This week I decided to write something about ecology and global warming. I don’t have anything particularly clever or original to say, but this issue has to be part of what we all keep before our consciousness, because it is one of the most significant issues, perhaps the greatest social issue, of our time. By ecology I mean here a group of issues surrounding environmental wisdom and its opposite (which so often results in environmental devastation), species extinction, over-population, and the like. Global warming is, of course, about planet-wide climate, and the social upheaval that will result if climate change continues to grow.
I am not going to write an essay here, but instead offer a list of points that I find myself thinking on when I mull on this pair of issues.
- Do I want my great-grandchildren, and everyone else’s great-grandchildren, to inherit a world in which there are polar bears, and tigers, and the Greater Bamboo Lemur, and the lowland gorilla of central Africa, the Vancouver Island Marmot, the black rhino, the iberian lynx, the Baiji Dolphin, and a large number of other wonderful diverse creatures threatened by extinction? The answer to this simple question is “yes”, but the real issue is, what am I willing to do about it, and what am I willing to go without? It would probably require, for example, that we all accept to pay more for the food we buy in the shops, and therefore have less left over for other things. It would also require that wildlife and conservation issues are allowed to move further up the political agenda, and affect the way governments make budget decisions—weighed up alongside tax policy, health spending, and the like.
- Like many others, I did not at first find it obvious what the problem with a rising sea level might really be. However it is not hard to learn the basic facts: changes in flow patterns all along the length of rivers, threats to species such as sea turtles and coastal birds, and, most especially, a degree of flooding likely to lead to large population movements, with all that that implies about the loss of home, the struggle of migration and the risk of social unrest and even war.
- Rising average temperature does not just lead to loss of the ice caps and wilder weather, it also leads to lowered yield in rice crops, and possible extinction of many plant varieties. One of my own favourite plants, the beech tree, will struggle to survive in England. [photo from summitpost.org; http://www.summitpost.org/the-breidden-hills-long-mountain/708889]
- The reason to take global warming seriously, and allow it to affect your behaviour, is, I think, because of the issue of avoidable suffering. This is the suffering that other people, and other animals, will undergo, which could have been avoided if the climate were not changing as it is (I mean that part of the change which is owing to human choices and actions). We do not, thanks to determined efforts by previous generations, keep slaves. But, as a culture, without really understanding what we were doing, we seem to have developed a way of life which other people pay for just as surely as the slaves paid for the lifestyle of their self-styled ‘owners’. In this case the other people are the populations, most of them poor, that will bear the brunt of the ill-effects of climate change.
- The human population itself may continue to grow at rates that cannot be sustained, but this is not a foregone conclusion. It is highly interesting and significant that the best policy to slow population growth is to empower women: to give them political and economic independence, to increase access to literacy and wider education programmes, and let women in traditionally patriarchal societies become community leaders and the ones who guide decisions about money.
- Yesterday I travelled in England by train on a baking hot day. The interior of the train was air-conditioned, which was pleasant, but the temperature was not just cool but cold. I found myself putting on a jumper, and thought about the Bangladeshi family that will have to move a little earlier, because the flood came a little sooner, because that air conditioning unit burned up a little more energy than we really needed. Travel companies, and hotels, can take a very simple step in the right direction simply by adjusting the thermostat on their air-conditioning a little. And possibly, for some journeys, we should really dispense with air conditioning altogether and just accept that we will have to settle for a warm breeze coming through the window.
- Every time we consider long-distance travel, we ought to be asking ourselves seriously whether the journey is worth the cost to the planet and to our descendants. Could that flight be converted to a train journey? Could the journey be avoided altogether? Is it really just some sort of way to build our own prestige at work, or our international reputation? Does our scientific field (if we are in science) need to proceed at feverish speed all the time, or, for the sake of the planet, could we slow the pace a little, and cut back on air travel, and give some of our skill to thinking how we can help the needs of the planet?
- Concerning fossil fuels, chiefly oil, there is a simple slogan called “keep it in the ground”. I encourage readers to find out more about that. It is a key idea because the bottom line is, once oil is pumped up on to the surface, someone, somewhere, is going to burn it (or most of it), and the currently known oil reserves are already more than we can afford to burn. The danger is not running out of oil; the danger is that when we pump it up, it ends up damaging the planet and impoverishing us all. Or, to be precise, it enriches the lifestyle of a few for a while, and impoverishes the planet and the lives of the many in the long term.
- So why are energy companies even prospecting for oil? What are they planning to do with it when they find it? They have another option: get invested in sustainable energy. Many are at last getting serious about that.
- The effect of religious faith here (at least, the only type of religious faith that I recognize as good) is mostly to make people care about the issue enough to get involved in making things better, and also to help us connect to some of the spiritual and community resources we need. This is an area where grass-roots activism and many small actions can combine with larger acts of leadership and policy framing at national and international level. A good faith also helps us to be more grounded and basically secure in our identity, so that we don’t need the sort of feverish assertion which drives so much environmentally destructive activity. We also find in God tremendous resources of hope, and of the ability to pay attention to humble as well as loud voices. Finally, here we may hope to find the grace that will be necessary for the vast act of forgiveness that the people of the poorer nations are going to have to make towards the people of the richer nations, if our children are to get through the next fifty years in peace.
Here are a few relevant links:
- policy on climate change – The Church of England
This image is taken from http://www.csiro.au/greenhouse-gases/. It is just one example of a wide range of studies which show essentially the same fact: that carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has risen abruptly in the last hundred years, by about forty percent, and this rise is, both in size and in rapidity, well out of the range of the variations seen before the industrial era. I am not here presenting a full case, but we know enough about the atmosphere to know that this sort of change is enough to cause global climate change, and that is precisely what is also seen in a range of other indicators, such as temperature, sea ice, and so on.