EM Forster was an old man in the 1950s, the same age as I am now. He took his lunch in the College dining hall and we undergraduates sometimes kept him company. We had all read his best-known book, A Passage to India
, but he was already seen as a figure of the past, his best work behind him. Later, I discovered that he had the gift of foresight and in 1909 had written, in his dystopian look into the future, The Machine Stops
: 'But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine'.
You will have seen the headlines after COP26; failure, last chance, fudge, just words, disappointment. Well, there was a bit of all those, depending on your prior hopes and suspicions, but as a realist I watched the talks evolving with an increasing sense of hope. My realism, for example, allowed me to understand the point of view of India where hundreds of thousands of families are dependent on Coal India to provide them with healthcare and social support, or of China where millions are dependent on their methane-producing rice crops.
My realism allows me to understand the difficulties of governments, not excluding our own, of bringing in regulation that will be unpopular not just with the mass of the voting population but also with those plutocrats who fund them and pay for their holidays. The unregulated covetousness of the human species has led to climate disaster and to us having governments, both capitalist and communist, that fuel the desire for more, for permanent growth.
Why am I still hopeful? Because COP26 showed the other side of the human character, the moral side that recognises wrong, inequity, injustice, and strives hard in negotiation and demonstration towards resolution. Since it was formed in 1988, by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organisation, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported repeatedly on the increasing evidence linking rising greenhouse gases, the air and sea temperatures, and the inevitable consequences. The consequences are drought, starvation, flooding, fire, and storms, and these affect different places and species differently. I say species, because we are but one of many – animals and plants – threatened by rising temperatures.
COP26 addressed the three most important issues; reduction of greenhouse gases, preparation to guard against the inevitable effects of rising temperatures, and alterations to the world's financial systems so that more money goes from rich to poor countries. It must be remembered that all COP26 could do was obtain commitments from the willing and persuade the unwilling – it cannot mandate you or me or our nations to do anything. In other words, it works by exerting moral pressure on all of us and our governments. Greta Thunberg is both right and wrong when she condemns it as a failure but then says that it is now up to her and her companions on the streets.
In truth, no-one would be on the streets protesting had it not been for the tireless work over the years of the IPCC and the COP meetings, illuminated by the advocacy of such as David Attenborough, in bringing the effects of our greed on the climate to everyone's attention. We need both evidence-based scientific pressure and popular demonstrations.
In simple terms, this is a conflict between rich and poor, both individuals and nations. Look at the figures. In a short article, I can only select a few examples but detail is readily available (CO2 emissions – Our World in Data
). There are two issues relating to the anthropogenic causes of climate change – total emissions over time and current emissions. Until 1888, when the USA overtook us, the UK led the world as the worst polluter. As Western Europe and the USA developed their economies, we unknowingly drove the world into disaster and must accept our responsibility. But we are where we are, and now we must lead the world out of it.
We are in a weak moral position to preach to poorer countries and must lead by example. In Europe, we have made a good start, thanks to renewables and nuclear, but have much more to do. Our issue is now the complete elimination of the combustion of oil and natural gas, having as an unintended benefit of Mrs Thatcher's austerity drive effectively eliminated coal in the UK already.
The UN has set a target of preventing further rise in average world temperature above 1.5⁰C. The scientific calculations of likely rise take account of inevitable rise from latent heat already in the Earth system and possible reductions in the rate of rise owing to reduced fossil fuel combustion and changes in agricultural practices. It is now almost inevitable that further rise to 1.5⁰C will occur and this will have serious consequences. Beyond that, further rise is dependent on what we do now, and mainly on what the big polluters do: USA, China, the oil-producing countries, Russia, India, and Western Europe. All our governments have their individual difficulties in persuading their populations what is necessary.
The world average production of CO2 per person is 4.47 tonnes per annum. In the USA, the average person is responsible for 14.24t, Saudi Arabia 17.97t, Brunei 23.22t, Kuwait 20.8t. In Russia that figure is 10.81t, in China 7.41t, in the EU 5.71t, and in UK 4.85t. Contrast these figures with those of some countries threatened now by climate disaster: Bangladesh 0.56t, Indonesia 2.16t, Mozambique 0.21t, Vanuatu 0.59t. Or the African countries in general, where average individual production rarely exceeds one tonne.
There is an obvious pattern to this; the Industrial Revolution provided great wealth to Western countries on the back of coal, and then oil and gas gave a boost also to the Middle Eastern countries and China after the Second World War. The poor world missed out on both, and this included the poor of the rich world because of increasing maldistribution of wealth. In all countries, the very great majority of the carbon footprint is that of the wealthiest third of the population.
As fossil fuels have poisoned the atmosphere, so money derived from them has in large part been distributed to the wealthier, and much has itself been fossilised in built assets such as property, unnecessarily large vehicles, holidays, flights and yachts, the spend, spend lifestyle. Unfortunately, there is daily evidence of this in the reported behaviour of politicians, London QCs, and CEOs of large companies, as they compete to extract more than they need. These are people for whom value can only be measured in monetary terms. The problem for all governments is to persuade or compel us all to join in the effort to reduce our carbon footprints and for the wealthier to accept a reduced (but almost certainly healthier) lifestyle. It would be a good start if governments set an example.
The most important outcomes of COP26 have been to address these issues directly by persuading almost 200 countries to commit to reductions of fossil fuel usage and greenhouse gas reduction, both CO2 and methane, to get commitments on deforestation, and to effect transfer of funds from the rich nations to the poorer to mitigate the damage caused by climate change. So far, these remain words on paper, but they have signed up to a commitment under UK direction over the next 12 months to positive action, such that we can see the 1.5⁰C target is still in view. I see this as a unique opportunity for the UK once again to lead the world, a lead that requires diplomacy and humility from our government and a commitment from all of us, not least from those of us, young and old, who are prepared to demonstrate peacefully and show by our actions that we are sincere.
I have spent much time in India in the past, advising the doctors of its coal industry on protecting their workers from harm. These men and their families, around a million people, depend on the industry for their livelihoods and healthcare, a dependency similar to that of UK mining families before the NHS. We need to help such countries as much as those threatened by inundation.
Mr Alok Sharma, who chaired COP26, migrated with his parents from Agra, in the centre of the poverty-stricken and polluted region of Indian coal mining, to better themselves in Britain. I was impressed by him and his willingness to act as a diplomat and to put aside ideology. He is one of rather few in the government who have a background in science, and I hope he and his team will be allowed to continue to lead the nations through to the next COP in 12 months' time. He understands the issues and a lot now rests on his shoulders in translating words into positive actions.
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