11:59 and several seconds…

Various sources have posted links to Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN – this is one of them. Listen to it, if you haven’t already, and weep with me.

She speaks truth, as far as I am concerned; unvarnished, painful truth. Unfortunately, I think she is at least a generation too late. Yes, I think that if the world’s governments were to have a metanoia, a complete changing of minds and spirits, we could possibly turn things round in time without there being a climate catastrophe – and against that background, all other political and economic issues (yes, including Brexit and Trump) pale into insignificance.

But do I think that there’s the slightest chance that the world will actually do that? I except the USA – there is, as far as I can see, absolutely no way in which the USA is going to change, but the rest of us, those who don’t try against all the evidence to cling to some possibility that it’s all a huge mistake and won’t actually be nearly as bad as is predicted, sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “nah nah nah…” can probably do it without them. Is it at all likely? I suspect not.

I feel a considerable sense of guilt about this situation – I am of the “baby boomer” generation, and members of my generation have been in control of most things for quite a while now, exactly that period during which things have gone from a significant portion of climate scientists sounding a note of caution to nearly all climate scientists being confident that a catastrophe is imminent. We, collectively, should have listened and taken action a lot earlier. OK, personally, my wife and myself don’t have a huge carbon footprint; we generate a significant portion of the energy we use from solar panels on our rather expansive roof, we don’t fly much, we don’t actually use cars all that much, we recycle pretty well (though not as well as is possible), we have a strong bias towards repairing or repurposing rather than throwing away… I could go on. However, we could do more, which is, paradoxically, less in a lot of cases – we could eat less or no meat, we could ditch the car (though as a result of disabilities that would seriously curtail our interactions with others) and I could not attend the Wake festival next year (or get there over a period of a couple of days by land routes rather than flying, taking a couple of hours). I cannot feel satisfied unless my carbon footprint is zero.

I am particularly ashamed that, some years ago, I edited a short book criticising climate change science for an author who shall remain nameless – this was on the basis that I disagreed with virtually everything he said, but that I could improve his argument by ensuring that he considered all the counter-arguments to what he was saying. In my defence, I can say that at the time we were not nearly as far along the “hockey stick” graph as we are now, and I didn’t feel able to state with certainty that he was wrong. He probably still thinks he’s right, but a few more years down the line, I’m certain he was completely and utterly wrong – and also dangerous, in that his book, which I helped to produce, may have convinced and may still convince some people not to take climate change seriously. Unfortunately, it is a characteristic of exponential graphs that you can’t say with certainty that they are exponential until you’re in a dangerously near-vertical portion of the curve.

I was perhaps somewhat influenced by the fact that for the first thirty plus years of my life, the danger of climate change which most of us perceived was the possibility of a nuclear fimbulwinter. Indeed, thirty years ago I was (among other things) a Civil Defence Scientific Advisor, so was closer to such thinking even than the average. Living for many years with the expectation that civilisation would end with an ice age, with expanding glaciers and polar ice and the shifting of the temperate zone radically south perhaps makes it more difficult to change tack and worry about decreasing glaciers and polar ice, sea level rises and the shifting of the temperate zone radically north. By the way, yes, I have toyed with the idea that some strategically placed nukes, perhaps in volcanoes, could counteract global warming; that is probably true just in terms of warming, but the resulting lack of insolation would itself almost certainly be catastrophic for crops. It might still be better than runaway global warming…

That is, however, a reason but not an excuse. So is the fact that, practically, those of us who were bleating about potential global warming thirty years ago were met with the argument that we were asking China, India and the developing world generally to do without all the good things which technology could bring them because we, the developed West, had already used up all the leeway in the global climate for CO2 emissions. We were reminded of our colonial pasts and accused of trying to continue them by “keeping down” the developing nations – and, truth be told, the vast majority of the increase in the interim is those countries starting to catch up with the West.

It is also true that there have been quite a few predictions of castastrophic climate change in the other (cooling) direction issued by climate scientists over the years, and that has made it significantly more difficult to argue that the direction of change is warming, and that it has reached the level of an existential threat to civilisation (and possibly even the human species). An example of such counterargument can be found here – and lest you take the piece too seriously, here is an analysis of their funding and political ties. When those accounts were published, they were mostly discounted by the vast majority of climate scientists (the notable exceptions being ozone depletion and acid rain, which we communally accepted as problems and have now largely fixed); now, all but a very few accept that there is climate change happening, that it’s largely anthropogenic and fuelled by greenhouse gas emissions and that we’re headed inexorably for a tipping point. The naysayers, of course, point to the lack of unanimity as evidence that it’s not certain, to which my response is that (a) there’s never going to be unanimity in the scientific community and (b) you can totally guarantee that by paying scientists to find reasons why the consensus is wrong.

Am I absolutely certain that we are headed for imminent catastrophe? No, but then I’m not 100% certain the sun will rise tomorrow either.

Do I think that Greta’s figure of 8-9 years is actually the point of no return? No, I think that’s probably a pessimistic figure, but I give it at least a one-in-three chance of being right, and ask if we want to bet on the future of the entire human race on those odds?

Do I think that enough people will take anough notice of her to reverse the trend using technology we actually have at the moment? Frankly, no. I think there’s maybe a slim chance, but on the whole I agree with this commentator about the character of the people she’s addressing and the fact that action needs to be governmental and not just personal.

Do I think (like him) that we can, in the interim, come up with some technological innovation which will reverse the trend before it’s too late? I’m actually hopeful, but it isn’t a very strong hope.

In the meantime, I have been noticing a lot of comments on postings of Greta’s speech which have, frankly, made my blood boil. Some of them are dealt with in this article. She must be a mouthpiece for others, some say, or she’s just a misguided child, or even (and I really hate to disseminate this) she looks a little like a 1930s Nazi poster of a blonde, pigtailed girl and, therefore, must be government propaganda. I find myself wanting to jump down the throat of all such commentators in her defence. What is it that they find so all-fired unacceptable about her? That she’s female? That she’s young? That she’s on the autism spectrum? That she speaks truth to power? In all those cases, I would want to defend anyone… and yet, I’ve held my tongue (or, at least, my keyboard) so far – because actually, I think Greta Thunberg is quite capable of speaking for herself. She’s fierce. And for me to leap to her defence would, in part, be an admission that I thought that females, or young people, or those on the autism spectrum, or prophets were weak and in need of my help.

And in at least three of those cases, that’s discrimination…

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