A Warming World

James Garvey, Secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, examines the facts which necessitate a

The debate about the existence of human-caused climate change seems finally at an end. If you are in some doubt, have a look at the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [http://www.ipcc.ch/]. I’m happy to discuss scepticism in the comments, but for now consider just the changes apparently already underway and the prospects for us on our warming world. Brace yourself for a few numbers.

The average surface temperature of our planet has increased by about 0.7º C over the twentieth century. That might not seem like much to you, but those who know how to read the bubbles in ice cores tell us that the speed of the change is without precedent over at least the past 10,000 years. As the world heats up, a number of changes have already been set in motion. The average sea level has risen by an annual rate of 2mm since 1960, with the rate increasing to about 3mm towards the end of the century. Sea ice is thinning; permafrost is melting; glaciers are in world-wide retreat; El Nino events are becoming more frequent, persistent and intense; and on and on.

The changes to our planet are already having disastrous effects on the lives of many plants and animals. It’s not just the poster boys for climate change, polar bears and mountain gorillas, which are in danger. According to a report in Nature, anything between 15 to 37 percent of all plant and animal species could be locked into extinction by 2050 as a result of climate change. We know from the fossil record that we are now living through the 6th major extinction event in our planet’s history. The last one did in the dinosaurs.

Human beings, too, are suffering and will continue to suffer. The Red Cross argue that as of 2001 there were as many as 25 million environmental refugees, people on the move away from dry wells and failed crops. It’s larger than the number they give for people made homeless by war. One sixth of the world’s population gets its water from the melting snow and ice tricking down from mountains, a source which looks set to dry up in the years to come. Industry, agriculture and homes on coasts will be adversely affected by the rising sea.

It’s worries associated with human beings which raise moral problems for me. There is a lot of unnecessary human suffering in our future if we do not make certain choices now. Those choices ultimately depend on what we think is right, on justice, on responsibility, on what we value, on what matters to us. You cannot find that sort of thing in an ice core. You have to think your way through it. We’ll make a start on that in the next post.

James Garvey has a PhD in philosophy from University College London and is Secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. He is author of some books and articles, most recently, The Ethics of Climate Change (Continuum 2008)
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.