Science says we must act now to save our planet
If we're serious about tackling climate change we need to phase out fossil fuels from electricity generation. So why the deafening silence from our politicians, asks John Barry
Do you speak carbon? This is one of the messages I took from reading the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The rapid decarbonisation of our economy to ward off the worst impacts of climate change on our societies is one of the many "take home" messages from the IPCC.
We need to start the transition away from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) - and now. Yet how many of us are carbon literate? How many of us understand that practically everything in our modern ways of life (from our food to our entertainment) are dependent on carbon energy (coal, oil and gas)? That our societies are literally addicted to fossil fuels?
Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act; time is not on our side, United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, said. And the chair of the IPCC, Professor Rajendra Pachauri, states: "To avoid the chaos of runaway climate change, we know that we need to dramatically reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases."
The IPCC's Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report, as it's called, pulls together the conclusions of three working groups, which issued reports over the past year on 1) the underlying causes of climate change; 2) the impacts and 3) the ways to address climate change.
Prepared by hundreds of scientists from around the globe, the report is a statement of the global scientific consensus aimed at the people in government who might do something about climate change. But it should also be viewed as a wake-up call to citizens to be concerned, very concerned.
They should be concerned about the accelerating process of climate change and the chaos it causes and will continue to cause (such as threatening food security, economic development and stressing the very ecosystems that sustain human and non-human life) and the almost complete lack of political momentum on either dealing with climate change as a priority by our major political parties, or in states failing to come to a global agreement on how to stop the cooking of the planet (and us).
The report states that the world will have to phase out burning fossil fuels by 2100, which means keeping in the ground a lot of coal, oil and gas. At the same time, while not explicitly included in the report, there is also the impact of "peak oil" on our economies.
Peak oil simply means we have passed the point of maximum extraction of oil from the earth's crust - it's a geological fact with economic and political consequences. One of which is that, as a non-renewable resource, but one central to our entire modern ways of life, as it declines in supply it increases in price. Well, that's what happens when you build an entire industrial civilisation and way of life on a non-renewable resource; as you burn the stuff, it doesn't come back.
And, as we burn fossil fuels, this releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing climate change. In continuing to burn fossil fuels we are treating the earth's atmosphere as an open sewer and we should not be surprised that this comes back to affect us. And now we have (even more) science to back up this rather obvious point.
This report states that it's "extremely likely" that burning fossil fuels (like we do in Kilroot power station, or your internal combustion engine in your car) is the dominant cause of climate change. That is stronger language than that used in the 2007 version of this report, which concluded that it was merely "very likely".
In the scientific IPCC lingo, that one-word change stems from a five percentage-point increase in scientific certainty, from 90% to 95%.
So, and this is for all you climate-change deniers out there, if you were told there is a 95% chance of a plane you're about to board crashing (meaning, of course, there is a 5% chance that it will not), would you board the plane? No? Then why do we, as a society and a species, continue to "carry on regardless" with our high-carbon energy systems and ways of life, rejecting or denying or conveniently ignoring the compelling scientific evidence that we need to change our societies, our economies and our way of life?
Without urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, principally), the report says, "warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to a very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally".
Read that again. This is a remarkable statement, since the scientific process and mode of expression is usually reserved and conservative. Remember: this report and its message are from climate scientists, not wild-eyed members of the environmental movement. Yet will governments and citizens react?
An example of an "irreversible impact" would be passing the point of no return for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet - the point beyond which all we can do is hope its collapse into the sea, and the resulting 10 to 13ft rise in sea level, will be slow, allowing us time to plan and build sea defences.
Oh, and another irreversible impact would be extinction of many plants or animals. "A large fraction of species face increased extinction risk due to climate change" during this century and beyond, the new report says.
Compared to the 2007 assessment, the report includes much stronger evidence that the planet is already experiencing the effects of human-caused climate change.
These range from sea-level rises, melting glaciers, declining snow and ice cover, warmer oceans and more frequent and intense extreme weather events, such as heatwaves in Europe, Asia and Africa, and heavier rainfall and snowstorms in North America and Europe.
The report spells out that climate change will impact the most vulnerable around the world the most. This is a double injustice (and the language of justice, ethics, power and politics is entirely appropriate).
The most vulnerable in the world do not enjoy the benefits of a high-carbon, high-consumer lifestyle (that is a privilege enjoyed by those of us in the "minority world"). Yet they, not us, are the ones who are most likely to suffer the worst effects of climate change caused by our carbon emissions. Feeling uncomfortable yet?
The reality is that climate change is no longer a scientific problem. It is fundamentally a political and, indeed, ethical problem of how we should live in a manner that passes on a stable climate and planet to our children and grandchildren.
So, we can have a "just transition" to a sustainable economy that does not negatively impact on the most vulnerable in our society, or elsewhere in the world. Yet, here in Northern Ireland, our politics is backward-looking, dealing with historical issues as we continue to march into the future looking backwards.
When will we see marches demanding the reduction in our use of fossil fuels rather than the erection of particular flags? At the very least can we not deal with both our troubled past and future-proof ourselves against current and future dangerous climate change?
The science has long been clear enough. In 2009, on the heels of the previous IPCC report, the world's political leaders attempted to hammer out a climate deal in Copenhagen.
Those talks collapsed, despite the last-minute intervention of US President Obama (remember him?); collapsed like a politician's post-election promise. Or a melting ice sheet.
The reality is that if we want to prevent dangerous climate change, coal, oil and natural gas would need to be phased out for electricity use and we would need to get serious about creating a renewable energy economy.
Here in Northern Ireland we are well-placed to do that… if only we had the political will. Northern Ireland possesses some of the best on and offshore wind and marine energy resources in Europe, has a long and proud tradition of engineering and the production of world-class innovations (and we're crying out for jobs).
So why don't we see our flailing and failing Executive grasp the opportunity of what has been termed the "green new deal"? This could make Northern Ireland potentially a world-leader in renewable (especially wind and marine) energy, increase our energy security, reduce electricity prices and create jobs and wealth.
But the Executive in its infinite wisdom, when offered this by a coalition of business, environmental, trade union and community organisations just after the global economic crisis of 2008 decided, no, it would rather concentrate on getting call-centre jobs.
But unless citizens get concerned, start putting pressure on politicians, start protesting and taking to the streets in non-violent action and demanding action on climate change, guess what? Nothing will happen. And the world we pass on to the next generations will be like something out of the apocalypse.
But, hey, we really needed those flatscreen TVs and those cheap flights to that stag weekend in Prague. Hope it was worth it.
John Barry is Professor of Green Political Economy at Queen's University Belfast