Thinking a bit more about my blog yesterday about the Anthropocene (and the River Tees), I found myself wondering why exactly we (some of us anyway, relatively few) worry about climate change. What exactly is it that we think is going to happen, apart from heatwaves, drought, flooding, fires, various extinctions (including sections of our own species) and the like?
One of the key reference points that features in much climate change thinking is the year 2100 – within the lifespans of many people born today. By 2100, if the average temperature rise is not kept within 1.5 degrees Celsius, a host of horrible things will happen. Indeed, we’re beginning to see them happening now. But I’ve never seen what is predicted for say the year 2300. Of course, you might argue that is simply too far into the future to make any guesses – after all, perhaps we will succeed in containing the average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, all thanks to the Paris Agreement of 2015 which calls upon nations to promise most sincerely to do their best. A fantasy mission statement if there ever was one.
Perhaps I have become fatalist on this subject, but reading of a recent report from the IMF (IMF working paper 19/89) which suggests that global direct and indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel industry in 2017 were $5.2 trillion (down barely a titch from $5.3 trillion in 2015) I think I have good reason to be fatalist. Even a right-on guy like Justin Trudeau dare not challenge the Alberta tar sands, never mind Donald no-brain Trump and his outright climate change denial (is that better or worse than Trudeau’s stance?). So, 2100 is the year when if we don’t change course now everything is going to be terrible. Coastal cities (where much of the world’s population lives) will have to drastically do something or other if they are to survive. We’ll have to find new forms of food (GM looms large) and with the disappearance of glaciers (especially in the Himalayas) water wars are a definite probability. The latter issue will affect more than just the nuclear armed nations of China, India and Pakistan of course: the United States will also have its own internal water resource issues, and that, for some reason, doesn’t instill confidence in the greatest nation on earth’s ability to behave rationally. Food and water scarcity are but two horsemen of the apocalypse. Thankfully, 2100, the crunch year for all this to come to pass still seems a long way off, doesn’t it?
So why 2100? It is a long way off and most of us will be dead by then. But it’s near enough now for some of us still to be alive. It’s far enough off to imagine that solutions may work by then, but still far off enough for most of us not to have to worry if they don’t (a key point in democracies). We think we have a time frame in other words which is relevant, yet is somehow irrelevant. Such a timescale is beyond our imagination yet still somehow within the scope of our imagination. Unlike say, 2300. Frankly, who gives a fuck about what happens in 2300?
At the heart of the conversation about climate change, we have a disconnect between our desire for the continuity of the status quo (which implies action on our part) and our belief that the status quo is practically eternal (which suggests that actually everything will take care of itself). They must have felt the same way in circa 400 C.E. Rome. My thinking about what will life be like in 2300 is to suggest that yes, of course it will be very different, and what has adhered for centuries will be no more; in getting to 2300 there will be a lot of pain, and no doubt well beyond; a new dark age perhaps? Who knows. My point is that life on this planet is so resilient it won’t be wiped out, and perhaps in 15 centuries time this patch of human history will be seen as the Great Cleansing, or the end of an experiment. Not much consolation for today, I know. But civilisations come and go, just like species.