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.
– António Guterres (Secretary General of UN)
I quoted the above conclusion on the most recent report of the International Panel on Climate Change in my first article in this series (11 August
), but it expresses a view that has been held by most involved scientists for several decades.
I personally became involved after spending a decade in the 1990s chairing a government committee on air pollution, when I recognised that sceptical views on climate change were being spread by organisations with interests in fossil fuels and neo-liberal free market politics. As a chest physician, I recognised the tactics were those deployed by the tobacco industry to fight further regulation but, in this case, it was even worse. It was an attempt not merely to persuade us to continue harming ourselves but rather to promote the idea that we were not harming the planet and thus threatening its entire ecosystem.
The first politician to take issue with the sceptics and cynics was ex-Vice-President Al Gore, with whom I had the chance to speak on the subject at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Perhaps because he was a politician, he was subjected to a barrage of criticism by the sceptics, but he knows his science and had been a student of one of the original climate science investigators, the late Roger Revelle. Al Gore's mission was to bring out the facts, especially to the young who would be most affected. I read into the sciences involved and, having convinced myself that there was a very serious threat to civilisation itself, I decided to dedicate my years of retirement to explaining the facts that worried me so much.
At last, after over 25 years, I have seen a dramatic change in public perception of the issues, driven in particular by two remarkable people at opposite ends of the age spectrum: David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg. This has been aided by the increasing factual evidence supporting scientific predictions on ice loss, sea level and temperature rises, and turbulent weather patterns.
One aspect of this causes me particular concern. A prediction that has not yet been fulfilled is that of the tipping point, the state at which the process becomes irreversible. It is a biological certainty that there is a temperature, above about 50⁰C, at which natural animal life can no longer continue. In some places on the planet in summer that temperature has already been exceeded.
We are now familiar with the concept of exponential increase, from the reporting of repeated doubling of numbers of people falling ill with COVID-19. Is it possible that we could see exponential rises in temperature? For this to occur, it is necessary that there are feedback systems so that, as temperature rises, this rise increases the factors contributing to its cause. Unfortunately, there are many such mechanisms known to be operating. A very obvious example is the rise in temperature increasing risks of forest fires which then produce CO2 and decrease the Earth's capacity to remove the greenhouse gas.
Another example is the rise in temperature causing ice to melt in the polar regions, which causes less heat to be reflected back into space and also melts the permafrost, releasing trapped methane. Less obvious are the death of phytoplankton (vegetable plankton) in warming seas, the increase in CO2 production by micro-organisms in warmer soils, and the inability of rain forest to produce its own cloud cover as temperatures rise.
A glance at the curves of the Earth's average temperature or change in sea level over the past 100 years shows why scientists are alarmed. Both curves show what appears to be an accelerating rise, which seems to follow the rise in CO2 (and methane) in the atmosphere. The absolute rises in sea level and temperature may seem small so far, perhaps only of concern to people elsewhere, but the numbers of people currently affected by failure to grow crops, by flooding, storms and fires are already vast.
Just one episode, the melting of the Greenland glacier, could inundate many of the world's major cities, including London. Another, disruption of the Gulf Stream could plunge us into a Canadian weather pattern. By then, the burden of migration from overheated or flooded uninhabitable areas will have become unbearable for the cooler parts of the world. This is the nightmare scenario of a tipping point. Look again at the curves, all from official publications. You don't need to be a scientist to appreciate the trend.
The aim of the International Panel on Climate Change is to keep the rise in temperature to not more than 1.5⁰C above that in pre-industrial times. As you can see, we are already 1.2⁰C above those in the late 19th century and most of this rise has occurred in the last 40 years. There was a period of stability between 1951 and 1980 that was probably related to the increasing particulate pollution of that era in the West, but since then the rise has been dramatic. It seems very unlikely that we shall succeed in avoiding 1.5⁰C, and we must hope that this is not the tipping point. Nevertheless, we are close to it, so we must do more than hope. We must take action, individually and collectively. For all of us and our families, this means radical reduction in our carbon footprints. It is still not too late.
These are the bare bones of what COP26 must find the solution to. The problem is obviously worldwide and a threat to the very continuation of civilisation as we know it. Civilisations have collapsed in the past – we are familiar with the Greco-Roman one and with the more modest failures of empires – but this involves all
of us. We are learning from COVID-19 that Homo sapiens is but a part of the natural order and that our survival depends on living in harmony with nature and using our scientific ingenuity to overcome difficulties. We are now faced by the urgent need to change our mode of living, to adapt to a rapidly changing environment caused by our greed for unrenewable resources.
I started this short series by suggesting that you might calculate your personal carbon footprint and have given some tips on how to reduce it, pointing out that what we do as individuals in the rich world is particularly important. I hope you will look at the curves I have included in this essay and understand that your and my behaviour over the past 40 years or so has contributed to these frightening facts and that we must change before we condemn ourselves and our families to disaster. The older and wealthier we are, the greater has been our contribution and the harder we may find it. We are not in a position to complain.
In my final essay of this series, I shall discuss our role in Scotland and the UK, in relation to the worldwide problem of which we are a part.
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