It is exciting to have a real crisis on your hands, when you spend half your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment
– Margaret Thatcher
We human beings live amidst great contradictions in our thinking. Our underlying main concerns are the wellbeing of our family, our friends, and ensuring all are fed and comfortable in our surroundings (including having enough air to breathe). Outwith that, we can worry about other matters: our entertainment, our clothing, our earnings, our bank balance, our football team, our next holidays, our motor-car, our house and so on.
All humdrum stuff.
Think if we did not care about the major concerns of family and friends. Our children have no shoes? Well, that will help harden the soles of their feet. They are hungry? Don't they know what food costs? Our partner is ill? That's life. Our friends are freezing in the cold? Well, we're not! So, who cares?
Fortunately, few think like that, and those that do – taking a very wide view – are to be pitied. We are a caring species for the far greater part. But we care in the specific sense; in the abstract it is that little bit harder. Largely, that is a result of the scale of the challenges we face. Climate change and its concomitant, environmental pollution, are overwhelming problems; they are of too great a magnitude for us, as individuals, to truly comprehend. And they could be the end of humankind.
That is a hard possibility to face. So, most do not and content themselves with the immediate and mundane that arise before us, leaving it up to 'them' to do something about it. But here is another hard fact to contemplate; they cannot do anything about it that will not or would not impinge on us all and require us all to take some kind of action albeit, possibly, in a passive sense.
The main problem is simple to state; the world is now continuously warming due to the accumulation of what is termed greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and we are not doing enough to control our emissions of same nor to reduce their level. Although there is some variance amongst the measurements of greenhouse gas emissions, broadly we emit around 50 billion tons per annum: the measure of our communal stupidity is that, back in the 1980s, we were emitting around 35 billion tons – and we knew then of the dangers but we have blithely continued on our set course.
That fact is, apparently, at variance with the strident marketing that is occurring where the word 'green' is thrown around in a loose fashion: for example, electric cars emit fewer greenhouse gases than petrol or diesel driven vehicles and are thus labelled 'green' by the manufacturers. To build, they release as much Earth heating effluents as their fossil fuel consuming cousins and, when driven, their contribution to global warming is still high – much depending on the source of their electrical power – although only around 25 to 30% of non-electrical vehicles. But they are not 'green' in the sense of being carbon neutral.
That is true of a lot of green projects. They are not 100% green. Obtaining energy from clean sources is complicated – in part because those sources, like wind and sun, are intermittent. Even hydro-electric dams, which are carbon neutral producers of energy, can take up to 100 years before they pay back (in clean energy terms) for their construction and the methane that escapes from the soil when you cover the land with water – as happens with some dams in the USA. And hydro-electric dams can be intermittent sources also as water flow changes with the seasons.
Another green project, the ambitious Chinese tree-planting policy (making their deserts green), will only pay off in global warming terms in around 100 years or so. Trees are variable tools when it comes to carbon capture; on average, over 50 years or so, they will capture around five tons of CO2 but it depends where they are planted and how they fare. The same principle is true on a lesser scale to such assets as solar panels; depending on their construction and location, they can take up to 20 years to pay back in greenhouse gas terms for their manufacture and assembly.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to developing new and greener energy producers is the vested interest in fossil fuels: all the infrastructure required to raise energy from fossil fuels is already in place and, in relative terms, they are cheap to produce and use – especially in comparison to green sources, most of which require expensive infrastructure. We have witnessed, in America, how a short-sighted and self-interested administration can hail the melting of the Arctic ice as an opportunity to develop new fishing grounds and new areas for oil exploration – blissfully ignoring the dangerous and major side-effects of such melting. The Trump administration were also prepared to rip up forests in Alaska in order to develop new oil fields; a move cancelled by Joe Biden.
The fact that big money is in the use of fossil fuels is one problem; but it relates to the main problem. We need to do more than simply replace fossil fuels with greener ones; we need to clean our atmosphere. Some of the greenhouse gases already circling our planet will do so for thousands of years; even if we managed by some miracle to cease all greenhouse gas emissions today (and let us pray for such!), the world's temperature would still rise for many years to come.
In the mid-18th century, there was an estimated 280 parts per million (PPM) of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Today, the measured PPM is 450. If we continue with the same rate of emissions as at present, this rise in PPM will continue and, by the end of this century, this will transfer into a global rise in temperature of around 2.8 degrees centigrade – a true disaster for humankind and those creatures that share our planet. It will simply mean billions of premature deaths.
So, we have to do more than curtail emissions. We have to clean our atmosphere of greenhouse gases. And the same two problems persist: there is no profit in cleaning the atmosphere and the methods that can be used, in their initial set-up stages, contribute to global warming within themselves. It is, therefore, to governments we must turn to develop these life-saving strategies. And that means our best, almost last hope, is the Climate Conference scheduled for Glasgow this November.
To put climate change into perspective and not as a humdrum issue, here is a quote from the American ecologist, Christopher Manes: 'Such is the scope of the environmental crisis that it makes us question our entire history – people in the future may very well look back and wonder how the last generation could have gotten caught up in such minor distractions as two world wars, space flight and the nuclear arms race'.
At least Manes did think there would be people left in the future.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow