It is tempting to believe, as the stars fade into the glow of another new winter’s dawn, that the magnificent beauty and power of nature is far beyond the impact of anything humanity can do. But unlike the unchangeable spheres of the cosmos, so many light-years away from human influence, the planet we inhabit, our civilisation has uniquely come to prove, is not immune to our collective actions. Though Earth itself is perfectly capable of continuing in its existence for billions of years to come, the fantastic plethora of natural landscapes and diversity of life in all its forms we have been privileged to have evolved as part of may not be. It has, over recent decades, been decimated on a scale apparently unparalleled since the last mass extinction event sixty-five million years ago, and could, by our actions, soon be gone entirely.
Take a look around you, and the fact that our species has had such a devastating impact on those it lives alongside ceases to become so surprising. Even the great river Wear, for centuries meandering its own way through this northern landscape and carving out the very peninsula on which we find ourselves in Durham, has, like most of the world’s major rivers, been tamed and restricted, held back from its natural flow by humanity’s devices. Vast areas of the planet have been altered by humans in recent years, their natural beauty lost forever as crops, plantations and urban sprawl replace cherished forests and vital ecosystems. The world we currently live in is fundamentally different from the one we evolved to live in, thousands of years ago, and even from that from which our own civilisation sprung a few hundred years ago.
And yet, some still deny that all this monumental environmental change on land and water can be having any effect on our most important resource, the atmosphere. Even were the scientific evidence not concrete, it would surely seem to stretch the limits of logic to their limit to suggest that the most dangerous and concerning environmental change of all – the gradual warming of the entire planet that has become strikingly evident over the last few years – has nothing to do with the dramatic changes introduced by humanity. Hardly less illogical is the decision we appear to be collectively making to do precious little to reverse these changes before it’s too late (see
The people of the small low-lying island states desperately trying to obtain legally-binding global commitments to emissions cuts at the conference see little hope beyond that beautiful eastern horizon. For, as a result of the greedy over-consumption of fossil fuel resources not by themselves but by more powerful individuals far away in the ‘developed’ world, they face each new dawn with uncertainty as to whether their particular piece of natural beauty will exist at all a few years hence. At last, in Qatar, the big polluters that have gorged themselves on material goods and comforts beyond the wildest dreams or desires of our ancestors for decades have admitted their responsibility for the profound effects that climate change is having around the world. But still they have failed to commit to transforming their societies – our society – in such a way as to put an end to this unjust and universally devastating scenario by abandoning greenhouse-gas-heavy activities. They refuse to come together to make sacrifices in the short term and through a collective effort come up with new ways of doing things in the long-term that will allow sufficient – though not excessive – standards of material wealth to be maintained without destroying the planet on which we all depend.
For all our ability to change the planet, after all, we cannot control it, or even predict with certainty what its responses to our stimuli will be. Already the signs show that the arctic is warming faster than models developed only a few years ago predicted, with ice-free summers likely by the end of the decade rather than the century. The flip-side of this loss, lamentable in itself, is the rise in sea-level that will be associated with the melting of the Greenland ice-sheet in particular. This alone will plunge millions of people and countless other life-forms into disaster. Weather patterns, simultaneously, are being affected by the dual effects of changing temperatures and changing landscapes over which they form, causing such extreme storms, floods and heat waves as seen this year in the United States, Niger and even here in Britain to become more common. Food production will plummet as crops are washed away in one part of the planet whilst dying of thirst in another. Even if we stop emitting greenhouse gasses in years to come, it may well be too late: the release of methane from permafrost and other feedback mechanisms mean that once the planet has warmed beyond a certain extent an unstoppable trend can be set off that moves it onto an entirely new paradigm.
If we are to prevent the worst, therefore, we need to act now. The most recent Met Office model predicts that, at current rates of acceleration of carbon dioxide emissions, we shall experience warming of as much as 5.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. All these goods, services and methods of transportation through which we emit our greenhouse gasses globally are supposedly improving the quality of our lives, though we survived for millennia without any of them. We talk of countries in Africa and Asia being ‘lifted out of poverty’ as they adopt the western way of life and begin to industrialise and electrify their once sustainable societies. But a warmer planet is far from a more hospitable one. Heat stress, extreme weather events and rising sea levels have the potential to kill hundreds of millions directly and leave the rest of the population in a state of increased anxiety, discomfort and peril.
Hence, whether ‘developing’ or ‘developed’, all countries of the world must ignore short-term economic costs and make every effort to transform their societies back into the sustainable ruts we only very recently left immediately, as the overriding priority. Whether or not international agreement is reached, it is up to everyone – in our individual lives and as individual nations – to reclaim the natural environment that is ours by right, abandoning practices that contribute towards its destruction wherever possible and concentrating only on our more basic needs, rather than excessive material wealth. Qatar and other climate talks have failed. But let’s let the UK be an example to the world by making the switch to a more sustainable way of life more in tune with the natural world now. We can at least live in hope that the other big polluters will follow us in time to avert disaster. If we do nothing, we can only expect to live in fear.