The climate change debate has become shrouded in hot air. We need to step back and look at the larger picture before the global economy outgrows the globe.
Tonight marks the exciting climax of the eco-drama Burn Up, which I enjoyed watching. Despite its simple political message, the characters were complex and interesting, the acting strong and the drama unrelenting.
Aside from the unnaturally high percentage of beautiful people and the stunning scenery, a similar climate change drama has been playing itself out on Comment is Free’s own narrative threads in recent weeks. This was triggered by the emission of Ofcom’s report on Channel 4‘s climate change-denying The Great Global Warming Swindle which caused the temperature of the debate to rise alarmingly, raising concerns about CiF’s delicate ecosystem.
Personally, although I am troubled about the devastating consequences of global warming, I have found the growing fixation on climate change over the past few years worrying, because the entire debate has become sidetracked. What should have become by now a broad debate on the environment and our place in it has actually been reduced to a single issue. The whole environmental debate is being shoehorned through the funnel of global warming.
In a way, this is understandable, because people find it easier to focus on individual political issues than try to tackle the intricate complexities of reality. Environmentalists and greener politicians can scare us with stories of the coming inferno, while big business and free-wheeling politicians can assure us that in consumer heaven our actions have no consequence, and even if the temperature does rise a bit, this particular hell ain’t no bad place to be.
Meanwhile, mainstream thinking has focused on the idea that a low-carb Kyoto energy diet will save our obese societies. And, like the formula of any successful dietary programme, it acknowledges pain in one aspect of our life but promises that our broader lifestyle will remain intact.
Those unable even to contemplate cutting back, cast doubts on whether the climate is actually warming up, whether temperatures will rise as much as models project, whether it is our fault and how much responsibility we bear for it.
Of course, I don’t believe that our oil-based economies are sustainable and I think that switching to renewable energy is essential to our future. But even if our energy supply becomes predominantly renewable, will our woes end there?
By weaning us off oil, this will help avert a massive energy crisis that already appears to have begun. After all, at most we only have a few decades’ worth of petroleum left. According to a 1999 estimate by the American Petroleum Institute, the world’s oil supplies would be depleted between 2062 and 2094.
This was based on estimated proven reserves of 1.4 to 2 trillion barrels and consumption at 80 million barrels per day. As we have learnt since then, both OPEC and oil companies have had a vested interest in overstating the amount of oil that is still out there, and, already in 2005, daily oil consumption already passed the 83.5 million barrel per day mark.
The trouble is that it is not just the oil that is running out – everything is. Coal at current production levels is likely to run out within 150 years. If it is used as an oil substitute, many decades would be knocked off this projection.
Many relatively common metals, such as copper, are at risk of serious depletion, if the global economy continues its rapid upward trajectory. Even relatively abundant iron ore could disappear within six decades if demand continues to grow at 2% per year, according to Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute.
At the current rate of deforestation, all tropical forests in the world might disappear by 2090. One model even suggests that the Amazon could be no more within half a century and that more than half of Papua New Guinea’s rain forest – the third largest in the world – could disappear by 2021.
This is not just about the devastating effect on biodiversity and protecting cuddly and not-so cuddly animals, but it also means we will be facing a global food and wood shortage pretty soon, as well as the collapse of the farming land that will replace the forests, due to soil erosion and depletion.
Droughts and desertification are also threatening millions of people. The Sahara desert is growing at a rate of up to 30 miles a year; Nigeria loses hundreds of square kilometres of land to the desert annually, and as much as 80% of arid Afghanistan’s land is subject to soil erosion and desertification.
Even in more temperate Europe, droughts have dramatically increased over the past three decades – the areas affected have gone up by a fifth between 1976 and 2006. The 2003 drought affected about 100 million Europeans and southern Spain might become desert in the coming decades.
Within a couple of generations, the global economy will have outgrown the globe. Without access to other planets, exponential economic growth cannot go on indefinitely. Finite resources cannot be used to fuel infinite rises in our standards of living. One day we will hit a brick wall. Our reckless lifestyles pose some risks for ourselves and even more for future generations.
There is a desperate need to rethink our attitudes to consumerism, the disposable culture, overpopulation and the economic growth orthodoxy so as to find ways to spread the joy more equitably without necessarily committing mass suicide in the process. Humanity will probably survive our irresponsibility but our modern industrial civilisation may not, and we may become the Atlantis myth for future societies.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 25 July 2008.