,000 years ago, sea levels were between four and six metres higher than they are today – a figure which we can take as a proxy for changes which in most respects are beyond imagining. What would happen if the harvest failed all across Europe or the US or Africa? What would happen if it failed again the next year, and the year after that? What would happen if the rain-and-meltwater pattern in the Yangtze valley, the core of Chinese agriculture, changed? What would happen if the glacial run-off from the Himalayas, which supplies most of India with its water, were to change? What would happen if the behaviour of El Niño were to become so unpredictable that agriculture in the Southern Hemisphere became unsustainable at current population levels? What would happen if those glaciers were to melt away? What would happen if the Gulf Stream (the Atlantic’s ‘meridional overturning circulation’, as it is scientifically known) were to shut down suddenly – the Day after Tomorrow disaster scenario? The prediction is that Western Europe would become 8ºC cooler, about the temperature of Canada. But Canada produces enough food to feed 30 million people and enough grain to feed 60 million. Western Europe has a population of about 450 million. So what would they eat? Hurricane Katrina gave us a glimpse of how quickly a meteorological event can destroy a city in the richest country in the world. We may be moving towards a future in which events like that come to seem commonplace. Anything in the paper today, darling? Not much – oh, all the Dutch drowned.

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About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
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