October 23, 2017

Rethinking basic assumptions

The ‘New Labour’ government led by Tony Blair is not just a disappointment from an ecological perspective, it is the worst government that Britain has ever had: assiduous in its efforts to please multinational corporations, ever seeking to promote dangerous and untested new technologies, utterly subservient to power, and despite its superficial green rhetoric, always happy sacrifice the environment in pursuit of its political, economic and military objectives.

Published in Parliamentary Monitor, 3 September 2002.

I stated in The Observer that Tony Blair’s government was the worst we have ever had on Green issues. Admittedly the environmental record of his predecessors was also atrocious, but we are living in different times. With the global economy, almost all constraints on the activities of the huge multinationals that now control it have been removed, and the few that remain probably soon will be.

This, together with the monumental scale on which these activities are now conducted, has led to a considerable acceleration in the rate of environmental destruction world-wide, so much so that it is now absolutely clear – which it may not have been before – that it is by protecting what remains of the natural and semi-natural world, including their atmospheric environment, rather than promoting ever more economic growth or ‘sustainable development’ as it is now dishonestly labelled, that human welfare can be maximized.

To give an example, Mr Blair’s government is ardently backing the Vision 2020 project in the Indian state of Andra Pradesh. This involves the accelerated modernization of its agriculture and, more specifically, the setting up of a 600 square mile plantation of genetically modified crops for export. It also involves the displacement of some 20 million small farmers, most of whom are condemned to becoming destitute slum dwellers.

Shamefully this iniquitous project is totally justified by modern development theory and if the food multinationals like Monsanto, Blair’s close friends, have their way the world’s agricultural lands will be made over to a small number of privatised or rather corporatized ‘Vision 2020′ projects, marketing food the poor cannot afford, and driving the bulk of India’s 400 million and China’s 900 million small farmers into the slums – ironically as it may seem – in the name of modernization, economic efficiency, “sustainable development” and the war against poverty. This must surely suggest that our politicians have a lot of serious rethinking to do?

However, by far the most important reason why the protection of the natural world should have priority over development is that if it does not we cannot conceivably survive climate change, and I wish I were exaggerating.

Climate change is by far and away the most daunting problem that mankind has ever faced. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set up by the United Nations told us in its Third Assessment Report that the mean temperature of our planet could heat up by as much as 5.8ºC before the end of this century – more than was required to trigger off the last interglacial.

This will have a profound impact on mass atmospheric circulation systems, unleashing powerful storms often followed by devastating floods, increasing the likelihood of droughts and worse still leading to the drying up of considerable areas of our planet, as well as giving rise to ever more serious heat waves, and raising sea-levels by a possible 880 mm, enough to affect (by salt water intrusions and floods, in some cases temporary but in others permanent) some 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land.

Unfortunately the problem is almost certainly very much worse than the IPCC makes out because the latter has not taken into account, in its mathematical models, the snowball effects on climate of degrading the natural world and otherwise destabilising, as temperatures rise, the vast deposits of carbon it contains. The IPCC clearly mentions the possibility “of large-scale and possibly irreversible changes in Earth systems” and of “accelerated warming” due to the release of carbon stored in the world’s forests, soils, permafrost regions, oceans and hydrates in coastal sediments” but also fully admits that “its models cannot yet simulate all aspects of climate”.

The Hadley Centre – the research arm of the U.K. Meteorological Office, is now taking into account the effects of our activities on forests, soils and partly at least on the oceans, concluding that an 8.8ºC increase in temperature instead of the IPCC’s 5.8ºC is more realistic with a corresponding increase in all the other problems caused by global warming. On the basis of carbon dioxide levels likely to have accumulated in the atmosphere during this century if emissions are not curbed, climatologists Jerry Mahlman and Alberto di Fazio foresee a 10-14ºC increase.

Whichever of the latter figures prove correct we shall be creating conditions close to those that existed 45 million years ago when, among other things, sea levels were 120 metres higher – conditions in which it is doubtful whether humanity could survive. Even before things get that bad, climate change will affect almost every aspect of our lives, which makes nonsense of the discussions taking place at Johannesburg – none of which take climate change into account.

Any discussion of health care, for instance, is nonsense if it does not take account of the inevitable invasion of temperate areas by the vectors and pathogens of such tropical diseases as dengue fever and malaria. Any discussion of poverty alleviation is nonsense if it does not consider the hunger and misery that will be created by the drying up of vast areas of the globe and the millions of refugees that will seek to move to still habitable areas.

Clearly then stabilising world climate and bringing about those changes that maximize our chances of survival under a regime of climate change must be our overriding priority. No policies should be acceptable if they do not contribute to or are at least consistent with it.

Mr Blair’s plans to undertake a huge building programme in southeast England, to build a new network of superhighways, a vast new airport in Kent, 100 new incinerators instead of investing in recycling, and three new nuclear power stations instead of promoting wind power and other renewables, clearly do not fit the bill. Nor indeed does the killing off of our remaining small farmers and of increasing our dependence on food imports. Such policies need to be urgently reconsidered in the light of the factors that will really determine our future on this planet.


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