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A Question of Priorities

Here at Humanosity, we are always talking about politics and a lot of the conversation has been taken up with the Brexit saga that has gripped the UK. What started as a fringe issue in parts of the Conservative party and the right-wing press has morphed into an all-consuming issue that has drowned out everything else.

No matter what side of the debate you are on, Leave or Remain, the issues at stake don’t seem as pressing as; the current knife crime epidemic that has seen 285 senseless deaths last year alone, homelessness rise to near-record levels, a social care system that is failing millions of our elderly, increasing levels of poverty… I could go on but the point I’m making is that it seems to me that we have got our priorities a little ‘fucked’.

Climate Change

It is in that context that we have been looking at the rising activism that has sprung up around the issue of climate change. Humanosity was down at the Oxford Circus demonstrations and most of the people taking part were teenagers and this backs up what we and others have been noticing for a while now – that the current generation of young people seems to be way more politically engaged than previous generations.

Whilst many have been vocal about Brexit, the issue that they are most passionate about is climate change and, in highlighting the importance of this issue, they are giving the rest of society a lesson in priorities.

Why? Well if you take a long hard look at what the scientists have been saying for several decades now, you start to understand why people are getting so concerned about climate change and why groups like Extinction Rebellion are determined to force us all to take this matter seriously. If we don’t then the future that awaits us is truly frightening.

The Science

According to the science, we have just ten years to radically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we emit to keep to the 2 degrees Celsius rise in temperatures enshrined in the Paris accords. So why are 2 degrees so important? At 2 degrees of warming the risk we, as humanity, face is; hundreds of thousands of extra deaths each year, hundreds of millions of climate refugees, having several hundred billion dollars wiped off global GDP.

The impact on plants and animals, even at this modest temperature rise, is likely to be devastating. At six degrees of warming, the predictions start to become apocalyptic. Studies state that it becomes reasonable to talk of the collapse of the global economy, hundreds of millions of extra deaths and one of the worst mass extinctions in the history of the planet. When faced with this is it any wonder that climate activists feel it necessary to bring central London to a standstill.

The more that you look at the science the scarier it gets. At the heart of the science is uncertainty about just how sensitive the climate is to carbon. The latest report from the IPCC reckons that there’s a 66% chance that CO2 emissions will lead to a temperature rise of between 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius but that there’s a 10% chance that it will exceed 6 degrees. What the scientists are unsure about is how the environment will respond to the increased levels of CO2 we are pumping into the atmosphere.

In some cases, they feel that the environment will respond by absorbing more CO2. For instance; plants may respond to more CO2 by growing more vigorously, plankton which produces almost half the oxygen in the atmosphere may respond to the increased levels of CO2 by undergoing bigger and bigger blooms. However, those are the few bits of good news.

What terrifies the scientists is the likelihood that the environment has feedback loops that could lead to runaway warming. For example; there is triple the amount of CO2 sequestered in the soils than there is in the atmosphere and current thinking reckons that warmer soils will release more CO2. Warmer soils also entail the melting of the permafrost and that will release huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere and that’s most definitely not good news as methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

It’s Not Just Carbon

It’s not just carbon we should worry about. The world is using up resources at a rate that means even more scary scenarios are likely to come our way. You may have heard of ‘peak oil’ but have you heard of ‘peak phosphorus’ or ‘peak copper’? Phosphorus is at the heart of many industrial processes and is critical to agriculture.

In fact, the green revolution in agriculture that has occurred over the last few decades was down to using fertilizer and phosphorus is the key component. Yet it is a finite resource and the scariest predictions are that we will run out in as little as 50 years. Phosphorus is essential to all living things and without it we are looking at the collapse of agricultural and livestock yields. Yet much of the phosphorus we use is wasted, it passes straight through us and ends up being discarded alongside our sewage. The story with copper is similar.

Think of how central copper is to the electrical infrastructure that underpins modern life. Although new reserves are being found, the rate we are consuming it means that it will run out, it’s just a matter of when. What’s the point of developing renewable energy if we can’t build the power grids to transmit it?

The same is true for helium, yes you read that right, helium. Whilst helium may conjure up images of party balloons and being entertained by friends talking in absurdly high-pitched voices, helium is critical for devices like MRI scanners and it’s vital to many high-tech industries like the space industry.

There’s no way of producing it artificially and most of the world’s reserves come from the natural radioactive decay of rocks, mainly in the US. Yet in 1998 the US government, which had the world’s biggest store of helium, passed a law stating that most of the supply had to be sold off by 2015 irrespective of price, making it so cheap that recycling it was uneconomic. That one piece of legislation made helium so cheap that we can indulge in the madness of wasting it to fill party balloons.

Climate change is one of those issues that we are all aware of but, are people are truly aware of just how serious things are? Yes we have stopped using plastic straws, we all think recycling is a good thing and we are more aware of our carbon footprint than previous generations but the impact that we can have as individuals, beyond electric cars and moving to a plant-based diet is the equivalent of putting a plaster on a life-threatening wound.

Solutions

Big problems need big solutions. Science may figure out some solutions but that is like buying a lottery ticket and crossing our fingers. What is needed is systemic changes, changes of the sort that can only be achieved by collective action and this will only happen when it is being driven by governments and politicians worried that their re-election depends on it.

Transforming the 70 trillion-dollar global economy so that sustainability is rewarded requires political action. Ending the hundreds of billions that go into subsidising fossil fuels and moving towards renewable energy will be resisted by powerful and extremely wealthy interest groups. Only the combined efforts of governments can hope to stand up to such forces.

Dealing with peak phosphorus, helium and copper requires that we transform our economy from one based on extraction to one based on circularity, where there is no such thing as waste by-products, everything is reused. As things stand the environmental degradation that our current economic systems cause is treated as a freebie for accounting purposes. Changing the way accounts are drawn up to price these factors in requires coordinated political action. That can only happen when politicians believe their careers depend on it.

The response of mainstream media to the Extinction Rebellion protests was smug, even a little contemptuous but this just serves to obfuscate just how serious is the problem is and how little time we have left to do something about it. So, when you are next going about your business and your day is completely disrupted by a couple of climate change activists who have superglued themselves to a train then don’t be too angry.

In fact, rather than being angry, you should make this your number one political priority. If you don’t want to face more of these types of protest, then you should be inundating your local politician’s inbox with emails stating just how passionate you are about this and how your vote depends on them taking this just as seriously. If as many of us as possible take this approach, then there won’t be any need for disruptive protests and politicians will start to take the measures that are necessary to mitigate the coming apocalypse.

There are many things offensive in this world, and often things require nuance and context, but… I genuinely cannot fathom why anyone is offended by a young girl saying she wants us all to stop destroying the fucking planet. – @RalfLittle

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