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Climate protesters in Zurich

Two Degrees of Warming

Robin McAlpine – 21 April 2022

“Very often, not just in South Africa, but in many other developing countries as well, there simply isn’t the money, there’s not the expertise and there isn’t the government will to invest properly in protecting the poorest in society.” 

Jasper Knight, professor of physical geography at the University of the Witwatersrand

This comment, from a professor of physical geography at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, is about the loss of 4,000 South African houses to floods and landslides this week (no-one knows the death toll yet). But it is also a suitable epitaph for what is left of the developed world’s morality.

It comes the week after the inexplicable sigh of relief from the western nations on the discovery that, if we’re very, very good and live up to all of our promises, there is a decent chance we’ll restrict global warming to ‘only’ two degrees centigrade.

There are three things that need to be said about this. The first is that, despite what you may have heard, the current climate change predictions on the impact of a two degree rise are far from hysterical. Climate scientists are really worried about their credibility given the monumental impacts of what they are documenting. They have been very cautious in their predictions .

In fact there is a significant strand of thinking in climate science that sees this as having been a mistake and that scientists should share the real terror of what their models are telling them rather than a palatable version.

Either way, ‘ice caps melting slower than expected’, ‘weather patterns more stable than feared’ and ‘CO2 emissions take an unexpected drop’ are not headlines that you have read. So far the predictions have largely been underestimates. So a ‘survivable’ two degrees may turn out not to be as survivable as we think.

Secondly, there is the rather big ‘if’ in the statement ‘if we stick to our promises’. Here it is worth focusing down – is Scotland sticking to its promises? No, it absolutely is not. It has missed just about every promised target so far. And we’re much better placed to hit our targets than many nations. It’s only two degrees if we do what we’re not doing? That is what we’re gambling the world on?

And right now the promises are going the other way. At times it feels like everyone and their dog is rediscovering the joys of burning that black oil based on the war in Ukraine. It has been distressing to see the volume of commentary which goes ‘I’m not a climate change denier but because of Putin they can’t extract and burn enough oil as far as I’m concerned’.

That only makes sense if Putin is going to reduce oil extraction in response to us increasing it. That seems unlikely. Anyone who says ‘we must expand oil and gas production beyond currently planned horizons’ really is a climate change denier in all but name.

But it is the third point which should poke at our morality the most; the western elites are positively buoyant about the ‘under two degrees’ thing because, to paraphrase our social geographer ‘there is always the money, the expertise and the government will to invest properly in protecting the richest in society. Always.’

Two degrees of warming may (not ‘will’ or ‘does’ but ‘may’) mean that the lifestyles of say the top 30 per cent of the globe by income can just about be sustained in some form. It will, almost certainly, almost unquestionably, kill many if not most of the bottom 30 per cent by income. And it could be much worse than that.

Have the people that run the world just decided that this is a price worth paying? If you’re being truly cynical and you run the world right now there are two things you can be reasonably confident about. First, as you are almost certainly over 40, the worst of the impacts will probably come after you are no more. Second, as you are unquestionably among the world’s most resource-rich people, the impacts which come before that are ones you can buy your way out of.

It seems genuinely to be the case that we are now accepting the death of a billion people as the necessary price of ‘unimpeded human growth and development’ – by which we really mean a price worth paying to protect runaway capitalism.

We are condemning people to a hellish future in a world we believe is survivable even though we have no idea if it will be, based on promises we’re breaking right now. There are those who will instantly attack this as ‘more climate hysteria’ – and they will be older and wealthier and so most likely to be largely free from the consequences of their words.

So perhaps it’ll work out OK somehow. Perhaps the world will be able successfully to relocate everyone who lives in low-lying coastal areas. Perhaps we will manage to reinforce existing housing or provide alternatives such that everyone can live in some degree of comfort in the face of more extreme weather.

Perhaps the impacts on food production can be mitigated, perhaps with new technology. Perhaps we’ll come up with a more effective means of global food distribution so that the first shortage doesn’t cause a spiral of national-level panic buying. Perhaps simply writing off entire regions of the planet as no longer inhabitable will just feel like natural planetary evolution.

Except the largely poorly-constructed houses were swept away in the South African rains this week, there is already mass climate-driven migration away from the areas that are becoming uninhabitable, islanders whose homes will disappear are shouting about it but getting no help and we’ve seen what happens with even fairly minor interruptions in food supplies.

If you think this cost of living crisis is bad, just wait until you discovery the cost of living with climate change. Your house insurance? The price of food? The costs of construction? The cost of safe travel? The availability of raw materials? Paying for the health impacts? Pretty much nothing is cheaper to do in a climate-ravaged world.

So let’s bring this right back to Scotland. When the news comes that yet another Scottish climate target has been missed, we seem collectively to treat it as if it is primarily about hubris, about a government that over-claimed and under-delivered. But that is a very minor consideration.

This is not about hubris, this is about survival. As a reminder, two degrees may be survivable and we may limit global heating to two degrees if we abide by every one of our promises. Not ‘broadly some of them’, every one of them.

If you really believe you are a moral, ethical person then you should not accept even the targets we have, targets which still lead to devastating impacts on the world’s poorest. We in Scotland need to go further, faster. If you aren’t too fussed about moral and ethical issues then the very, very least you should do is demand that the targets we have are met – for your own sake if nothing else.

Of course, if you are inherently reckless, refuse to believe anything that a scientist tells you, believe that we should be out there pumping oil out the ground ‘like’ there is no tomorrow, demand disposable plastic coffee cups as a human right, believe that fast fashion is a historical development worth fighting for and wish we would all ignore people like Common Weal who worry about climate change and have workable solutions, ain’t you just having the time of your life?

This is it, this Scotland, this world – everything you ever hoped and dreamed of. Just don’t complain when the bill finally comes round.

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