Nor any drop to drink. The Romantic poets had gone rather out of fashion among students studying English at university in my day, but their poems do have a way of sticking in your memory. None more so than does Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner
, with its depiction of the delirium of men dying of thirst. In a recent essay, I alluded to the two unnoticed realms – the sea and the air – both central to our present difficulties in their effects on our survival (7 September 2022
). In this one, I return to water.
Water and wealth, two of the great issues of today. They cannot be conjured up by magic, only redistributed. Every time a billionaire takes his bonus from a company, a few more people starve. Whenever we turn on a hosepipe, we take water from someone trying to grow crops in Somalia. There is plenty of water and wealth on our planet, but they are maldistributed and, crucially, this is being exacerbated by climate change.
The water cycle
We all understand two simple facts: heat evaporates water, and the vapour rises. We know it because we see it each time that we boil an egg or make a cup of tea. On a global scale, rising temperatures cause evaporation from the land and oceans, and the vapour forming the clouds condenses on reaching cooler areas and falls as rain. In higher places, frozen vapour or snow falls and turns to ice, forming glaciers and these melt as they slide down to warmer land or sea. Wherever our ancestors have lived on Earth, from the Arctic to the Australian outback, they have adapted their way of life and evolution has adapted their metabolism to suit the relative mix of heat, cold and dietary opportunities available to them. Much of this has happened over the 10,000 or so years since the last Ice Age ended. Now, we have only very few decades to re-adapt to the rapidly changing climate and its redistribution of water.
This is what connects the two current unimaginable human catastrophes: the drought leading to crop failure and starvation in Somalia and Ethiopia, and the flooding of one third of Pakistan, together displacing tens of millions of poor people. Water from the hottest parts of the globe is over decades being redistributed to temperate lands. Simultaneously, ice from the coldest parts is melting and the seas rise. Between them, the land floods.
The role of the oceans in the carbon cycle
What is perhaps less well known is that the oceans are at least as important as land-based vegetation in regulating the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, a fact brought to our attention in 1938 by an English combustion engineer called Guy Callender. It was an observation that started the modern science of climate change; as CO2 is absorbed it turns the water acid and there comes a point when the upper layer of the sea becomes saturated and cannot absorb more, even starting to release it back into the air. But the damage is not only to the chemistry of the sea; think of the biology. Snorkelling off Ibiza during our first holiday abroad in the early 1960s, I was overcome by the beauty and variety of the fishes in comparison to those round our coast. The last time, scuba diving in the Aegean in the 2010s, all was grey, and fish were few. Further, in the Caribbean and over the Great Barrier reef, I have seen the progressive bleaching of the coral and its destruction by invasive species. Over one lifetime, our seas have been changing and so has the life within them.
These are only personal observations. For the bigger picture, ask anyone who makes a living from fishing or selling fish. What has happened to the abundant cod that formed the basis of our fish and chips supper, or the mackerel that children pulled out in the local harbour? Where have all those herring boats gone from the seaside places we went to for holidays? These changes, along with the increasing price of fish, are noticeable by everyone. Just as on dry land, the oceans have their food chains. The bit we can't see, the plankton, is the foundation of this and is food not only for other small animals but even for whales and basking sharks.
Plankton includes both microscopic plants and animals, including the eggs and larvae of many larger species. The plants, collectively phytoplankton, take up CO2 by photosynthesis and release vast amounts of oxygen necessary for fish respiration. A similar role on shores is played by larger algae, the seaweeds. Now, remember that all these organisms have adapted to their specific environment, including its temperature. When you look at a rocky shore, as I did when studying for my biology exams all those years ago, you can see this clearly – at the top are green algae, lower down, brown ones and in deep rock pools beautiful leaf-like red ones, each adapted to the duration of exposure to sea and air as the tides ebb and flow. Now there is evidence of death of plankton in the warmest seas as well as blanching of coral from the death of their component algae. Such changes have fundamental effects on the creatures that depend on them for food and shelter.
It is estimated that the phytoplankton, though only constituting a few percent of the planet's plants by mass, remove about 40% of the carbon dioxide we produce and are the dominant factor in the sea's ability to keep concentrations stable. These tiny plants, like all living things, are sensitive to temperature change and nutrient supply, both of which are being altered by mankind's alteration of the climate. Our survival depends on theirs, theirs on our behaviour.
Fish and fishing
There is another important factor to consider in relation to the seas: overfishing. Fish have been and remain one of the most important sources of protein for many people round the world. As with agriculture, fishing started in a sustainable way but gradually became mechanised with dredging and factory ships. We saw what this exploitation did to whales (I know they are not fishes!) but thankfully, owing to action by concerned individuals and groups, these species have largely been restored. Whales (like us) sequester large amounts of carbon and, when they die, they take it out of circulation to the deep ocean bed. While alive, their eating and defaecation habits fertilise the upper layers of the sea. The death of any one species in a food chain to the point that its survival is threatened results in danger to other species higher and lower in the chain, and whole ecosystems can be destroyed. This is illustrated fascinatingly in Charles Clover's book, Rewilding the Sea
(Witness Books, 2022), which tells of his and others' work to establish no-fishing marine areas which restore sustainability to coastal zones. It is one of few books on our degradation of the environment that leads the reader to optimism – dedicated individuals can and will make a difference, and when you understand the problem it can be solved.
To be positive
All problems facing humanity also bring opportunities. The greatest problem at present is massive migration, and it is futile to try to persuade people not to migrate when they cannot grow their crops, or their homes are under water. Their choice is death or displacement. The burden falls mainly at present on charities like the Red Cross/Crescent and Médecins sans Frontières, which generally combine their resources and coordinate their responses in major emergencies; they rely on our support and everything we donate helps. However, governments must be persuaded to collaborate through the United Nations much more closely in dealing with refugees. As we can see from the people in our latest government, migration brings both talent (however misapplied) and labour to a nation even though this implies loss to the country of origin. One suspects that the gratitude of some migrants may be forgotten by their offspring when they inherit their parents' hard-won wealth, but we must stop looking on migration as a bad thing; it is a fact of life, and we must learn to use the talents and energies of migrants to our mutual advantage.
In all the turmoil and anxiety caused by floods and famine, it is easy to forget that, along with wind, water is a key part of the solution to climate change, as a source of energy. This is the major opportunity ahead of us. The northern latitudes, where most rain falls, must exploit this with more local hydro-power systems, better storage and distribution of water, development of tidal energy generation and storage, and rapid increase in hydrogen production from water. These are the areas into which the profits of the energy companies should be invested rather than in seeking more fossil fuel from fracking, mining and drilling.
In an earlier article about hydrogen production and uses (28 September 2021
), I quoted from the extraordinarily perceptive lecture by JBS Haldane delivered in 1923, and repeat it here:
Personally, I think that four hundred years hence the power question in England may be solved somewhat as follows: The country will be covered with rows of metallic windmills working electric motors which in their turn supply current at a very high voltage to great electric mains. At suitable distances, there will be great power stations where during windy weather the surplus power will be used for the electrolytic decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen. These gasses will be liquefied, and stored in vast vacuum jacketed reservoirs, probably sunk in the ground… In times of calm, the gasses will be recombined in explosion motors working dynamos which produce electrical energy once more, or more probably in oxidation cells. Liquid hydrogen is weight for weight the most efficient known method of storing energy, as it gives about three times as much heat per pound as petrol. On the other hand it is very light, and bulk for bulk has only one third of the efficiency of petrol. This will not, however, detract from its use in aeroplanes, where weight is more important than bulk. These huge reservoirs of liquified gasses will enable wind energy to be stored, so that it can be expended for industry, transportation, heating and lighting, as desired. The initial costs will be very considerable, but the running expenses less than those of our present system. Among its more obvious advantages will be the fact that energy will be as cheap in one part of the country as another, so that industry will be greatly decentralised; and that no smoke or ash will be produced.
Unfortunately, we have only had to wait 100 years rather than 400 for this solution to be urgently necessary. If now is not the time to seize the opportunity, what alternative could be better? This shows the shallow thinking of those who call for more fossil fuel to be delivered.
What can we do? Only connect
EM Forster's novel, Howards End
, written in a period of uncertainty as the world changed after the end of the Victorian era, provides an apt quotation for us now. Have we made the connections, between the price of our food and energy, the starvation in Somalia, the floods in Pakistan, the rise of right-wing governments, the discontentment that led to Brexit and Trump, and the changing climate? Have we understood how important a contribution our individual lifestyles have made to these? If not, it will soon be too late to do anything effective to help.
Once you understand the connections between these and the relatively recent widespread adoption of a careless and extravagant lifestyle in the West, it is easy to modify it and to influence others to do so. The wealthier you are, the more you can do (and the healthier you will become). If you can afford solar panels, heat pumps, good insulation and electric cars, and perhaps to invest in wind energy, go ahead. Many of us can cut down further on waste and long-distance holidays. The poorer you are, all you can do is budget as best you can; you will not be causing the problem but are a victim of it and deserving of support. But the first thing, open to all of us, is to reduce our use of energy.
The second thing relates to government understanding the issues and responding appropriately. This has been brought into the spotlight by the recent changes in our governance in the UK. Our new Prime Minister has been elected by a tiny group of people who have clearly been motivated by self-interest and seduced by her plan to reduce their taxes, produce more fossil fuel (something that will do nothing to change our energy prices) and prevent development of wind turbines on land. She has followed this by appointing a cabinet minister responsible for energy policy whose opinions are exactly the opposite of what is needed from all of us, and a Chancellor who sees our future happiness in increasing the wealth of the very richest. She is ignoring the obvious opportunity Putin has given the West, to renounce his oil and gas and accelerate on the road to a net zero economy.
Why have we, the British people, allowed this to happen? You will all have your opinions, and you can guess at mine, but plainly in the short term there is little we can do to influence this bigger picture. We can hope for a quick change when the economy collapses, or if the government remembers CoP26. For me, the crucial requirement is for a government that understands climate change. When it comes to voting in a UK election, I am hoping that there will be at least one party that has a clear energy policy based on renewables, hydro, nuclear and sustainable food production, sees water as part of the solution, and makes addressing climate change their primary objective. At present, I do not see one and there is little time.
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