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Guardian Andrew Simms: 100 months to do what about climate change, exactly?

September 1, 2010

Every month, Andrew Simms writes a ‘countdown’ piece in the Guardian under the banner ‘100 months and counting’. I don’t mind a countdown as a device – as spurious as the numbers really are – but what it is he’s campaigning for? Here’s my (extended) reponse to his latest article75 months and counting …


You say ‘there is still time’ but it might be worth examining what we have ‘time’ to do, since the timescale doesn’t reflect what it is we have x months left to achieve.

There’s good news and bad. Population – the problem everyone harps on about but nobody has a solution to – continues to rise, and exert growing pressure on every ecosystem and resource. We’re running out of energy rapidly, which inevitably leads to further degradation of the environment as we plunder those areas we have yet to despoil. Energy is going to cost us very dear indeed, but I suspect the increased costs will come too late to materially slow down our Pyrrhic victory over nature.

It’s not all bad news though. We’ve recovered from our ‘winter of discontent’, a storm of denialism that has blown itself out, the force of it extinguished by reality. Denialist faith that a failed conference, a few emails and a typo were the end of climate change proved as over-eager as as the expectations invested in a lone black man in a white house who, it turned out, was just another politician.

The volume of shrill, hectoring denialist voices has increased in direct proportion to their frustration, as the futility of trying to fight science with opinion becomes increasingly evident. The ice won’t stop melting, the research constantly strengthens the climate change analysis, and nobody – neither sceptic nor denier – has ever managed to explain what is causing the climate to change if it isn’t us doing the damage.

Meanwhile, a number of people seeking to exploit division and cater to ignorance have been brutally exposed, Monckton and Plimer taking deserved thrashings for example. On a more positive note, big US business is having to reassess their cosy relationships with institutions like the US Chamber of Commerce. In the UK, Lloyd’s of London and Chatham House have produced a very clear, unambiguous report on the seriousness of the environmental and energy issues we face. The CBI, which runs its own mini-site dedicated to climate change, will shortly host a debate in which I suspect Lawson will discover (or recall) the rewards of hubris.

So, big business gets it. Politicians able to look beyond narrow parochialism get it. Science gets it. The media gets it (and exploits contrarian views out of mere cynicism in the search for profit). Even Lomborg gets it – eventually – although how sincere he is may be open to question. That said, it is depressingly clear the US doesn’t get it – at least, a sufficient and well-organised subset of the US population and the politicians that represent them. Enough of them to make me think that by the time we got some kind of half-baked agreement about mitigation, the water would already be lapping at the door even as a failing US becomes relegated to the minor league as global trade and expansion grinds to an untimely halt.

So perhaps the war against foolishness, against the reactionary nonsense that has always plagued mankind as if change can be argued with, is not entirely lost. But I must say it is time we considered what it is we advocate here, and now. Mitigation is a pipe-dream in my opinion – too little, far too late.

The changes we have wrought are beginning to manifest themselves in the data – next month’s Arctic ‘state of the ice’ is going to be rather bad news – and the recent NOAA State of the Climate 2009 report provides sufficient evidence to convince anyone with an open mind (remember that?) that we are heading for a monumental crash.

Despite deniers supporting their position with only inane arguments and no science worth a light (reminding me of those who claimed their liberty was somehow impinged by a requirement to wear seat-belts or motorcycle crash helmets) the evidence mounts up relentlessly that mitigation is probably too late to implement now, or simply too unlikely given the speed at which we would all need to react.

We have to start talking about adaptation now. We never had 100 months to save our sorry arses. By the time you came up with the idea, it was probably too late – the inertia of a market-based global system parallels the same inertia of the oceans to reveal what the extra heat will do. The heat is there, we can’t see it or measure it properly, but it will be felt, and when it is we must have some kind of plan in place to deal with the rising tides that will otherwise drown us all, mostly in self-pity if deniers are anything to go by.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. DavidC permalink
    September 1, 2010 1:11 pm

    Andrew Simms’ series wins the award for the best-intentioned but most unhelpful contribution to the ACC ‘debate’.

  2. September 1, 2010 1:37 pm

    The anti-helmet people still hold sway in the US. Fortunately there is an international campaign for free public transport.

  3. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 1, 2010 2:21 pm

    Yes David – like all dates for the apocalypse, it’s cobblers. Wish they’d stop it, frankly…

  4. September 1, 2010 6:11 pm

    This is a great piece of writing. I loved “our Pyrrhic victory over nature”.

    Pity that its eloquence is matched by its accuracy. 😦

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 1, 2010 6:48 pm

    Ah Byron – you’re right. I’m depressing myself. Easier to be a denier…

  6. Steve permalink
    September 10, 2010 11:51 pm

    Graham, you write:

    “Population – the problem everyone harps on about but nobody has a solution to – continues to rise”

    The solution is well known. Population stops rising when people reach a certain level of prosperity, because prosperity brings two things: women control over their fertility, and an assurance of life expectancy.

    If you want two children, but you expect three out of four of your children will die, then you will have eight. But if you want two children and you can reasonably expect that both will survive, then you will have two. The desired fertility rate is just that – two – regardless of culture. Isn’t that nice?

    So the moral imperative is to end poverty, and give developing countries the same standard of living, health care and freedom we enjoy. The global population will never exceed 9.5b. It may never exceed 9b if we get a move on. This seems to be a goal all progressives can rally around.

    Why do you see a “problem” where none exists?

  7. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 11, 2010 6:10 am

    Ah Steve, I hope you don’t mind me describing your remarks as naive. Of course I’m aware that education in particular, along with improved health infrastructure, employment opportunities and the availability of contraception, all contribute to reductions in birth rate – the European experience is clear demonstration of this.

    But you fail to address three massive problems in your advocacy. The first is religion: both the Catholic church and Islam present barriers; Catholics through the banning of contaception, Islam through the widespread suppression of women’s rights. Women who are not allowed to drive or go out of the house unaccompanied are hardly likely to get the kind of education we’re talking about, nor the contraception needed for informed choice if they are regarded as little more than second-class citizens, baby machines, and the property of men.

    The second problem is economic. Many observers, myself included, find the notion of equitable distribution of resources and energy to be entirely at odds with the greed that underpins the global expansion of trade. Consumerism can only promote better standards of living when there is enough energy, metals, glass, concrete, roads, power grids etc to go around. Current estimates suggest that we need three planets just to sustain the current population at something approximating the western standard of living. The poor are going to remain that way as capitalism implodes, unable to sustain the demands it creates and the ambitions it fosters.

    The third problem is climate change. Continual growth and a reduction in fossil fuel use are mutually exclusive aims. There can be no improvement in the standard of living for developing nations unless the developed nations are prepared to endure a reduction in their consumerism so that others can lower their buckets into the well. Right now, I can’t see any signs at all that the west is prepared to stop hogging all the resources. Either we carry on as we are and the poor stay that way – meaning population will continue to increase – or we must give up some of our indulgences, our luxuries, so that others may benefit – and population increases will then slow down.

    Hard choices, and nobody appears prepared to make them. Like I say, there are no solutions that I’m aware of that stand a hope in hell of succeeding.

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