For over two decades, when discussing climate change, I have noted that the conversation has moved from talk of sea level change, which for most in the UK seemed a rather remote and manageable threat, to recognition of the forces behind the changing weather and disruption from floods and storms that we now see happening each year. At the start of this period, the worst possible consequences to mankind seemed to many people to be so far in the future as hardly requiring us as individuals to do much personally but rather to leave it to governments and hope for some scientific fix. Now it looks very different.
The real threat
My own view was pessimistic and became more so as I watched the carbon dioxide levels and temperature rise faster than anticipated and saw increasing human migration mimic that of other animals. I envisaged the primary threat to be disruption of civilisation rather than the end of mankind; the stresses of weather damage, crop disruption, and food and energy shortages would lead to local disorder, conflict, and anarchy. In face of governmental failures, dictators, fanatics and adherents to extreme religious/political philosophies would have their day and the rule of law could become the law of the jungle. The world's economies would fail, and only then would its carbon footprint fall. The temperature rise would eventually halt, aided by the blanket of pollution caused by the widespread fires of destruction, but sea level would still continue to rise for centuries.
I suggested in my lectures that Homo sapiens was being replaced (or at least led) by a new species, Homo stupidus, as we had replaced earlier humans, and that the new humans would live their enforcedly sustainable lives, not on Mars but in isolated environments, rather as tribal people in Australia, Africa, the Amazon, the Arctic, and New Guinea had for long avoided civilisation.
Our way of life has become unsustainable and cannot continue without radical change. Indeed, we have already, without perhaps registering its significance, seen glimpses of the anarchy which may be our fate, in the ancient cities of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and even in the storming of the Capitol. While none of this was directly caused by climate change, it or its denial has already played a role in the breakdown of governments and civil strife. The pressures from migration cause societal unrest and government confusion in Europe and the UK. To me, Brexit and its unhappy consequences were a warning that we are far from immune.
Dealing with our energy usage
Some of you who read my last article
will have calculated your personal carbon footprint and may have had a nasty shock. Mine was worse than expected, but I had omitted to divide it by two, as two of us share one footprint. Any elderly readers might like to make an estimate of what it would have been when you were 20. You will know why it has grown – cars, houses, purchases to support a family and a lifestyle, travel and commuting, the organisation you might have been part of or even built up. All these must now be looked at and modified to reduce our footprints.
All new vehicles will soon have to be electric, and the possession of huge petrol/diesel cars will become as socially unacceptable as smoking. The inconvenience of electric vehicles at present is related to cost, distance per charge, and unavailability of charging points but these will surely be ameliorated rapidly; otherwise, these vehicles satisfy every motorist's needs. But the electricity should also be from a renewable source, and this is only guaranteed if you have a home charger and buy from a company that supplies only renewably-generated electricity. I appreciate that many cannot easily achieve this, but everyone can question how necessary their choice of personal transport is and modify it to reduce their carbon output. Up to retiring age at least, walking or a bicycle for short journeys and a train or bus for longer ones will make a big difference. My experience of hybrids is that they save little fuel but, whatever you drive, please do so efficiently with minimal use of brake and accelerator, and consider whether the journey is necessary.
Home and work:
Buildings will have to be well-insulated and kept at a lower temperature than we are used to. Unfortunately, natural gas heating will have to be used by many until (I hope) green hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water and more effective ground/air source heating become widely available. Energy bills will increase substantially, and we need to remember that, long ago, we kept one room warm in our houses and, even when indoors, wrapped up well in the winter. Owners of buildings will all have to address this difficult issue of keeping their users warm in winter and cool in summer. It is likely that electricity supplies will become inadequate, and rationing may be needed if we cannot reduce our use generally at home and work.
Seven years ago, I put some of my pension into solar panels, an air source water heater, and solar and wind cooperatives, one of which has provided solar panels for most of Edinburgh's primary schools. It cost a lot of money, but not much more than a two-week family holiday in the Canaries and much less than a new car. I also changed my electricity supplier to one that gave the option of wind generation. The changes paid for themselves over four years, but my gas supply remains a problem.
The greatest burden in confronting climate change will necessarily be borne by those with the highest footprints and some will be expected to complain about higher taxes, council bills and fuel costs. Of course, those of us with the highest trail of footprints are primarily responsible for the mess we are in. These expenses will be inevitable as climate change progresses but can be reduced by action now.
What gives me greatest hope is that as a population we have adapted to a somewhat simpler and more energy efficient lifestyle as a response to COVID-19 and have therefore shown that we can do so. Our aim should be to live in a circular economy where waste is reduced and recycling of everything possible is the norm. Those fortunate enough to have gardens will be familiar with trying to grow some produce and composting, and some will have planted trees and bushes, but this concept extends to everything we buy and requires thought when making purchases: where does it come from, how long will it last, how shall I dispose of it?
In general, there are carbon-saving benefits in buying local produce and recycling clothes and childhood items. The ubiquitous plastic, which in my childhood barely existed (save for a Bakelite telephone), requires oil for its manufacture and being virtually indestructible is the major component of landfill and litter; it should be purchased as little as possible and its use in wrappings must be discouraged.
As part of lifestyle change, another reversion to simpler times will be necessary in what we eat and how much we exercise. It is no coincidence that the overweight and the poorest have suffered most severely from COVID-19. Obesity is increasingly seen to be associated with inflammation and poor lung and heart health; intensive care staff will point to the weight of those they have been and are nursing. Poverty forces people to eat cheap food with high carbohydrate and fat content and such diets stimulate appetite beyond metabolic requirements. A good diet contains a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, in season if possible, plenty of fibre, and relatively little processed carbohydrate.
I confess to difficulty in reducing meat intake but am working on it and eat more in the form of fish. The dietary purist would advise a vegetarian diet with around 20 different fruits and vegetables in a week, so it is a good idea to see how close you can get to this. For me, seven or eight in a day is easier than it sounds, as it is the variety more than the amount that matters. You can scavenge the refrigerator and find enough each week to make into a soup which will provide enough for several days (eg onion, potato, garlic, red and green peppers, leek, carrot, tomatoes, and a chilli if you want). But 20 different ones in a week is challenging except in summer when many local fruits become available.
Mentioning numbers of things in a day reminds me of alcohol. I believe a small amount of alcohol does have benefits to health, but it is easily abused. It is horrifying to hear of the increased death toll in Scotland from alcohol-related disease since COVID-19 lockdowns started. We must all try to limit our alcohol intake to a maximum of 14 units in a week, beyond which ill-health risks begin to become significant. And don't forget that alcohol provides you with a lot of calories that you may well not need.
Exercise to me now means swimming and walking although many prefer more vigorous activities. The good thing is that it doesn't matter; walking, swimming, dancing, pilates, zumba or anything physical that you enjoy, for an hour two or three times a week is adequate. It has measurable health benefits and is an aid to maintaining a healthy weight. With respect to climate change, walking and cycling are substitutes for a lot of short-distance travel by vehicle, a personal guide being to use a vehicle only if you can't do the journey on foot or bike.
We can all do our bit
I started this essay by pointing gloomily to a scenario for civilisation that we all would wish to avoid. How to avoid this fate is only partly in any individual's hands but that part, a radical change in our behaviour, has the potential to be multiplied by the number of people that head in this direction. Change in behaviour can also influence governments, councils and indeed our friends and neighbours to address the problem themselves. I'm afraid the probable course of climate change is not science fiction; rather it is a reasonable prediction of what will happen if we do not respond. Not only should we be doing all we and our families can but, also, we should try to spread the word and encourage others. Already, many young people are trying to encourage us; let's join them in trying to make a better future for our civilisation.
So far, I have concentrated on what we can reasonably do as individuals, and I hope that those of you who have read this will do what you can before circumstances force more radical change on us. In my next article, I shall consider methane, the other critically important greenhouse gas, and its relation to what we eat.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own