Two things caught my eye last week, one rather trivial and the other of momentous, probably existential importance. Both can be dealt with by considering this one word, reckless. It is a curious word, leading one to wonder what this reck is that a reckless person lacks.
The definition of reckless tells us that it is an adjective applied to people heedless of the consequences of their actions or negligent of their duties
. It has been around since the Old English recceleas, coming from Old German roots, so it must be a word that everyone understands. It has synonyms, incautious, careless, rash, but ask lawyers what it means to them and you'll detect a thoughtful pause; it implies something that goes beyond simple carelessness, that the action was carried out despite an understanding of possible harmful consequences. Reckless driving is worse than careless driving. Oh, and reck is an archaic verb in English and Scots meaning to care.
The more trivial matter last week was the way in which ex-PM Johnson's alleged offence in parliament was framed; he not only misled but did it recklessly. This simple adverb elicited a 50-page response from him, showing how many opportunities it has given for legal argument in what we are told is not a matter for lawyers. We shall soon know the outcome, but it was plain as a pikestaff that he lied to his parliamentary colleagues, that he must have known he was doing so, and we all saw him doing it. If anyone deserves the adjective reckless applied to his mode of life, it is he. But…
Much more serious, and something that you may have missed in all the excitement about Johnson, was the publication of the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) summary report for policy-makers
. It does not make easy reading, but essentially it summarises the latest science on climate change, covering the risks, impacts, and needs for adaptation and resilience. It is written in very cautious, objective language and is in no way alarmist, but this makes it all the more terrifying to anyone who has watched the apparently gradual increase in global temperature and sea level, and our reaction to the news of this.
Virtually all of the rise in temperature and sea level from pre-1900 has occurred in my lifetime, and most of it within the 25 years since I started teaching students about it. It is accelerating and the threshold beyond which irreversible change is anticipated, a rise of 1.5˚C, is now virtually certain by 2040, a period IPCC define as 'near term' and that I think of as my children's lifetime. It is now 1.1˚C and 1.5˚C will be reached even if we take immediate action worldwide to cut global greenhouse gas emissions
We all now know the consequences, as they are reported almost daily – flood, drought, storms, wildfires, biodiversity and species loss, many of these feeding back to make warming worse. All are on the increase and will get even worse in the mid-term to 2060, my grandchildren's lifetime, if we do not act now.
Billions will be displaced and die or migrate, the costs of mitigation will rise (probably exponentially) and in my view, societies and civilisation will collapse with obvious increases in migration, warfare and epidemics. But you can read the IPCC's conclusions yourself if you can face them and you will understand why I am now applying the adjective reckless to our behaviour.
Look around you, talk to your friends about climate change. Remember, the wealthier we are, the greater will have been our contribution to this terrible scenario and the greater our responsibility to do as much as we can to keep the temperature from exceeding the critical 1.5˚C rise. If we don't act now, our children will have to live in an increasingly different world than the one they expected.
Since I became concerned, over 25 years ago, my wife and I have installed solar panels and a heat pump, improved the insulation of our house, got an electric car, changed to a largely meat-free diet, planted trees, joined two cooperatives to put solar panels on Edinburgh's schools and to build a wind farm in Cumbria, divested our remaining savings from fossil fuels, and stopped flying. I can and shall do more, as we still rely on gas to heat the house in winter.
I have also become a bore by banging on about climate change. But more of my friends are now trying to do the same because they care for the future of their offspring and recognise that not to do so is more than careless, it is now undoubtedly reckless, acting heedless of the consequences of our actions or negligent of our duties.
Please, estimate your carbon footprint (SR, 18 August 2021
) and act now, at least to halve it. The more of us who do this, the more likely are politicians to take the urgent actions necessary and the more resilient you and your family will be against the predicted short-term dangers.
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