Analysis: As the horror of climate change begins to surface, can we stop sleepwalking into oblivion?


Effectively combating climate change is only possible by recognising that we are already in the midst of a global catastrophe

CLIMATE CHANGE, for those who believe that scientists know something about science, traversed from theory to reality before any of us were born. That the Earth was capable of vast climactic shifts was recognised as early as the late 18th century; a hundred years later, the unwitting (or uncaring) role which humanity’s influence played in such environmental upheavals was first posited.

Notwithstanding the perpetual low-boil of political controversy sustained by those professional sceptics whose political agendas, coincidentally or otherwise, align with those most responsible for global warming and its devastating consequences, the result has been a societal familiarity with climate change that has often sapped its sense of urgency. For many, it is often difficult to feel alarm about something we have been hearing about all our lives.

For proof of this, one need only look to the common reactions this year’s summer has elicited. When Scotland sees something resembling an actual summer, this is cause for comment – but only in certain dedicated quarters is it cause for reflection. For a famously rain-sodden nation, ‘glorious’ sunshine is – for a while, at least – sufficient distraction from the fact that people are dying, and in all likelihood will continue to do so.

Japan has declared the present heatwave a natural disaster, with 65 climate-related deaths in recent weeks. Wildfires in Greece have killed at least 74 people, while hundreds more are dead or missing following the collapse of a dam in Laos caused by torrential flooding.

READ MORE: MSPs must take action as climate change wreaks havoc, say environmental campaigners

The Committee on Climate Change warned the UK Government that more needed to be done to tackle climate change in its 2016 report, arguing that increased temperatures and slackening rainfall would, on a national scale, threaten health, agriculture, industry and the environment, while the likelihood of extreme weather events would increase across the northern hemisphere.

The UK’s present heatwave – which has broken national temperature records – has caused the committee to reiterate its warnings, with the CCC’s head of adaptation Kathryn Brown commenting: “Our 2016 report showed that, without further action, the number of heat-related deaths could increase from 2,000 per year today to 7,000 in the 2050s due to climate change and population growth.”

Climate change’s death-toll may be even greater when accounting for those caused indirectly. The US Department of Defence has observed that, between 2006 and 2010, droughts caused by climate change were responsible for killing 70 per cent of the livestock of farmers in Syria, leading to the widespread food shortages and subsequent protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime which have pushed many Syrians into the hands of the Islamic State and other insurgents. We are already in the age of climate change-fuelled conflict.

This was not unforeseen. In 2017, figures indicated that emissions of CO2 from all human activities across the globe grew by roughly 2 per cent, indicating that – in spite of national and international effects to combat climate change – emissions are rising once again, leading to record-breaking levels last year, after the three preceding years which offered (false) hope that they might be levelling off.

READ MORE: Greens and environmentalists clash with Scottish Government over ‘timid’ Climate Change Bill

Last year, the journal BioScience published a letter signed by more than 15,000 scientists from across the world, echoing a similar missive issued in 1992 titled ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity’. The letter is damning in its appraisal of global climate change efforts: “Since 1992, with the exception of stabilising the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.”

Scotland is not excluded from this crisis: at the time of writing, preparations are underway for Scottish Water to distribute bottled water to thousands of Moray residents, as private water facilities risk running dry. Friends of the Earth Scotland has argued that, in the face of simultaneous disasters with climate at their root around the world, MSPs must do more to strengthen the Scottish Government’s proposed climate change legislation.

Yet while climate change is no longer a potential threat, an aspect of its horror is how much worse things can get. Since the beginning of the Cold War, humanity has watched the doomsday clock tick back and forth, forever uncomfortably close to nuclear apocalypse. Yet for climate scientists watching with trepidation for signs of climactic ‘tipping points’ – after which, environmental damage cannot be corrected within the estimated timescale of the human species – we seem to only ever grow perilously closer.

The most immediate tipping points we face are the disappearance of the Arctic Summer sea ice, the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and the disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – all of which could lead to sea levels rising to world-changing degrees – and the collapse of coral reefs, which research predicted would occur even before a global temperature rise of two degrees.

Left unchecked, climate change could further see the disruption of ocean circulation patterns, the release of large reservoirs of methane located on the ocean floor, and the dieback of the world’s rainforests.

READ MORE: International voices call for ‘Scotland the Brave’ to lead on climate change

Yet at this point of unprecedented urgency around climate change, international environmental efforts are unravelling. Three years on from the landmark Paris Agreement, which optimists hoped would herald a new era of conscientious global policy on climate change, the Trump administration has reversed President Obama’s pledge to cut down US emissions – yet even before Trump’s election, research suggested that the targets set by his predecessor were unlikely to be achieved.

Meanwhile, the main cause of the rise in global temperatures in 2017 has been widely identified as China, which – much like the US – seems willing to sacrifice global safety for the sake of national economic growth.

With international accord on climate change, which once seemed so achievable, proving increasingly distant, it falls to individual governments to pursue more radical change – from stronger national emissions targets to the nationalisation of fossil fuel industries – rather than playing a game of one-upmanship over whose targets have been met successfully (or at least, most narrowly missed).

When criticised over its apparent lack of ambition in this area, the Scottish Government has previously protested that it is doing everything “practically” possible under its present powers. In a nation absorbed by constitutional debate, it may be worth considering what more could be done if the range of what is possible were expanded, and if anything short of independence can achieve that.

Picture courtesy of Garry Knight