Leader: The burning world

In the modern era, there has never been a greater threat to humanity’s prosperity and survival than climate change. 

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Climate change was once regarded by many as a distant threat, principally a danger to future generations. But evidence accumulates every week that the crisis is unfolding with remorseless speed.

On 8 August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sounded another fire bell in the night, charting how human activity is dangerously reshaping the land itself. Deforestation and intensive farming are creating the conditions for potentially irreversible environmental breakdown.

“While the farmer holds the title to the land, actually it belongs to all the people because civilisation itself rests upon the soil,” declared Thomas Jefferson. In areas that are ploughed for farming, soil is being lost more than 100 times faster than it can be replenished and, remarkably, lost ten to 20 times faster even on fields that are not tilled. The consequent food shortages, exacerbated by severe weather such as floods, droughts and hurricanes, have the potential to create new mass migration flows and geopolitical conflicts. As Pete Smith, one of the report’s lead authors, observed: “People don’t stay and die where they are. People migrate.” Half a billion people already live in areas experiencing desertification.

Land use accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Human activity now impacts on more than 70 per cent of all ice-free land, a quarter of which has been degraded. Nature’s delicate equilibrium has been disturbed as C02 is no longer absorbed by long-lost forests. Land that could have been used to grow trees or more sustainable crops has instead been devoted to unsustainable food production.

The week before the IPCC’s study, the Met Office reported that ten of the UK’s hottest years had occurred since 2002. This reflects global trends: the 20 warmest years since records began in 1850 have occurred in the past 22 years.

Since 1950, the number of floods has increased by a factor of 15, extreme temperature events by a factor of 20 and wildfires by a factor of seven. Animal vertebrate populations have fallen by 60 per cent since 1970, with insect populations, crucial for functioning ecosystems, declining at an ever faster rate. As David Attenborough warned at last year’s UN climate change conference: “The collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

The IPCC estimated last year that the world has perhaps only a dozen years left to restrict global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Should temperatures increase by 2°C (they are currently 1°C higher), humanity’s capacity to prevent catastrophic food shortages, floods, droughts, extreme heat, poverty and mass movement of people will be severely impaired.

Yet the disparity between the scale of the threat and the global political response has only widened. Donald Trump has withdrawn the US – the world’s largest carbon polluter after China – from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change (despite the opposition of 69 per cent of US voters). Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is destroying the Amazon rainforest, “the lungs of the world”, at the fastest rate ever recorded. On 7 August, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research warned that Amazon deforestation increased by 278 per cent year-on-year in July, resulting in the destruction of 870 square miles (an area around twice the size of Los Angeles). Mr Bolsonaro’s Trumpian response was to describe his own government’s satellite data as “lies”. He said: “If all this devastation you accuse us of doing was done in the past the Amazon would have stopped existing, it would be a big desert.” It may yet become one.

China and India accept the reality of climate change and are investing in renewable energy, but global progress towards decarbonisation remains perilously slow.

The cost of climate change will fall most heavily on the world’s poorest. But no country can escape the consequences of a burning planet. In the modern era, there has never been a greater threat to humanity’s prosperity and survival.

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy