From the summit of South Barrule on a clear day you can stand in complete solitude and see the seven realms. Around you lies Mann, once inhabited by Celts then ruled by the Vikings until the early 14th century, fought over by the Scots and English for a century before becoming a Lordship under the English Crown in 1399. Since 1765, the monarch of Great Britain has been the Lord of Mann. The realm you see around you is neither British nor part of the United Kingdom, but a self-governing dependency of the Crown ruled over by a parliament, Tynwald, that was founded by the Vikings.
To the west, you can see the Mourne mountains and the coast of Ireland. After the last period when the world was in a similar state to the present, the 1940s, my father came back from four years in the Army and took us and his tiny Morris to Howth near Dublin, on holiday. You never forget your first holiday.
To the east, you see the mountains of the English Lake District where I hiked with my university friends during Easter vacations. Directly north, beyond Snaefell, you see the southern coast of my homeland, Scotland, and to the southeast the mountains of Snowdonia in Wales, the country I first worked in as an NHS consultant. England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Mann – five realms, all with happy memories.
As I stood on South Barrule, the site of a prehistoric hill fort, and looked around at those five countries, my contemplative mood became darker. I felt gathering anxiety for the people who live in these peaceful places of my memory. It came to me that there were two other realms that I had ignored, the sea and the air. The sea was calm and a fisherman was pulling his lobster pots. Later that day, I would be swimming in it – it was warmer than usual. And, come to think of it, so was the air; the land was very dry. I had been told that there had recently been a hosepipe ban and the Manx Fire Brigade had been called to wildfires on farms near Port Soderick the week before our visit. There is no escaping climate change, but nobody seems concerned about it.
When, in 1896, Svente Arrhenius estimated the likely rise in global temperature in relation to rises in carbon dioxide, he realistically (being a Swede and later a Nobel prize-winner in chemistry) thought that this would be a good thing and would bring greater agricultural productivity to northern climes, carbon dioxide and warmth being what crops require as well as rain. At that time, mineral oil was first beginning to be exploited in Scotland for transport, and artificial fertilisers were being produced from coal.
Now we all know that Russia and Ukraine rival the USA as the world's producers of grain and that Europe has allowed itself to become dependent on Russia for energy from gas, largely owing to Germany's folly in abandoning nuclear power. Feedback ensures that the temperature and the sea level will continue to rise and this will accelerate, so urgent action on reduction of fossil fuel use is necessary. Heatwaves, drought, floods, storms, migration, deaths – these are our legacy to our children.
To go back even further, in 80CE when Nero ruled the Roman Empire and his soldiers first came to Scotland, an obscure man in Greece called John wrote of his apocalypse or revelation. He dreamt of pestilence, famine, war and death, riding together.
On my hilltop, I thought of Covid-19, starvation in Ethiopia and Somalia, war in Ukraine, and devastating floods in Pakistan. The connections between them must now be obvious. Behind them all lies the increasing inequity across the world and all nations, whereby wealth and resources of food and energy are diverted to a minority and the poor suffer. This is the modern apocalypse – climate change – which I have been warning about in my articles and lectures over the last 25 years.
Recently, I was asked to give a talk on the subject again and reviewed the data on carbon dioxide, methane, sea level and loss of ice in the arctic. To me and to many scientists the figures are truly alarming. Climate change is accelerating and without urgent action my children, now in their 50s, could see a further 2⁰C rise in temperature in their lifetimes. By the end of the century, much of the planet could become unsuitable for human life.
Climate change is caused by the rich world and affects the poorest first, but it is now clearly affecting all of us. There is a solution, and it must be applied urgently, taking priority over all other political issues. We must stop using fossil fuels to provide our energy and convert to renewables and nuclear. For us in the UK, this means roughly tripling our supply of wind and solar, and switching all transport to electric and hydrogen, while developing our nuclear supply. At the same time, we must substantially reduce our energy use, and this means that those who use most must expect to bear the greatest responsibility. My long-expressed view is that we shall be forced to return to a simpler lifestyle, such as that we experienced in my childhood and that the poorest in the UK are suffering now.
At the risk of boring you, let me remind you of what life was like in a middle-class family in the 1940s and 1950s. One coal fire to heat the house, and coal rationed. A gas water heater that came on when required. Baths limited to six inches and preferably shared. Meat, fish, eggs and clothing rationed. A wireless, single light bulb in each room, and a portable electric radiator – no other electric apparatus. Clothes recycled among the children. Food waste collected for pig fodder. Very little other waste as everything you bought was wrapped in paper, and you didn't buy much. Most had no car. Holidays, if you had one, spent at the seaside in UK. At that time, the UK energy consumption was one fifth of what it is now. And, interestingly, now in the UK one fifth of our energy comes from renewable and nuclear, so there is potential for development to avoid returning to this earlier lifestyle.
These are the issues that we must address: reduce our individual consumption and urge politicians to address climate change. The change we need will not occur overnight, but it has started and we all have a part to play. Even if we stop all fossil fuel use now, further rise in temperature will still occur over a decade, so action is urgent. The better-off we are, the more we must do to reduce our demands and thus prepare for the rising prices, shortages, severe weather events and waves of immigration that are now occurring. None of these is a surprise to me, as those who have read my pieces will know, but the speed with which they are happening alarms even me.
Those two realms – the air and the oceans – are not ruled by any earthly power but have been altered radically by mankind's desire for more. The time has come when we must ask for less. Climate change should inform all political thought and action. It will not be avoided by any political ideology or by any political party that appeases those whose support it seeks. Therein lies the fate of mankind.
If politicians obtain power by concealing the truth and by claiming that they alone can ensure a future of increasing prosperity, we need to call their bluff. They must make clear to the electorate that we are in for very hard times and that the fix requires long-term sacrifice of the standard of life we have come to expect. However, if we make the change, there may be a better and healthier future for our grandchildren in a greener and fairer world. It is up to us to make sacrifices now for their sake and for that of the poor of the world.
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