In spring, we are often woken by the external world before the internal is quite ready. Before our dream is ended, the sun crosses the window ledge and disturbs our eye, or the blackbird's shrill song stimulates the ear and we hear. The blackbird that sings from our chimney did not sound quite right this year. Instead of the three-part every time unique Allegro, Adagio, Jazz (reflection of the previous parts), it kept injecting a repetition of something that sounded like a fork-lift truck reversing. I guess he wintered near a distribution depot.
Carl Sagan was one of the first scientists to publicly raise the issue of global warming in his brilliant book 'Pale Blue Dot', published in 1994. The idea grew from the discoveries made by Soviet and American spacecraft about the atmosphere and surface temperature of Venus. Being closer to the sun, Venus was expected to be hotter. The sun's radiation falls off in proportion to the square of the distance, so there was an easy way to predict what the temperature should be. It turned out to be very much hotter.
Sagan and others concluded this was the result of high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere which acted like one-way glass, easily allowing radiation in, but much less back out: the greenhouse effect. As a result, Venus got hotter and hotter, and on a good day in the Venusian spring, the temperature is around 460C. Sagan and others reasoned that Earth would become hotter too if the CO2 level were to rise.
On Venus, CO2 is 96.5%; on Earth, it is currently at 0.04%. Samples from ice cores show that it normally cycles between 0.02% and 0.03% every 100,000 years and has not been measured at this level anytime in the 700,000 years we are able to measure it. It would be unreasonable to think this increase is caused by anything other than the burning of fossil fuels. There are no other suspects in the room. Coupled with the average rise in global temperatures, the greenhouse effect appears to be increasing with CO2 levels as predicted. It seems more likely than not that climate change is being caused by our production of energy by fossil fuels.
Climate change is only one issue. We have loss of habitat, destruction of soil, overuse of pesticides, overfishing, species-devastating disease spreading along man-made corridors, and religious and political conflict all happening at the same time. Even a person with a good grounding in science must struggle to assess the seriousness or immediacy of the dangers facing us. Sensible people do seem to be saying rather alarming things. David Attenborough has warned of the end of life on Earth and George Monbiot says that the only solution is to overthrow capitalism, forgetting, it seems, that one of the fastest growing polluters of the world today is China where they have overthrown capitalism once already and are unlikely to ever try it again.
The same people who post on social media about it all being an inevitable consequence of economic growth will post another time about the importance of lifting people out of poverty, seemingly unaware that lifting people out of poverty is economic growth and if the poor get richer, they will make their house warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and will go out and buy things. Global warming is a privileged middle-class concern and the suggested solutions betray that. Without damning the poor to be forever poor, there is no solution. All we can do is mitigate, accommodate this growth, and make it as green as we can using both tax-breaks
and to develop the infrastructure as quickly as possible to make green energy plentiful and therefore cheaper than fossil fuels. I pay my energy provider £7.62 extra a month to try to make that happen.
A few weeks ago I went to visit my brother in Jersey City. It felt a little obscene flying from Scotland for only one week, but we are all growing old. Together we drove to a seafood restaurant in Highlands on the New Jersey shore for fish and chips, about an hour down Interstate 95. If you have driven on the I-95, which in this section is the main route from New York to Philadelphia, Washington and inland America, you will remember it. Sixteen lanes of traffic, eight north and eight south, split into groups of four cut an ecological horror show through oil refineries, power stations and gasometer-sized tanks marked 'CITGO', painted with cheering slogans like 'Drive Carefully'.
Winter is so cold where my brother lives he runs the heating all day and all night just as he does with the aircon in the ever-hotter summers. His domestic energy consumption is more than double mine – reflecting almost exactly the energy use per capita of our respective countries. Returning home to Scotland, the view from the electric tram looks positively Eden-like and it seemed almost comical to see on the news Extinction Rebellion (XR) people supergluing themselves to oil company property in protest. Tragicomical. Have they not seen the monster?
I kind of feel like I should be one of them. I fit the profile. I've been a paying supporter of Greenpeace for decades, a too often inactive volunteer, attending annual gatherings and visiting the UK headquarters in Canonbury Villas on a few occasions. I was genuinely impressed by the organisation, meeting the then head of the anti-nuclear campaign, now executive director of GeneWatch – a smarter than me, better informed and respected academic. I saw how they took in concerned and sometimes muddled young people, helped them get things in perspective, running wonderful workshops teaching communication and presentation skills and most exciting of all NVDA (non-violent direct action) training. They seemed like a very competent group of people genuinely tackling the issues.
I only recently started to hear the acronym NVDA again – this time in connection with the new incarnation of Greenpeace with that weirdly reversed name – Extinction Rebellion (XR).
I asked some friends I overheard discussing XR why they did not join Greenpeace? It was taken as rhetorical and without an answer I was left to suppose XR had some kind of attractive edginess, some coolness that Greenpeace has lost. Social media is clearly part of it. There is a joke going around that the XR flag, the jagged egg-timer, is composed of the letters M (sideways) I and 5, and that the whole thing is a MI5 wheeze to racially align their database of troublemakers which has grown embarrassingly brown over the years. If so, it has worked a treat. This is not to disparage the activists. These are good people. Among the best. I want to be one of them. But I would feel such a fraud if I didn't first decide never to fly again and get rid of my car.
Turning off Interstate 95 toward the coast, we drove along a regular six-lane highway through the Pine Barrens. This is not like the woods on the M8. Trees as far as the eye can see, a beautiful extraordinary contrast to the industry but with this ribbon of motorway dividing it like that crack in a broken heart. The trees were still bare of leaves and we went through a patch going on for mile after mile where many trees had broken branches, split trunks or were uprooted like some giant has stomped his way through them. 'What happened to these trees?' I ask my brother. 'Ah, that was the hurricane. It came right through here.'
To see so many mature trees – 50 or 100 years old – smashed and broken over such an area brought home just what an extraordinary weather event that was. The air pressure in the eye of Hurricane Sandy fell to the lowest pressure ever recorded in this part of the world – below the previous record measured in 1938. The New York Stock Exchange was closed for two days. Five years later it was forgotten, and the USA withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation.
Aside from edginess and coolness, XR does have something of the doomsday cult about it and that I'm not so keen on. The white symbol on a black flag is a chilling echo of the flag of what we in the West call the Islamic State. In every age there is a doomsday cult – sometimes many – epitomised by the running cartoon joke of the dishevelled sandwich board man who appears in Ancient Greece or in the Stone Age, or in any age, forever carrying a placard that reads 'The end is nigh!'. I'm not so sure telling impressionable young adults that extinction awaits them is healthy. Having said that, I did spend my childhood repeating a prayer before bedtime that ended with the words '…now and at the hour of our death, Amen'. and perhaps being reminded of your mortality is no bad thing. The questions around that topic are too big for me.
I don't think that the end is nigh. The Darwinian theory is that human intelligence is the result of the evolution of two complimentary talents. A talent to outsmart anything that might kill us and a talent for killing anything we would like to have for dinner. Being a product of these complimentary talents, we should not be surprised that there are now seven billion of us and we have killed almost everything in sight. This is who we are.
What is more staggering though is that in the mechanical pursuit of these symbiotic talents there has been created an animal with a brain capable of understanding the structure of the atom, of flying to the moon, gazing into a black hole, understanding DNA, our very own building blocks. I doubt if we will become extinct any time soon. If the sea-level rises as predicted, swamping London and New York, developers not unlike the Trumps will, for profit, build great new cities inland and on weekends parents will take their children on mini submarines to view the lions in Trafalgar Square.
What seems likely though is that many other species will become extinct. The mass extinction of other animals is real and is happening now, and is something that casts a shadow over all our achievements. It is to our deepest shame. A holocaust visited on almost every other species. Even then, there is hope.
The kind of technology developed at the Roslin Institute to clone a sheep might one day be used to have a dairy cow be surrogate mother to a rhinoceros. We are in sight of a time when any extinct animal might be resurrected if just one cell is available. Human beings are staggeringly resourceful and in some dystopian version of Noah's Ark I think we will figure out a way to fix, better still avoid, a lot of the problems that we are currently creating if we work together. And that's the key. This is precisely why, on that matter at least, XR are correct and that America cannot be let off leaving the Paris Agreement without a fight. The USA must be together with us all on this if the plan is to work.
Darwin spent the last years of his life studying earth worms publishing 'The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms' a year before his death in 1882. Some think this was simply a practicality – he was old and he wanted to keep studying and this was something he could do on his own land. However, others think it was because his interest had moved from studying the evolution of life to studying the connectedness of life as worms play a key role in creating the very earth on which all grows and lives. The importance of this connectedness is something we are only now perhaps beginning to understand.
Putting aside the doomsday cult or coolness theories, why else might XR be so attractive? Not being listened to by anyone, not seeing much of a sign that anyone really cares about an issue which is hugely important must be part of it. A quick Google of the European Green Party members shows many national parties to be embroiled in local non-environmental political disputes. Our own member of the EGP, the Scottish Green Party, appears in the news most often campaigning for a second referendum in which people are urged to vote to leave the UK. Supporting democracy, while simultaneously dictating what people should vote for. In doing so, it stands like a bride of Frankenstein alongside a party that has repeatedly promised an oil-based future. A party that has overseen the distribution of fracking licences to INEOS, for now in the back pocket, and supported the building of a new gas terminal in Grangemouth, making shale gas tankers a regular sight on the Forth.
Now that a 'Climate Emergency' has been declared, it would be wonderful if, after leaving the UK, Scotland did indeed close the oil and gas wells, walking away penniless with everyone in the country shrugging their shoulders in philosophical acceptance of the loss after years of arguing – like some great big version of 'Local Hero'. Who really believes that is going to happen? Who can calculate the compensation the oil companies could rightly claim? Even the conscious or unconscious bias throughout the Green movement that to care about the environment you must be a socialist is a deeply offensive idea and deserves revisiting.
The Green Party should be reaching out to mainstream left and right equally. It should be a party where all feel welcome as this is an issue for the whole community. When it comes to national debates where there is no clear positive environmental benefit on either side, the Green Party should, to recycle a phrase from another debate, be 'pro-choice', trusting its members to act according to their own conscience. This is surely closer to the new politics the Green Party are meant to be about, and perhaps with this approach it can escape forever being abused, forever forced to take sides on whatever the national debate happens to be, forever turned to another purpose, and forever losing half of its support.
XR did not ask: 'Are you Yes or No?', 'Leave or Remain?', 'Left or Right?'. It only asked: 'Do you want to save the Earth?' If the Green parties of Europe learn that lesson, XR will have achieved something significant.