On a walk last week, I noticed that three local 40-year-old ash trees, where the starlings congregate to chatter to each other, are dying. The ends of the branches are denuded, the trees are dying back. Further up the Almond River, the trees in the woodlands are still thriving, including two tall, 150-year-old ash trees. How much longer do they have, I wondered? Many of Scotland's elm trees have succumbed to Dutch elm disease over the last few decades and even sturdy oaks are beginning to show signs of stress.
We are not alone; no living thing is immortal and none of us is immune to changes in our environment. Ash die-back disease is caused by a fungal infection and spread by transport of spores mainly through the air. Dutch elm disease is caused by another fungal infection, originating in the Far East, transmitted by a beetle, and imported from continental Europe into Britain on saplings. Oak trees generally die in very old age but their death, like ours, can be encouraged by environmental stress such as drought or excessive heat. Perhaps the oak trees remember that we cut most of their ancestors down to make our ships and fuel our iron foundries and they see us now, chased from our homes by floods, landslides and fires, and queueing to get vaccinated or to go into hospital. Do they see Homo sapiens as an endangered species?
Louis Pasteur, the founder of bacteriology and developer of the germ theory of disease and immunisation, developed his ideas when studying fungal diseases of plants. In his day, many still believed man to be at the apex of evolution, but we now know that all extant species are at their own apex, all interdependent but also in competition for energy, food and water on a planet with limited resources. Perhaps the link between climate change and pandemics is not obvious to most people – until you think of the biology. Climate defines the physical state of the environment in which life has evolved.
We are now having a front-seat view of evolution at work. We and the micro-organisms are in competition or symbiosis, and all of us adapt to our environments. The new virus SARS-CoV-2 arose from adapting by chance mutation to life in human cells, almost certainly in the context of busy live food markets in China, itself a human response to the need for food of a population crowded into cities. We are watching the coronavirus mutate to move more efficiently between us. We take it with us and spread it as we congregate, take holidays, and migrate. Our habitual lifestyle, influenced worldwide by our climate, spreads our diseases, and leads to migration and conflict.
At the same time, the biological imperative to reproduce leads to competition for resources, energy, food and water; in this respect, we do not differ from any other living species, plant, animal or microbe. But, and this is crucial to my argument, we humans who are unable to mutate rapidly are now in the process of having to adapt our environments and lifestyles to protect ourselves, not only from these pathogens but also from other adverse environmental change.
Ten years ago, Scottish Review published my Sceptic's Guide to Climate Change
(September 2011). In it, I explained the history of the scientific discoveries leading to understanding that the climate was changing, and that mankind's lifestyle was largely responsible. I also drew attention to the likely consequences for humanity and to the likelihood that feedback loops could accelerate the process. In a later article (December 2011) and in my book, Farewell King Coal
(Dunedin, 2019), I outlined what we needed to do to counter the effects of this process.
While our thoughts and the news over the past 18 months have been dominated by the pandemic, it has also become clear that something else is going on that is even more threatening. People across the world are being displaced from their homes and killed by extremes of weather – heat, fires, storms, floods, and drought. In my earlier articles, I mentioned that the documented northward migration of insects as the climate changed was being mirrored by migration of humans; this biological response to desertification and failure of water supplies has become even more marked over the past decade. In addition, as anticipated, the heat waves affecting the whole Earth have now led to increasing risk of devastating wild fires in southern Europe, the Far East, Australia, Siberia, and the east of North America as far north as Alaska.
As the trees burn, the particulate pollution spreads round the world – you will have noticed dramatic sunsets – but the fires also increase the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and remove the trees which are our main protection. Every tree that burns releases in minutes the carbon that it has removed from the atmosphere over the decades of its lifetime. Think of this as you see the raging infernos on the television news. It is a dramatic illustration of the many positive feedbacks that accelerate climate change.
Another is the rise in temperature over the Arctic. Since 1990, the rise in average global temperature has accelerated, increasing by 0.75˚C. However, over the Arctic it has risen by 3˚C. This will inevitably accelerate the melting of the Greenland glacier leading to devastating sea-level rise, as well as increasing the release of methane from what was recently permafrost. Now, the world-changing event that scientists most dread, the slowing and perhaps break-up to instability of the Gulf Stream from increasing fresh water entering the Arctic seawater, is being spoken of as a serious possibility within decades.
In 2015, 195 countries signed an agreement in Paris to take action to limit global temperature rise to no higher than 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. Despite Trump's despicable attempt to withdraw the USA from the agreement, this is still the aim, but it is now very clear that we have so far failed to respond adequately. Temperature rise is accelerating, and we are already at 1.2˚C.
The Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the International Panel of Climate Change, section one of which was published this week, provides unequivocal evidence that most of the rise in temperature and its consequences are attributable to mankind's production of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion and methane from agriculture, mining and drilling. It shows how the temperature and its serious consequences will increase to unsustainable levels without immediate and dramatic action. Here is the comment of the Secretary General of the United Nations on this report:
We need immediate action on energy. Without deep carbon pollution cuts now, the 1.5-degree goal will fall quickly out of reach. This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet. There must be no new coal plants built after 2021. OECD countries must phase out existing coal by 2030, with all others following suit by 2040. Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy. By 2030, solar and wind capacity should quadruple and renewable energy investments should triple to maintain a net zero trajectory by mid-century.
I have written before of the Four Horsemen of St John the Divine's apocalyptic vision: warfare, injustice, pestilence and death (October 2014). Not for nothing did he link these threats, all of which were, in his time, and are now destructive to the stability of society and to the continuation of civilisation itself. All four are apparent today as we hear the news. Can you imagine a news bulletin that does not mention at least three of them?
It is time for us to acknowledge that we are on a path that, if we continue blindly, leads to disaster for mankind and the societies in which we live. The horsemen ride together, and this is obvious with respect to COVID-19. The victims of the virus in the West are very clearly more likely to be victims also of poverty and social injustice, to have poorer housing and diet, to live in crowded circumstances. We shall probably never know the mortality from COVID-19 among climate refugees moving to cities and camps.
A more modern writer than St John, Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse
, analysed the factors determining the failure or survival of civilisations. Common factors leading to failure and collapse were:
• Failure to anticipate the problem;
• Failure to notice it when it occurs;
• Failure to respond when it arrives, for rational or irrational reasons;
• Failure to act because there is no solution.
We have not yet reached the last of these but are approaching it. With COVID-19, the introduction of vaccines has, I hope, allowed us to negotiate a truce with the virus after the first two failures. Is it too much to hope that politicians, with their focus on individual voters' satisfaction rather than societal benefit, and their short-sighted view as far as the next election, have now woken up to the reality of climate disaster and will develop the moral courage to tackle this?
We have seen in the pandemic that most ordinary people do indeed rise to the challenge, accept necessary restrictions of their perceived rights, and often show a community spirit, helping and supporting each other. The best hope for tackling climate change may come from their recognising and encouraging a similar population response to the one that we showed in the pandemic, as the answers lie with all of us, individually and collectively.
What can we do? As COP26 approaches, I hope to give some guidance to enable us all to make a positive contribution to the future of our children and theirs on this planet. We are citizens of a country – Scotland – that promoted both the power of the steam engine and the concept of capitalism, and energised them with its fossil fuels, and we are members of the Westernised society that consequently grew rich and was primarily responsible for causing climate change. We must now set an example on how to reverse the process. It will not be easy and will surely involve personal self-denial for the greater good. The future of civilisation itself is now hanging on this slender thread.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own