If You Ask Me November 2014

Who Shall Inherit the Earth?

Waking up to environmental realities

Recent, astonishing advances in technology—and man’s ability to exploit them—have quite literally changed the way we look at our planet. Only someone with the hardest of hearts could not be profoundly moved by images of the fragile blue orb shot from space.

The irony is that those same advances—as well as our exploitation of them—may be putting our precious home at more devastating risk than at any time in its 4.6bn year history. Certainly no other species has done as much harm to the planet throughout that history.

The impact of humankind, including depletion of the ozone layer, deforestation, ocean acidification, climate change and much more, is prompting some concerned scientists to suggest the need for a new way to describe the age in which we live.

The International Geological Congress (a non-profit scientific and educational organisation) sets out guidelines for the Earth’s time-scale: ages, epochs and periods. The last 12,000 years have thus been classed as Holocene, meaning entirely recent.

Now, however, there are calls for a change of name, with the scientists suggesting Anthropocene, the age of the human.

In September, no fewer than 160 environmental laureates from all over the globe signed a Declaration on Climate Change, calling on the world’s foundations and philanthropists to “deploy their endowments urgently in the effort to save civilisation”.

Warning that we face up to a further six degrees Celsius of global warming as a direct consequence of reliance on coal, oil and gas, the laureates further suggest that the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 might be quite literally the last chance to agree a treaty capable of saving civilisation.

To put that figure into perspective, scientists believe the “acceptable” limit to global warming is an increase of two degrees Celsius on current global temperatures.

Also in September, some 40,000 people marched in London to demand urgent action on climate change.

Campaigners quoted research from the University of East Anglia that suggests carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are set to rise this year by 2.5% to a record 40bn tons.

If that rate continues, some experts suggest that we have less than 30 years before catastrophic climate change is both inevitable and not reversible. Once carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, it is likely to remain there for centuries.

That 30-year time frame is a desperately small window of opportunity, especially given the failure of governments around the world to take meaningful action over the past 25 years, during which time this issue has been squarely on the table.

For all the evidence that is presented—the scientific data, the images of melting icebergs, polar bears deprived of their natural environment, the horrifying videos of swathes of devastated rain forest—there are many who claim that climate change campaigners are no more than people akin to Chicken Little: convinced that the sky is falling and, so, inciting unreasonable fear.

Meanwhile, their opponents argue this is simply a wilful refusal to face up to an inconvenient truth that former US Vice-President Al Gore so eloquently articulates in his 2006 academy award-winning documentary of that title.

Scientific evidence aside, what of our own experience? In the past year both Japan and the UK (and many other countries to boot) have had the most extraordinary weather. Twice, the UK has been hit by the tail end of a hurricane.

Most recently, it was Gonzalo, which left behind a trail of death and destruction, not to mention severe transport disruptions. This is something that even a decade ago would have been unthinkable.

Japan, too, has suffered. Earlier this year, exceptionally heavy rains triggered fatal mudslides in Hiroshima City, resulting in multiple deaths.

And this year’s typhoon season was especially marked by two very large weather systems that arrived much later than usual, closer together than had been expected.

The second of the two—Phanphone—when viewed from the International Space Station, was the largest storm seen anywhere in the world this year, with its eye clearly defined.

Both storms caused chaos, death and injury on a worrying scale, not to mention infrastructure damage. Meteorological experts suggest that this pattern of bigger, much later typhoons is what we can expect in future.

The economic consequences of climate change cannot be underestimated but, surely, our greatest concern must be regarding the effect it is having on our planet, and all the species of flora and fauna that dwell on it. The clock is ticking …