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Hi this is Anthony Day, it’s Friday 15th March, this is the Sustainable Futures Report and today I’m thinking aloud.
Listen up - it’s urgent - we’ve got to do something about the environment.
You’ve got a business to run or a job to go to or maybe you’re desperate to find a job and all this takes time. You’ve got a family to feed, a mortgage to pay and all those bills which seem to pop up every month but still take you by surprise. You haven’t got time and anyway what more can you do? You’re already recycling, refusing plastic bags, avoiding plastic bottles and have you really got to think about being a vegetarian or even a vegan?
You may be a vegetarian, but I like meat.
Anyway, whatever you do, you don’t get any thanks for it, and it doesn’t seem to have much effect - and shouldn’t the government be doing more? And then there are these Extinction Rebellion people blocking the traffic. Have you heard about them? They want to make the point that the environment is important. Yes, I know that. They are going to make me late and they won’t change my mind - I already want to save the planet. Is there anyone here who doesn’t want to save the planet? who doesn’t want their children to have a sustainable future? This is not helping.
That’s the climate message dilemma.
Actually, a dilemma implies two choices. There are many more issues than just two. Or are there?
Could we be in danger of confusing a whole range of environmental issues and getting our priorities wrong?
We are bombarded with environmental messages from all directions. What's important? What should we do first?
Should we aim at reducing plastic pollution or should we stop eating products that contain palm oil and protect the rainforest - is it the rainforest? Should we try and do something about poor air quality? We could stop driving diesel cars. That doesn’t help if you’ve already got a diesel car and you’ve got dozens more monthly payments to make.
Or should we be doing something about climate change? Can we do anything about climate change?
What is climate change anyway, and why is it a problem?
I think it’s by far the most serious problem, but let’s step back first and define what it exactly is.
Do you remember global warming and the greenhouse effect? Anything to warm up the average English summer sounds a good idea, but it’s not as simple as that.
If you remember, what happens is that the sun shines down onto the Earth and quite a lot of heat is absorbed but most of it just bounces off and is reflected back into space. Unlike the moon, Earth has an atmosphere and up in the atmosphere is a layer of greenhouse gasses. They are called greenhouse gasses because that's exactly how they operate, just like the panes of glass in a greenhouse. As heat radiates out from the warmed Earth some of it is reflected back by the greenhouse gas layer. If we didn't have this layer all the heat would escape into space and the Earth would freeze. But, if the greenhouse gas layer gets too thick it traps too much heat and the earth becomes unbearably warm. The glaciers and the polar icecaps melt and sea level rises.
But don't think so much just about heat.
Think about it as energy. It's that energy which drives the winds and the waves, the storms and the squalls, and as more energy is trapped the storms become more violent and the rains become heavier. We see floods and mudslides, crops spoiling in waterlogged fields, roads and railways washed away, houses uninhabitable. In some places people are finding that whatever was flushed down the toilet, rising flood waters bring it back up. Whole countries become waterlogged leading to disease and ironically to scarcity of drinking water. So far only small countries are affected - the Maldives, for example, with a population of less than 450,000 - but as the sea levels rise, and rise permanently, tens of millions of people will be driven from their lands and become refugees. The tide of climate refugees will dwarf the numbers currently on the move because of war.
Well-meaning people put up notices in comfortable middle-class suburbia: “Refugees welcome here,” but they have no idea of the scale of the growing problem and no means of dealing with it. Governments need to work together to help these people. Governments need to plan together. Surely everyone has the right to life and the right to some help to recover from the loss of their homes and their livelihoods through no fault of their own. Some are already seeking legal compensation from those industrial nations whose pollution has caused the disaster.
Last year’s IPCC report suggested that if we do nothing now we’ll reach a tipping point and runaway climate change around 2030. You and I will almost certainly still be around then - it affects us both.
Why a tipping point? It’s to do with self-reinforcing feedback loops. The Arctic icecap is floating on the ocean. As the ice melts in summer the Earth’s albedo, or the way it absorbs heat, changes. Snow and ice reflect the sun’s rays, but as they disappear the dark seas beneath them absorb the heat. When winter comes it takes longer to form ice on the warmer ocean and the weaker ice melts more readily in the following spring. More heat is absorbed in summer. Less ice is formed next winter, and so it goes on. As oceans absorb the heat, warm water expands making sea levels rise. Sea levels are currently rising at 3.2mm per year according to Wikipedia and NASA and this rate is expected to accelerate. SkepticalScience.com agrees and also demolishes several claims denying the evidence.
3.2mm doesn’t sound very much - it’s about the thickness of the cable you use to charge your smartphone - but that’s 3.2mm per year and at that rate sea levels have risen 32 centimetres or more than a foot in the last century. A new layer of water over the expanse of the ocean means millions of tonnes more water can be swept up in storm surges in an environment already charged with more energy.
Warmer air holds more water vapour than colder air, so there will be fewer clouds. Clouds are crucial to global warming because they both shade the earth and reflect the sun’s rays back into space. Fewer clouds, more warming. More warming, fewer clouds.
All this affects us both. We both need to do something.
What can we do?
School children are going on strike.
Youth Strike for Climate
Today, 15th February, young people in 49 cities across the UK will walk out of school to protest about government inaction over climate change. The movement was inspired by Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish girl who launched a solitary protest outside the Swedish parliament in the run-up to their elections. She went on to address business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, telling them, “I want you to panic”
You may have seen much the same message from Sir David Attenborough, also at Davos. You can find it on Youtube.
The UK movement is demanding the Government declares a climate emergency, reforms the national curriculum, and takes steps to communicate the severity of the crisis.
When the IPCC published that report on the threats from climate change at the end of last year it was widely reported as saying that we had only 12 years to take action. What it actually said was that if we don’t take immediate action we risk reaching a catastrophic tipping point in 2030. That was 12 years after the date of the report. It’s only 11 years now.
We need to do something. We need to do it now.
What can we do?
We need to get energy under control.
Energy to drive your car, Energy to heat your home Energy to run the lights and the computers and the television and the dishwasher and the washing machine and the cooker. And by the way supplying clean water to your home takes quite a lot of energy too.
Climate change is caused by an ever-denser greenhouse gas layer. The principal greenhouse gas is CO2. We put CO2 into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels in our cars and our power stations and burning gas and oil to heat our homes.
What can we do?
Transport and travel
We can use our cars less, although that really depends on government providing alternatives like reliable public transport. If you saw this week’s Channel 4 Dispatches you’ll know that that’s not a government priority at present. When you change your car buy a cleaner, more efficient one. You can still get the space and performance you need and save money on fuel as well. Consider an electric car - although if you listened last week you’ll know that they’re not yet right for everyone.
Avoid long-haul holidays. I say that with a heavy heart, a guilty conscience and a family in Australia. I expect to be paying very much more for that sort of travel before long.
What about heating your home, your workplace, your office?
Britain has some of the leakiest homes in Europe and 34% of the gas used in the UK is used for heating. New materials mean it’s now possible to insulate almost any property regardless of age. In some cases it’s possible to save as much as 90% of heating bills. Realistically, 50% is not unreasonable. Would you like to cut your bills in half? Saves you money and cuts the nation’s carbon footprint. I’m planning a Sustainable Futures Report about insulating existing homes for later in the year. Eventually there will be case studies and videos.
And of course cutting your energy bill in the workplace will save you money. If you’re responsible for a heat-intensive industrial process you should find ways of making use of the waste heat. Although, to be fair, if you’re in that sort of industry you’ve probably been managing your energy for years.
It’s a Gas
The second most common greenhouse gas is methane. There's less of it than CO2, but it traps about 20 times as much heat. Methane is produced naturally from decomposing vegetation and organic matter and from melting permafrost. Much methane is trapped beneath lakes and oceans in a crystalline form, but as they heat up, methane bubbles to the surface. Very significant amounts of methane are exhaled by livestock – cattle and sheep. As long as we farm animals for meat we are adding to greenhouse gas emissions. We may not all go totally vegetarian but if we eat meat less frequently we will go some way to reducing our impact on the planet.
Cheer Up! It’s only a Book
There's a new book out next Tuesday called The Uninhabitable Earth: a Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells. It may be a dystopian view, it maybe an exaggeration but some of the things that he's talking about are not out of line with climate change predictions. Those are the pessimistic predictions the media seems to ignore. For example, he talks about the consequences of sea level rise and how New York will build a barrier around Manhattan to keep the waters out and away from all those expensive properties. At the same time he says that the city is spending less on refurbishment and repairs of the infrastructure in areas like South Brooklyn and Queens because they already recognise that these areas will become flooded and uninhabitable in the not-too-distant future.
Here’s what it says on the cover:
“It is worse, much worse, than you think.
The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn't happening at all, and if your anxiety about it is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.
Over the past decades, the term "Anthropocene" has climbed into the popular imagination - a name given to the geologic era we live in now, one defined by human intervention in the life of the planet. But however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us.
In the meantime, it will remake us, transforming every aspect of the way we live-the planet no longer nurturing a dream of abundance, but a living nightmare.”
Sounds like the sort of stuff which will just make people close their minds and go away.
I still think I ought to read it.
Read more at: https://inews.co.uk/news/environment/youth-strike-4-climate-why-thousands-of-children-will-miss-school-on-15-february-to-protest-climate-change/
Climate change is the deadliest legacy we will leave the young
Managing the Message
Academic Susanne C Moser has identified the challenges that communicators face in trying to convey the climate change message:
- invisibility of causes,
- distant impacts,
- lack of immediacy and direct experience of the impacts,
- lack of gratification for taking mitigative actions,
- disbelief in human’s global influence,
- complexity and uncertainty,
- inadequate signals indicating the need for change,
- perceptual limits and
Certainly not simple.
I think one of the most serious problems in promoting the message is drawing the line between complacency, based on over-optimistic expectations, and exaggerated warnings which just make people close their minds and go away.
David Attenborough said that what we do now will have consequences for the planet for thousands of years to come. It’s a message that I want to share with everyone, along with the message that we can achieve most of the changes we need not by wearing sackcloth and living in a cave, but by doing things differently and preserving our standard of living. We won’t achieve it by doing nothing and waiting to see what happens.
I believe that a sustainable future is possible.
That’s why I do this podcast. It doesn’t make me rich. It doesn’t make me famous. Mind you, I’d settle for famous if it helps get the message across.
I’m Anthony Day
This has been the Sustainable Futures Report.
The next one will be on the 1st March.
Spread the Word
Meantime spread the word. Let’s do all we can to make the future sustainable. For ourselves, for our children and for their children too.