Apocalypse Then: Global Climate Catastrophe

Tribune – Labour’s left-wing weekly – 13 April 2007

Climate change is the single greatest threat to the survival of humanity. It is more dangerous than war or terrorism. Unless swift remedial action is taken, climate chaos will devastate large parts of the world. The poorest countries, with the least wealth and resources to cope, will be hit the hardest.

The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that average global temperatures are likely to rise three degrees by 2100, and possibly by as much as five degrees. The IPCC panel predicts that these changes are “extremely likely” and “almost certain”. It points out that 12 of the past 13 years have been the warmest since records began.

Climate expert, Prof Chris Rapley, Director of the British Antarctic Survey, says that melting snow-fields, glaciers and polar ice-caps mean that we can “expect to see sea levels rise at about a metre a century from now – and that will have devastating consequences.”

The first big global climate disaster is that rising temperatures will increase droughts and desertification, causing a big downturn in global agricultural production. The most productive land is likely to become marginal and the least productive land will no longer be farmable at all. This is the expected fate of large swathes of the world’s major grain-producing regions: Europe, Australia , North America, India , China and Africa . Food production will plummet. Big food exporters like Australia and the US will be badly hit, leaving many countries that are dependent on food imports unable to feed themselves. Mass global hunger is a real possibility.

The second climate catastrophe involves an increased incidence of cyclones, storms, flash floods and rising sea levels. Nearly 1,000 million people live in the river deltas of India , Pakistan , Indonesia , Vietnam , Bangladesh and China . These are the rice bowls of whole nations; being some of the most food productive regions of the world. Many of these deltas are likely to vanish under rising sea waters, causing a catastrophic drop in food production and forcing hundreds of millions of people to move inland to higher ground. Where will they settle in these already overcrowded countries? Where will their food be grown? Who will feed them? Where will they find work?

Huge mass migrations of hungry, homeless refugees – within nations and across national boundaries – are likely to dislocate whole economies and fracture entire state structures. Social support and welfare systems will be overwhelmed and unable to cope.

Large parts of the world may well descend into chaos and anarchy, as individuals, communities and whole nations fight to grab their share of the shrinking areas of unflooded land. As more territory disappears under the rising seas and floodwaters, wars over dwindling food and fresh water stocks will be matched by conflicts over diminishing supplies of accessible energy and raw materials.

Fearful of being swamped by great tides of refugees, cities and whole countries may turn themselves into fortresses to fend off the hundreds of millions of people fleeing floods and the consequent dramatic shortfalls in food and clean water supplies.

The third climate devastation looks set to happen late this century, or in the early 2100s. As forests die from drought, and as plankton are killed off by rising sea temperatures, these two important ‘carbon sinks’ will no longer be able to absorb as much carbon dioxide. Increased sea temperatures and the melting of Siberian permafrost will also release vast amounts greenhouse-producing methane (which is many times more damaging than carbon dioxide). This will rapidly escalate the global warming process; sending temperatures soaring higher than ever, causing large-scale melting of the polar ice caps and further raising sea levels – possibly by up to five metres. Vast areas of the earth’s land mass will vanish beneath the waves.

The fourth and truly apocalyptic climate change consequence is that the melting of snowfields, glaciers and polar ice caps will pour immense volumes of freezing water into the world’s oceans, killing off warm water fish species (destroying a major source of food) and, most dramatically, turning the warming of large parts of the earth into reverse. The warm currents of the Gulf Stream, which act as a giant oceanic radiator, heating Britain and the continent, will turn much colder; plunging Europe into an all-year-round Siberian-style winter. A similar effect will be experienced in the southern latitudes, as a consequence of Antarctic ice-melt.

In this deep frozen climate, most European agriculture will be impossible to sustain. Transport systems will falter. The economy will suffer badly, leading to mass unemployment. Welfare systems may be unable to cope; which could provoke desperate people to loot to survive. Lawlessness will spiral out of control.

Faced with chaos and disorder, many governments are likely to introduce draconian authoritarian counter-measures; restricting people’s movements and liberties in the name of de ali ng with the crisis. The emergence of new fascist-style fortress states is not out of the question.

With much of Europe, including the UK, experiencing a mini-ice-age, scores of millions of Europeans will be forced to seek refuge in equatorial developing countries – the only places on earth likely to spared the full effects of the Big Freeze. Then we, too, will know what is like to be a refugee.

Across the globe, tens of millions of people may starve to death. Hundreds of millions more could end up living a hungry, destitute existence. A nightmarish future, indeed.

I wish, more than anyone, that these scenarios were just the fanciful pessimism of a handful of know-nothing depressives and misanthropes. Alas, too many eminent scientists say the dangers of climate change are real and huge. Are they all mistaken and misguided? Was the damning report by senior Treasury economist, Sir Nicholas Stern, part of some elaborate government hoax? I doubt it.

As Sir Nicholas’s report made clear, Armageddon-style climate change is not inevitable. It can be prevented. But only by urgent, concerted global action.

This means all of us switching to greener lifestyles and spending patterns, and pressuring our government to make the leap to a sustainable, environmentally-friendly and equitable economic system. We need a major energy conservation programme, which could cut our energy needs by 25 per cent and create masses of new skilled jobs. Stopping climate disaster also means switching to a mix of renewable energy sources such as wind, wave, solar, geothermal and biomass. Sustainability and cooperation – not growth and competition – must become the economic mantra of the future. Over to you, Gordon Brown.