The Six Degrees

I’ve just been at an interesting lecture by Mark Lynas, run by the WWF as part of Edinburgh’s International Science Festival. The talk was titled ‘The End of the World by Degrees’, and charted how the global climate and ecosystems would change – and get progressively less hospitable for life – as the average global temperature rose, one degree at a time.
What was interesting was how the human disaster unfolded, not so much through a single catastrophe that wipes out millions of people in a single event, but how much the systems upon which our economies are based are slowly undermined. Rivers will dry up along with any industry based upon them, for example. The insurance market will slowly decline as flooding destroys property. The rest of the financial system crumbles soon after.
Although the subject of the talk was what happens if temperatures continue to rise, the commentary from the audience was of course all about politics, and forcing a downward trend in CO2 emmissions. Mark’s suggestion was that we should treat the ecological crisis as something akin to war, where people have to remain stoical despite (carbon) rationing, and the nature of the economy is drastically altered in order to mobilise the change. How much more positive than our current ‘War on Terror’.
Also telling is how much of the problem comes from what I can only describe as human stupidity, the inability to see past the end of one’s own nose. The fact that people still need to be told to conserve energy, for example by buying energy saving lightbulbs, is a case in point. The bulbs save you money even in the short term: How come everyone doesn’t have them? That we depend so much on oil (expensive, under the ground, in foreign countries) when we could generate a vast amount of energey from the sun, wind and water, is quite ridiculous. If it is impractical to create the infrastructure via the market alone, then surely the government needs to change the market – if only temporarily – to ensure this stupidity comes to an end.
Mark’s ‘state of emergency’ idea holds a certain fascination for me in this case (although I know that is a classic tactic of a proto-totalitarian state: everyone believes they would make a wonderful benevolent dictator). He made the point that carbon-rationing (Domestic Tradable Quotas) would actually have the effect of making many people, especially the poor, better off. Co-operation within the community to produce food (rather than buying it from Tesco) and travelling on foot and bicycle means heathier people living in a friendlier community. Strangely, a more local outlook could help on a global scale.
A bleaker point came from a member of the audience, who outed the elephant in the room: Humans are the problem. Although the current unprecedented rise in average temperatures would eventually destroy the human race, the earth as a life-bearing planet would persist and survive. Ice-ages and the melting of the ice-caps is nothing new, geologically speaking.

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