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It’s not the end of the world as we know it

Hysterical claims that we have only 93 months to ‘save our climate’ are based on ignorance of human ingenuity.

Robin Walsh

Topics Science & Tech

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Did you know that we have only 93 months to ‘save the world’?

According to the 100 Months Project, a collection of green groups and charities based in Britain and beyond, in around seven or eight years’ time we will reach the climate’s ‘tipping point’ after which there will be ‘no return’. Unless we severely slash our carbon-use now, and lower our horizons, the world will effectively end. The 100 Months website comes complete with a big red ticking clock counting down the seconds, minutes, hours, days and months to the point of ‘no return’. At the time of writing, there are 93 months, or 2,737 days or 65,688 hours, to save our planet.

It is a powerful illustration of the end-of-world fantasies of many in the green movement and at the top of society. Behind all the PC and seemingly reasonable talk of ‘tipping points’, ‘scientific findings’ and ‘carbon calculating’, this is a modern-day, secular version of the countdown to the End of Days that gripped earlier apocalyptic movements in human history. Yet if we are going to have a serious debate about the environmental issues facing our society, and the political challenges associated with them, then we need to state one simple but currently heretical idea: the end of the world is not nigh and, more to the point, humans are the potential makers of history, not merely its unwitting victims.

Global warming is seen by many as an all-consuming catastrophe, one that trumps all other considerations. The science ‘tells us’ that we need to cut our carbon emissions by 50 per cent or even 80 per cent, or otherwise apocalypse will overwhelm the planet. Just as the law of gravity forces objects to move towards each other, some people see the threat of environmental crisis as compelling us to live ‘sustainably’, reduce our energy consumption and live within our ‘ecological means’.

However, drawing this kind of social conclusion from apparently empirical facts is not the way that science, or society, works. Just because we can split the atom, that doesn’t mean that we have to drop an atom bomb. Just because ultra-violet light from the sun has been proven to damage DNA, that doesn’t mean we can never venture into the sunlight again. If we conclude that increasing levels of human-produced carbon dioxide are altering the climate, how we choose to respond to this finding is a fundamentally political question; environmental science can tell us precisely nothing about how we ought to do that.

So, energy consumption increases, leading to more CO2 production, leading to higher temperatures, leading to the unquestionable necessity for reducing energy consumption in order to keep temperature down – right? To many greens, this is a self-evident truth. We impact on nature, nature impacts back on us – so logically, we need to stop impacting on nature in the first place. However, this simple feedback mechanism is not an accurate depiction of how the world works. The impact of nature on a society depends on human beings’ ability to cope with, and respond to, natural and environmental events. How exactly they do this is a question of sociology, economics and politics, not meteorology.

A flood on the Yangtze River in China in 1954 killed over 30,000 people. Similar inundations were a regular occurrence back then, bringing the added risk of starvation to survivors due to the disruption caused to agriculture. The massive changes that Chinese society has undergone in the past 30 years mean that this is no longer the case. Controlled by the Three Gorges dam, the Yangtze’s propensity to flood is reduced, and increasing numbers of Chinese are freed from the risk of seasonal starvation – becoming industrial workers, rather than peasants. Social and economic change has made this particular environmental challenge an irrelevance. (As an aside, the risk of food shortage is unfortunately not a thing of the past yet for millions – but this is a question of economics and distribution of food, rather than the objective barriers of food shortage that previous generations faced).

When a hurricane strikes underdeveloped islands in the Caribbean, such as Haiti, the death toll is regularly in the thousands. But in the economically developed USA, stronger homes, better flood defences and improved emergency services mean that, apart from exceptional tragedies like Katrina, there are only a handful of deaths or injuries. Here again, an identical natural disaster can lead to completely different outcomes, depending on the level of development. Nature’s impact on humanity is mediated by man’s ability to cope with it.

Even the tragic and much talked about Australian bush fires last month aren’t the simple case of climate-induced catastrophe that some have implied. Controlled burning of bush land, a practice carried out by Australian aborigines for millennia, can reduce the amount of fuel for the fires, making them more manageable. Similarly, the developed (and very brave) emergency services were a key factor in saving many lives.

While much is made of the impact that climate change will have on the poorest in the Third World, perversely there is not much thinking from many environmentalists about how people there might cease being poor. The focus is always on increased CO2 and increased temperatures, rather than the means that people have to cope with those temperatures. It may sound flippant, but flood-prone rivers can be dammed, fields can be fertilised, water can be desalinated, and heatwaves don’t kill people who have air conditioning – and all of these things can be bought with enough money. So rather than switching off the lights, grounding planes and closing factories, the real challenge of climate change is ending poverty in the Third World.

The new coal-powered plants being opened weekly in China, a bugbear of many greens, could enable that country to develop the riches needed to overcome climate change. Better still, China is making progress in developing nuclear power and the efficient renewables that could be realised with investment – investment that will come through economic development, not from holding back.

What the Third World needs is the kind of unprecedented, liberating growth seen in China in recent years, to give it the social and technological capacity to overcome nature’s challenges, rather than just accepting the limits of the world as it is. This applies in the West too – the solution to our problems lies in doing more, rather than less. If we’re really serious about actually solving climate change, rather than using it as a prop to support our political agendas, economic development is the only game in town.

So if the environmental debate comes down to socioeconomics as much as the specifics of climate modelling, it means we can strip away the ‘scientific’ clothes appropriated by some in the green movement (and let us not forget, this love of science is a fairly new thing – many of those now so keen on climate scientists were vehemently opposed to GM crops and nuclear power). We’re left with a political debate, open for rational disagreement, between those who advocate the modernist project of improving our technology and economy, and those who advocate less travel, less production, and restrictions on (other people’s) consumption. When tens of thousands are losing their jobs, let’s not sacrifice more on the altar of potentially unnecessary environmental restrictions on consumption. The choice we face today is between having more, or having less. I know what I would choose.

Robin Walsh is a member of the transport campaign group Modern Movement.

Previously on spiked

Roger Pielke Jr condemned James Hansen’s scientific authoritarianism. Brendan O’Neill argued we should keep science out of politics and showed how climate change scepticism is the new blasphemy. Alex Hochuli stood up for the right to fly. Ben Pile declared that the BBC has presented a one-sided view of climate change. Rob Lyons looked at how polar bears are the poster animals of climate change. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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