With eyes wide shut
Climate change threatens the future of humanity, but we refuse to respond
Tuesday August 12, 2003
We live in a dream world. With a small, rational part of the brain, we
recognise that our existence is governed by material realities, and that, as
those realities change, so will our lives. But underlying this awareness is the
deep semi-consciousness that absorbs the moment in which we live, then
generalises it, projecting our future lives as repeated instances of the
present. This, not the superficial world of our reason, is our true reality.
All that separates us from the indigenous people of Australia is that they
recognise this and we do not.
Our dreaming will, as it has begun to do already, destroy the conditions
necessary for human life on Earth. Were we governed by reason, we would be on
the barricades today, dragging the drivers of Range Rovers and Nissan Patrols
out of their seats, occupying and shutting down the coal-burning power
stations, bursting in upon the Blairs' retreat from reality in Barbados and
demanding a reversal of economic life as dramatic as the one we bore when we
went to war with Hitler. Instead, we whinge about the heat and thumb through
the brochures for holidays in Iceland. The future has been laid out before us,
but the deep eye with which we place ourselves on Earth will not see it.
Of course, we cannot say that the remarkable temperatures in Europe this week
are the result of global warming. What we can say is that they correspond to
the predictions made by climate scientists. As the met office reported on
Sunday, "all our models have suggested that this type of event will happen more
frequently." In December it predicted that, as a result of climate change, 2003
would be the warmest year on record. Two weeks ago its research centre reported
that the temperature rises on every continent matched the predicted effects of
climate change caused by human activities, and showed that natural impacts,
such as sunspots or volcanic activity, could not account for them. Last month
the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) announced that "the increase in
temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the largest in any
century during the past 1,000 years", while "the trend since 1976 is roughly
three times that for the whole period". Climate change, the WMO suggests,
provides an explanation not only for record temperatures in Europe and India
but also for the frequency of tornadoes in the United States and the severity
of the recent floods in Sri Lanka.
There are, of course, still those who deny that any warming is taking place, or
who maintain that it can be explained by natural phenomena. But few of them are
climatologists, fewer still are climatologists who do not receive funding from
the fossil fuel industry. Their credibility among professionals is now little
higher than that of the people who claim that there is no link between smoking
and cancer. Yet the prominence the media give them reflects not only the
demands of the car advertisers. We want to believe them, because we wish to
reconcile our reason with our dreaming.
The extreme events to which climate change appears to have contributed reflect
an average rise in global temperatures of 0.6C over the past century. The
consensus among climatologists is that temperatures will rise in the 21st
century by between 1.4 and 5.8C: by up to 10 times, in other words, the
increase we have suffered so far. Some climate scientists, recognising that
global warming has been retarded by industrial soot, whose levels are now
declining, suggest that the maximum should instead be placed between 7 and 10C.
We are not contemplating the end of holidays in Seville. We are contemplating
the end of the circumstances which permit most human beings to remain on Earth.
Climate change of this magnitude will devastate the Earth's productivity. New
research in Australia suggests that the amount of water reaching the rivers
will decline up to four times as fast as the percentage reduction of rainfall
in dry areas. This, alongside the disappearance of the glaciers, spells the end
of irrigated agriculture. Winter flooding and the evaporation of soil moisture
in the summer will exert similar effects on rainfed farming. Like crops, humans
will simply wilt in some of the hotter parts of the world: the 1,500 deaths in
India through heat exhaustion this summer may prefigure the necessary
evacuation, as temperatures rise, of many of the places currently considered
habitable. There is no chance of continuity here; somehow we must persuade our
dreamselves to confront the end of life as we know it.
Paradoxically, the approach of this crisis corresponds with the approach of
another. The global demand for oil is likely to outstrip supply within the next
10 or 20 years. Some geologists believe it may have started already. It is
tempting to knock the two impending crises together, and to conclude that the
second will solve the first. But this is wishful thinking. There is enough oil
under the surface of the Earth to cook the planet and, as the price rises, the
incentive to extract it will increase. Business will turn to even more
polluting means of obtaining energy, such as the use of tar sand and oil shale,
or "underground coal gasification" (setting fire to coal seams). But because
oil in the early stages of extraction is the cheapest and most efficient fuel,
the costs of energy will soar, ensuring that we can no longer buy our way out
of trouble with air conditioning, water pumping and fuel-intensive farming.
So instead we place our faith in technology. In an age in which science is as
authoritative but, to most, as inscrutable as God once was, we look to its
products much as the people of the middle ages looked to divine providence.
Somehow "they" will produce and install the devices - the wind turbines or
solar panels or tidal barrages - that will solve both problems while ensuring
that we need make no change to the way we live.
But the widespread deployment of these technologies will not happen until
rising prices ensure that it becomes a commercial imperative, and by then it is
too late. Even so, we could not meet our current levels of consumption without
covering almost every yard of land and shallow sea with generating devices. In
other words, if we leave the market to govern our politics, we are finished.
Only if we take control of our economic lives, and demand and create the means
by which we may cut our energy use to 10% or 20% of current levels will we
prevent the catastrophe that our rational selves can comprehend. This requires
draconian regulation, rationing and prohibition: all the measures which our
existing politics, informed by our dreaming, forbid.
So we slumber through the crisis. Waking up demands that we upset the seat of
our consciousness, that we dethrone our deep unreason and usurp it with our
rational and predictive minds. Are we capable of this, or are we destined to
sleepwalk to extinction?