Science was once sceptical about climate change. Nearly 200 years ago, a few scientists, including John Tyndall, demonstrated that some gases in the air could absorb heat. This they realised was why the Earth was warmer than it should be considering its distance from the sun. So the inevitable question arose: what would happen if those gases changed in concentration? It was known that carbon dioxide was one of these warming gases and it was known that burning coal gave off the same gas. But the conventional view was that the Earth system was so big and complex that nothing we humans could do could have much effect. We surely couldn’t change the climate.
But the question remained, ‘what if?’ By 1938 it was possible to measure that the level of CO2 in the air was rising, so, it was reasoned, the temperature must rise. Science remained sceptical, if there was an effect it would take millennia to be noticed. By the 1960’s instrumentation had improved to a point that it was possible to measure average global temperatures. The work of the next decades demonstrated this rise to the point that science was won over. The argument was then about the effect and the time-scale. Was there cause for concern or was this a matter that safely lay in the long grass? Everyone hoped for the latter, global economic policy depended on it.
The work continued, concern rose, the evidence mounted, the temperature was rising, data from land, sea air and space told the same story. Science looked at all different explanations, that is how science works. The only explanation that explained the data was that greenhouse gases being produced by human activity, notably carbon dioxide, were the cause. That was the settled consensus of science by 2013. The remaining discussion was about the effect and the timing.
This week’s report from the IPCC goes a long way to providing the remaining answers, and they are not reassuring. The impacts on life on Earth does not lie in the long grass, they are right here with us now. As the atmosphere warms it becomes more unsettled. The behaviour of the atmosphere is what we call climate, as it warms so the climate changes to a more unsettled state. This is the prediction of the climate scientists.
It is not isolated events that indicate this change, these have always occurred. It is the frequency of extreme events, and each year is serving up a new set of broken records. This year we are off to a flying start with extreme weather events, from violent cyclones and rain in Indonesia, a polar vortex freezing much of north America, while California battled wild fires and drought in a record January heatwave, and of course the floods. What more will the year serve up, and at what cost in terms of lives and lost livelihoods?
The report makes clear that no one will be immune from the effects – except perhaps the super rich space tourists who can watch the unfolding events in their space hotels. But even they will have to come home and perhaps then they will realise what ‘only one Earth’ means. We have no other home in this universe, if it starts to crack up, everyone is affected. But as usual it is the poor, who have done the least to create the problem who will suffer the most. The rich will try to insulate themselves, but they are bound to fail. Storms will claim their luxury yachts, floods will invade their mansions, random climatic events don’t respect status.
But it is not just extreme weather that we will have to cope with at great cost. Food supply will be affected as drought take hold as in California and Australia now. Floods will make land unworkable as in southern England this winter. But also in a warming world, pests and diseases will spread into new territories, invading crops and herds that have no natural resistance. The so called ‘ecosystem services’ will start to break down as natural communities of plants and animals are affected by changing weather and seasonal patterns. These services include the control of soil erosion, of water run-off, recharging underground aquifers, regulating pest species, and moderating local weather patterns. All things that most people are totally unaware of – until the services are withdrawn, as in the great English floods of 2014. All things that are essential for the growing the food on which we all rich and poor, depend.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, science was sceptical about climate change. By the end the matter was settled, it was real and the effects measurable. That acceptance now has to move on to become the general consensus of all people. There is no time left for the antics of the deniers. The Greens have a programme that will enable us to reduce the impact of the inevitable change now built into the global climatic system as a result of decades of deliberate inaction. Our programme will also enable us to reverse those changes and bring the climate to the state to which modern humans, our crops and life-stock have become adapted. This programme will build a fair and humane society that lives within the natural structure of the Earth, leaving space for the multitude of life that makes up that structure. As a political party we have to convince people of both the practicality and urgency of this programme and counter the propaganda of those who seek to make personal capital out of the gathering climate disaster. These are the deniers, they have the power and wealth, defeating them will not be easy, but defeat them we must. The alternative, to condemn our children to live under their rule in a disintegrating world is unthinkable.