April 27, 2017

Our climate – the key question

Introductory address by Edward Goldsmith to the “San Rossore – A New Global Vision” Climate Congress. This event was organised by Claudio Martini, President of the Tuscan Region, and took place at San Rossore, Pisa, Tuscany, Italy, 15-16 July 2004.


I have been asked to introduce this important conference and shall try to sum up as best I can, and in as short a time as possible, the situation we seem to be in with regards climate change and what needs to be done about it.

Every new report from our climatologists makes it clearer that climate change is the most daunting problem that has ever confronted us. It seems for instance that we are probably already living in atmospheric conditions in which humans have never lived before – we have in fact entered climatically unchartered territory.

A study by the Hadley Centre – the research arm of the British Meteorological Office -which we will be hearing more of today – tells us that, on current trends, average terrestrial world temperatures could increase up to 8C this century, and if this happens we will have created climatic conditions not seen for 45 million years when there were no ice caps and sea levels were 150 metres higher – not a pleasant thought.

Climate change is also causing the Gulf Stream to weaken, and apparently much more quickly than previously thought, which paradoxically means that global warming could cause northern Europe and other areas of the world to freeze up – though the long-term trend would still be towards increasing world temperatures.

Again, this is something that we shall hear more about today. What is even more alarming is that these and other changes could apparently occur very much more quickly than we think. Climate ‘flips’ leading to very different climatic conditions seem to have occurred in the past within as little as ten years.

In the meantime we are already seeing the beginning of a new climatic pattern in which we are increasingly subjected to long droughts interspaced with more and more violent storms, floods, and sea level rises – a trend that we are told will worsen as world temperatures continue to rise.

The main breadbaskets of the world, such as the American Corn Belt, the Canadian Plains, and the Australian Wheat Belt, have been subject to such droughts in the last few years. What is more, these areas are expected to become even dryer, with a corresponding reduction in world food availability, a problem that we shall also be hearing about today.

In addition, the sources of the world’s main rivers lie in mountain ranges such as the Rocky Mountains in the USA and the Himalayas in Asia. In the spring the snow-mass and the glaciers melt, filling the rivers, but rain is increasingly replacing snow and the glaciers are in full retreat, which must correspondingly reduce the seasonal flow of the rivers and the ability of farmers over a wide area to irrigate their crops.

As if this were not enough, sea levels are expected to rise this century by up to 88 cms, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates, and some 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land could be affected – mainly by salt water intrusion and flooding during storm surges.

We must realize too that climate change will affect almost every aspect of our lives, not only our ability to feed ourselves, but our health, as temperate areas are invaded by the vectors and pathogens of tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. The economy too will be seriously affected.

Particularly vulnerable are the insurance and the tourist industries, the former having to contend with ever more numerous and more destructive climate-related disasters, and the latter, as snow disappears from the slopes at ski resorts and as rising sea-levels drown the world’s beaches. We must not forget that the insurance industry has a turnover of $2 trillion a year, while the tourist industry generates $4.5 trillion of economic activity globally, which represents as much as 11 percent of Gross World Product (GWP).

We must also realize that, even without climate change, we have to phase out our oil consumption as the world’s reserves of cheap and accessible oil are being rapidly depleted and production is expected to peak within the next ten years (some say that it may already have peaked). On the other hand demand is skyrocketing, mainly as the result of breakneck industrialization in China, India, and other Asian countries. If this continues there will simply not be enough to go round, prices will escalate and shortages will be commonplace.

We must clearly learn to do with far less oil or we might face the sort of chaos that occurred in North Korea when it ran out of money to pay for its oil imports. This caused its highly mechanized agricultural system to grind to a halt, contributing to the death by starvation of some three million people. Recurrent oil shortages could also bring about a serious recession, and a permanent shortage could lead to economic collapse.

To phase out oil consumption means above all seriously increasing energy efficiency. The scope is considerable. A proposal put to the US Senate in 2002 to increase energy efficiency by 50 percent in the space of a mere 13 years, would have eliminated the need – temporarily at least – for importing any oil from the Middle East. However, under heavy industry pressure the proposal was shamefully rejected.

Renewable energies, in particular wind power, which is now very cheap, should have a big role to play as does solar energy and possibly wave energy, but some critics have expressed considerable doubt as to the future of fuel cells and the much touted hydrogen economy, which needs looking into very seriously. It is unclear at this stage whether anything could really replace oil, with its almost limitless applications in our modern society, or even natural gas, which, by the way, is already in short supply in the USA and elsewhere.

Unfortunately dehooking ourselves from oil is not enough. The natural world, in particular its forests and other vegetation, its wetlands, it soils, and above all its oceans, absorb anything up to 50 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. As we all know, the natural world is being destroyed at an unprecedented rate, which can only drastically reduce its capacity to absorb carbon-dioxide emissions. The Hadley Centre took this into account in a recent study, leading it to revise upwards the IPPC’s estimate that average terrestrial temperatures could be up to 5.8ºC by the end of this century.

To save our planet, this destruction must be brought to an end very quickly indeed, while what remains of the natural world must be religiously protected. Strict conservation, not development, must be the order of the day. For instance, the forestry industry must no longer be allowed to cut down natural forests, in particular tropical forests. These must be sacrosanct.

Other forest-destroying activities, such as mining and building large dams, must also be seriously curtailed. Instead we must set out to increase very considerably the area under forests. Industrial agriculture must actually be phased out as its heavy machinery and arsenal of toxic chemicals destroy soil ecosystems, rapidly transforming fertile soil into dust and driving vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

A big problem is how long it would take to assure the necessary transition? At least 50 years, I am told. But this is, I am afraid, far too long, for if our destructive activities can transform the natural world into a source rather than a sink for carbon dioxide emissions, so can increasing temperatures.

Indeed, if temperatures go on increasing at the present rate this could start happening within 30 to 50 years, at which point we might well be caught up in an uncontrollable or ‘runaway’ spurt towards ever increasing temperatures. So we must take the appropriate action now. There is no time to lose.

But we must realize that even if we cut down emissions by 60 percent to 80 percent, as the IPCC told us we must do, back in 1990, to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, the terrestrial surface of the earth would continue heating up for at least 150 years – the residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the seas and the oceans for very much longer. Thus all we can hope for is that temperature rises can be slowed down sufficiently to assure that our planet remains habitable once climate stabilises.

It could be argued, of course, that to save our planet requires a complete change of direction, though I am sure that many people here today would not agree. For me, and many others, we must create the sort of society that minimizes the use of fossil fuels and by the same token maximizes environmental protection.

The only type of society that can possibly satisfy these conditions is a community-based society, one in which economic activities are conducted on a much smaller scale, catering mainly for local and perhaps regional markets. I would argue that there is every reason to suppose that life in such a society would also satisfy fundamental human social and spiritual needs in a way that our monstrous globalized industrial society cannot possibly do.

But how can we move our society and its economy in so different a direction? For me this is the key question.

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