Climate emergency? The insects went first …

Extinction Rebellion - outside Oxford Museum of Natural HistoryOxford, 29/09/2019. Six million people in the UK could find their homes flooded regularly, land flooded by sewage could be poisoned for agricultural use, homes or infrastructure near water level (freshwater or salt) would have to be rebuilt with the assumption of regular ground-floor inundation.

These were a few of the claims made at yesterday’s Extinction Rebellion event ‘Heading for Extinction?’ at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. They are, admittedly, based on an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) worst-case scenario of a global temperature rise of 4 degrees C since pre-industrial times by 2100, compared to the 1.5 or 2 degree C rise by 2050 that is more usually talked about (https://climateactiontracker.org/global/temperatures/).

However, that 4 C increase in global temperatures by 2100, claims Extinction Rebellion (XR), will be the inevitable result if the present rate of increase in global warming continues unabated. Which is why scientists, civil society, cities and governments are declaring a climate emergency.

Even if present-day attempts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions succeed, we are already more likely to hit a 2 C increase in global temperatures than the 1.5 C target, and that half-degree increase will necessitate even more radical preparations for damage to usable land area and extreme weather events.

And, since governments around the world, not only the UK, almost never achieve their environmental improvement targets (except perhaps by after-the-date creative interpretation), discussing a 1.5 C or even a 2 C target becomes almost meaningless.

These are merely the potential consequences in the United Kingdom, in temperate Northern Europe, claim XR activists. The implications for countries such as Bangladesh, or across the desert belts of North Africa, are almost unimaginable.

Extinction – gradual or by thunderclap?

The almost-certain reality, they maintain, is that extreme climate events will be taking place more frequently and sooner than we expect. And that, therefore, governments and civil society should be preparing to deal with consequences beyond those set out in reports based on a 1.5 C or 2.0 C temperature rise.

And, they point out, the IPCC still posits a 5% risk of a 5 C increase in temperature. At this level, the world is in uncharted territory, and a common feature of mass extinctions in planet Earth’s history is unusual climatic events.

I do not myself subscribe to the thunderclap theory of humanity’s mass extinction, as in a meteorite striking planet Earth and bringing about massive climate change in one fell blow (neither do XR, to be fair). What I can imagine is a gradual but continued climate drying of the kind that has been observable by ordinary people in Europe for decades, and the consequent reduction in predictable growing seasons.

Oxford University Museum of Natural HistoryThere seems little doubt that recent human activity is responsible for much of the change. XR claims for example that more than half of the increased greenhouse-gas emissions have taken place over the last 30 years (source: The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells), that an area of forest the size of the UK is lost from the planet each year thanks to continuing deforestation, and that in less than a century, 57% of all fisheries around the globe have gone from undeveloped to overfished.

Equally, there is little doubt that civilisation will suffer from the consequences, as have human communities throughout history across Asia, Africa and the Americas. The lessons of the past are clear; diminishing resources lead to increased pressure and tensions within and between communities (be they tribal, regional or national), increasing desperation as long-accepted laws and customs fail to solve the issues, and eventually civilisation collapse as inter-community agreements break down.

Are we on the way to such a bleak future? All the signs are there. Land is drying across northern Europe and water resources are visibly diminishing, regions that once were wet and humid are so no longer. In my own neighbourhood south-east of Brussels I have witnessed the changing local climate over the last 30 years – the land is drier, insect populations have diminished or disappeared, and whole stands of some shallow-rooted trees have died (see my blog piece here).

Across present-day north Africa in particular the outlook is not good; cities are fast running out of water to drink, let alone to irrigate (see World Bank report ‘High and Dry’. The succession of wars in the region is often about control of resources, itself an indicator of increasing desperation. If northern Europe becomes drier, the Sahara belt will challenge human survival to the limit.

Yet as the speakers at yesterday’s event made clear, they are not offering prescriptive solutions. They are not saying we have to give up all flying (even if that is the kind of radical change that is necessary), they are not saying we have to give up our cars (even if such reduction would be a good thing for the climate globally), they are not even saying we have to return to pre-industrial society (as many with a climate conscience tried to do in the 1970s, and were derided as hippies by the mainstream for their trouble).

No, what they are saying is that the extent of climate change has to be recognised, that the problem is far worse already than most people realise, and that if society does not start to face it then we will go the same way as have other civilisations in human history – collapse into increasing chaos.

There is no magic solution. But we cannot continue, believe XR, down a path that satisfies narrow sectoral demands with short-term solutions. There is no point in building a 3rd Heathrow runway when we need to reduce flying. There is no point in building huge new expressways if we need to cut the numbers of cars on the road. And there is no point in concreting over more fields and meadows if what we really need is breathing space, water absorption and agricultural or fallow land.

The insects went first

In my view, one of the least understood consequences of environmental decline (which is linked to global warming) has been the disappearance of the insects. Loss of habitat, air pollution, pesticides – all have played their part. In 2017, a 27-year long population monitoring study in Germany revealed a dramatic 76% decline in flying insects across the country over the period.

So for me, one of the most powerful arguments during the day was made by a young activist, who described her grandfather telling her about life in the West Country when he was a young man.

What I remember, he told her, was the fecundity of nature, the wild animals, the birds in the fields and hedgerows, and the sheer quantity of dead insects you had to clean from your headlamps and windscreen after every journey.

I could identify with that message. Even in the 1970s in rural Oxfordshire, I remember having to stop and clean the car headlamps of insect-kill after an evening visit to a country pub. In 1976, around Lake Huron in rural Ontario, the density of insects meant that if driving at night you would have to stop and clean your visor/windscreen regularly, otherwise you would be blind. It doesn’t happen now even after long journeys – the insects have gone.

As this young woman in her twenties said, ‘I’ve never experienced those things in my lifetime, the singing of numerous birds in the hedgerows, the clouds of insects around lights at night, and probably I never will.’

© Philip Hunt, 2019.

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