The devastating impacts of climate change are already being felt. Grant Lewison FRSA argues that in making the profound changes needed, the UK could learn from the leadership and public unity shown in the Second World War.
Although we are currently busy with the Covid-19 epidemic, the problems of climate change are far more serious and leading to many deaths. Some are from too much heat (as in the Pacific North-West), some from flooding from sudden downpours (as in western Europe), and some because of snowfall and cold (as in Texas earlier this year).
Climate change is causing many thousands, and probably soon tens or hundreds of thousands, of people to try to escape from Africa and the Levant and come to Europe. And it is clear that the situation is going to become much worse, with no end in sight. As an octogenarian living in London, I used to think that I would not be much affected by all this. But my grand-daughter would very likely still be alive in 2100. The long-term predictions of a much hotter world, with higher sea level, mass emigration, and huge conflicts, would not be an academic matter for her, but one of pressing concern.
The solution to this awful problem will involve three main sets of actors. The first set is ordinary people, who are now being encouraged to make changes in their lives. These could include fewer flights for foreign holidays, small electric cars instead of Range Rovers, less meat and dairy products, and second-hand clothes from charity shops instead of the latest fashions. But such changes are only likely to be made by a few, though their numbers are growing. There are also examples of farmers re-wilding their land, showing that nature can bring back many animals, fungi, and plants if helped to do so.
The second set of actors is business and financial people. The latter sector now realises that investments in fossil fuels, and firms that depend on their plentiful supply, are not good long-term prospects. Particularly in the USA there has been disinvestment and a switch to support for renewable products and services, and new ways to provide energy. A recent example is the election to the board of Exxon Mobil of three new directors. They are committed to change, and perhaps surprisingly, actually know about the energy business. There is some external public pressure on large companies to make their operations sustainable. Some are responding to this, although it is hard for them to disengage from existing operations if they are to meet the demand from their customers.
The third set of actors is, of course, governments. Many proclaim their good intentions, but their actual policies go the other way. An example close to home is the planned expansion of Heathrow. This assumes that flights will continue to grow without limit. The basic problem is that we in rich countries need to curb our excessive consumption, which is now the main driver of greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of nature, and is very far from sustainable. However, a political party that offered the big reduction needed to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial level would hardly attract many votes, and it would be trashed by the mass media. This is because voters do not feel threatened in their ordinary lives by climate change. Perhaps my grand-daughter does, but she is not yet old enough to vote.
This might seem an impossible challenge to our (and other countries') political systems. However, there is precedent for an appropriate response. In 1939, this country was very fearful of an invasion because of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 23 August. So Parliament passed the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, with all-party support. Petrol was rationed from 1939, food from 1940, and clothes from 1941. Food rations were designed to provide a well-balanced and nutritious diet. For example, vegetables and fruit were not rationed, nor was fish, but meat, eggs and dairy products were scarce. The health of the nation was very good. One consequence was that many poor people's diet actually improved, and obesity was banished by Act of Parliament.
Is there any chance that such a coming-together of political parties could occur again? Clearly the way forward would need to be agreed by party leaders from all sides who actually believe that we are in a situation comparable to the one we faced in 1939. They would need to go all out to persuade us of its gravity. The current example of President Joe Biden Jr is encouraging, as he has put climate change at the centre of his policies and has proposed many measures to mitigate it, but even he wants to let rich people continue to enjoy their huge automobiles and second houses. If we are to have a future, and the natural world to have a chance to recover, we need visionary politicians. They will need the persuasive powers of Winston Churchill but a philosophy akin to that of Mahatma Ghandi.
Grant trained as an engineer but switched to science policy in the 1970s, serving as Scientific Assistant to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. He has worked for the European Commission in Brussels, at the Wellcome Trust in London, analysing medical research outputs and at City University, University College London. He is now at King's College London where he works mainly on cancer research publications. Since 2005 Grant has run Evaluametrics Ltd, a bibliometric consultancy firm. Grant was married for 47 years, has two children and two grand-children.
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