Wednesday, 10 October 2018

No 69 - Climate change: a personal reader

Dan Wylie: "Your back yard: 2170"
As I write, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is issuing yet another warning that if humans don’t get their communitarian act together, and cut fossil-fuel burning to a point which will prevent average global temperatures rising by another 1.5 degrees C, we will suffer horrendous and incalculable climate effects. Essentially, they recommend cutting CO2 production in half by 2030 – that’s in 12 years’ time.

Such warnings have been current from the broad scientific community for several decades now, and despite sundry conferences, international agreements, and many innovative technical solutions proposed and in places implemented, the overall trend on the part of governments, big business, and swathes of the general populace has been to ignore them, fail to fulfil promises, or even actively deny there’s a problem at all.

Why? Is it that fossil-fuel commercial interests are just too massive to budge? Is it that the changes are so relatively slow to accumulate that they can be brushed aside as insignificant? Or that the high variability in climate effects at the local level (weather, that is) casts too much doubt on the concept? That scientists are bad at conveying their findings in a publicly persuasive way? All of the above? I recently came upon an article in which a British Minister was quoted as admitting, “The recent rise in temperatures is caused by climate change”. Hooray, the writer crowed, at last someone in a position of authority is actually seeing the light! But it seemed to me that this formulation was wrong: it’s a bit like saying “These floods are caused by an increased volume of water upstream”. The flood is the increased volume; rises in temperature are climate change. It’s not that ‘climate change’ is somehow ‘out there’, a devilish sui generis entity or machinery which can be tackled independently of our daily lives. Perhaps the very phrase is tempting people to shelve the now pervasive advertising to cut your electricity, fuel and water consumption, and so on. 'Climate change' encompasses so vast a global system that we feel helpless in the face of ‘it’. How can I begin to change my lifestyle in a way that can have an impact, or even know what’s really best?

It’s not my aim here to engage in all the debates about causes and effects of global warming. I’m interested rather in another very fundamental question: How is it that I have come to believe that dangerous climate change is indeed under way? After all, I can’t say that I’ve detected any major changes in my own life: another drought, the jasmine blooming early this year, an apparent dip in the number of migrating swallows, more trash? The answer, of course, being of the Bookish Tribe, is that I’ve read stuff, ranging from books to science magazines to blog posts and newspaper articles. But why should I credit any of it? “Do you believe in climate change?” I am sometimes asked, as if it were some religious credo one either subscribes to or not, holus bolus. A more useful question is: “Which view or theory of climate change do you find most persuasive (or not), and why?”  This acknowledges that there is a multiplicity of arguments, and that one’s job is to level one against another and ultimately try to justify one's response. 

Where does one even begin? The literature on the subject is now vast and continuously ballooning, and my own reading is inevitably extremely spotty and probably unconsciously selective. So rather than try to present an argument, alarmist or otherwise, about something I'm a million miles from being an expert in, I’m simply going to jot down some thoughts about the readings I’ve done over the years. You might be tempted to try one or two.

Dan Wylie: "Fate of the Animals"
1. Science in the world

How can I personally “know” that CO2 production is actually climbing, or that 70% of Germany’s winged insects are gone, or anything else I can’t directly observe? Well, someone said so! In our modern techno-world, it’s very likely to be said that the most credible someone will be scientific. “The science says...” is the common phrase – again as if science is some Platonic ideal entity independent of those who practice it. It’s so much more complex than that: scientists of sundry persuasions and specialisations, all drawing on more or less limited data sets, are frequently at odds with one another. Opponents of anthropogenic climate change have used this to full advantage, since they can say, “Oh, but there are studies that show the opposite...” and happily trash something unpalatable as “bad science” though they might have no more qualifications than I have to make any such evaluation.  But this misunderstands how the core scientific community works (excluding those paid by power-lobbies to say what they're told). Because so many scientists from so many fields are involved, weak theories are usually rapidly challenged and superseded. 

What is powerful about the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report  is not just its technical density (which is already way beyond my little brain), but that it correlates the assiduous work of hundreds if not thousands of scientists’ findings, evaluating what measure of agreement or certainty does exist. Agreement is never total, especially when dealing with climate, which is intrinsically a vast, volatile, multidimensional system yielding inevitably imperfect data and therefore the likelihood of varying interpretations. This is even more so when trying to project into the future, where unpredictable effects, especially at local levels, are inevitable. So the IPCC (like most scientists) is extremely careful to accord every assertion a level of probability, ranging from virtually certain to unlikely, and careful gradations in between. As for the future, they make no simple predictions, but present alongside each other at least four different computer-generated model scenarios. Each model comes from a different source, with somewhat different data inputs, depending on what was available and what that team deemed important; therefore each produces somewhat different results or ‘predictions’. The IPCC does not oblige you accept any one of these; they are deeply, impressively cautious.  For the record, even the most pessimistic projections in the previous four 5-yearly IPCC reports have fallen short of what has actually occurred. Even the most optimistic models show that we are in profound global trouble, and unequivocally that human activity is primarily responsible. In the end, I reckon if 90% of the world’s scientists are 90% certain about something, that’s as good as it gets; you would be wise to follow their advice, rather than pinning your hopes on the 10% of dissent (which is what climate-change denialists routinely do).  Of course, you have to have a certain basic faith in the processes of science, flawed, incremental and provisional as they are. Large numbers of people, through ignorance, cultural foundations, or religious belief, accord science no credence at all, even attack it: National Geographic recently ran a cover story entitled “The War on Science”.  In sum, I think the IPCC report, even just its Introduction, is worth looking through, not for any easy answers – there are none – but to get a sense of how they have gone about their work. As a recent Dutch court ruling indicates, that work seems finally to be gaining greater traction on at least some governments’ policies. 

2. Histories of the World

If an inadequate understanding of how science functions emasculates much public debate, so too does inadequate historical knowledge. One set of anti-climate change arguments postulates non-human drivers of change (sunspots, or wobbles in the Earth’s axis, or volcanoes). What history shows, however, is not that such variables do not exist, but that human societies have historically contributed to and responded to them in different ways. All societies have been subject to climatic and environmental factors, and I’ve lumbered through a number of such “environmental histories”, starting with Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Civilizations: Culture, ambition and the transformation of nature (2001). More recently, Jared Diamond wowed the world with Collapse (2006), in which he explores why four past civilisations chose (his word) to come to a sorry end. He foregrounds the ways in which societies overextended their use of natural resources, while not excluding other factors. Though wildly popular, Diamond has been trenchantly critiqued for, among other things, ignoring social institutions, economic networks, and examples of human resilience; for blundering into disciplines in which he is inexpert; for drawing big conclusions from thin evidence; and above all for trying to apply those past cases to our present – that is, to hint that we, too, are at the point of collapse.

In fact Collapse was long pre-empted by the more solid, less selective work of Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World (1991, revised 2007). Covering similar territory is Evan Eisenberg’s more conceptual, lyrical, even visionary take on human-nature history, The Ecology of Eden (2004). A little more tightly focussed and persuasively researched, Stephen Solomon’s Water (2015) covers similar ground but shows how deeply societies are shaped by their various regimes of water management – centrally important for our future, obviously. Whatever the arguments within and around these interpretations of past human interactions with natural resources, they all show one thing: our complete dependence upon, and interfusion with, the natural environment. ‘Climate’ and ‘environment’ are not ‘over there’: they are inside our very lungs and hearts, our customs and our institutions. Perhaps most readable of all is Australian Tim Flannery’s The Weather-Makers (2005), who incorporates historical perspectives but organises his material around different biomes. (Flannery has also written terrific environmental histories of North America and, just released, Europe.)

3. The devils of human nature

Why does society seem so resistant to changing in ways that will secure the species’ long-term future? I happen to be reading Wade Davis’s magnificent book about ethnobotanical explorations in the Amazon, One River (first published in 1996). At one point in his absorbing narrative, he encounters an Amazonian native who is using dynamite to kill fish in his river. In response to a question about yields, he says: “’When we started using it, we got lots of fish. Now not so much.’ What about your children, I asked. Without the slightest sign of remorse he calmly said, ‘Oh, they won’t have any fish, but we will.’ Depressingly, maybe that’s just the way we generally are: myopically, haplessly self-serving. We live our lives as we will, or can, or feel we must, and leave the storms of the future for our grandchildren to sort out. That thought provides the title for James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren (2009). It’s rather histrionically subtitled The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, but if anyone is a true global expert in climate change, it is Hansen, a self-effacing scientist thrust into public debates and writing because he felt he had to. Since the 1980s he has testified more than once before the US Congress, to little obvious effect: he discovers that governance is a “perverse” world in which “altruistic actions become meaningless”. Storms is a heartfelt autobiographical account of his efforts to persuade government agencies to take the issue seriously. He worries about his grandchildren. And he concludes bluntly: “The picture has become clear. Our planet, with its remarkable array of life, is in imminent danger of crashing. Yet our politicians are not dashing forward. ... Therefore it is up to you.”

The problem of resistance is bigger than just one or two deluded or corrupted governments, or the natural inertia of established lifestyles: it has become core to the entire neoliberal system of globalised capitalism, which is founded on technologies themselves dependent on continuous extraction of non-renewable resources (fossil fuels and minerals), at minimal cost for maximum profit. Globalised capitalism, while it has brought humans innumerable benefits, also intrinsically constitutes a “war on nature” – and ‘development’ has often been couched in terms of warfare. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capital and the climate (2014), brilliantly unpacks the involuted cultural, ideological and economic struggles underpinning governmental and societal resistance to change, and particularly demonstrates the mind-blowingly cynical lengths to which the petrochemical industry will go in order to deny that they have anything to do with global warming or pollution-related ills.  Bottom line: free-market global capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with planetary health. Something’s got to give – and we might still have some room to choose what that change might be.

Despite the daunting odds, Klein refuses to bow to pessimism, and something of this determined optimism suffuses an earlier take, George Monbiot’s Heat (2006). Monbiot was initially vilified for his views, but he has been proven right more often than not, and now amongst other things writes an energetic column for the Guardian.   Heat is unabashedly argumentative, laying out the parameters of climate change in ways that are numbingly familiar and now scientifically irrefutable. He is an excellent and fearless researcher, is winningly able to admit his own past errors of judgement, and has a gift for putting things into provocative new perspectives:

The problem is compounded by the fact that the connection between cause and effect seems so improbable. By turning on the lights, filling the kettle, taking the children to school, driving to the shops, we are condemning other people to death. We never chose to do this. We do not see ourselves as killers. We perform these actions without passion or intent.
            Many of those things we have understood to be good – even morally necessary – must also now be seen as bad. Perhaps the most intractable cause of global warming is ‘love miles’: the distance you must travel to visit friends and partners and relatives on the other side of the planet. The world could be destroyed by love.

Disputable, but thought-provoking. What’s hopeful is that much of Heat is about solutions – in architecture, in transport, in power generation. Monbiot is clear-eyed about the obstacles, sceptical about the potential of renewable energy sources, and eminently pragmatic. Whether or not you think his ideas are viable, at least he is thinking about what we can actually do without all devolving into a version of quasi-mediaeval poverty.  

4. South Africa’s climate change

A goodly number of writers have written books on our own region’s environmental condition, notably sociologist Jacklyn Cock's The War Against Ourselves: Nature, power and justice (2007). Two books of even heftier and more scholarly nature are Patrick Bond’s Unsustainable South Africa (2002), and David Hallowes’ Toxic Futures: South Africa in the crises of energy, the environment and capital (2011). Both these studies show in uncompromising detail how the South African economy is intimately tied into global capital and highly pollutive extractive industries, with great short-term benefits for some, but with horrendous damage to environmental health, and following the global tendency to concentrate wealth in ways that increase inequality, not solve it. (And this well before the Gupta state capture’ scandal.) Hallowes is drawing on two decades of reports by GroundWork, an independent environmental research group, and reveals a literally toxic relationship between corporations, pollution, power generation, governmental dereliction of legal duties, and rampant profiteering. I suppose Bond and Hallowes are both classifiable as ‘left’-leaning, but I’ve yet to see any comparably detailed and persuasive defence of our industrial trajectory that rises much above the mantra of ‘providing jobs’ and ‘making a profit’, or that adequately addresses modernity’s trick of 'externalising’ its true costs on destruction of both the environment and the livelihoods of the poor. This externalisation - characterised as ‘progress’, ‘growth’ and ‘development’ - in fact employs a creepingly incremental “slow violence”. South African, now US-based academic Rob Nixon’s multi-award winning book, Slow Violence and the environmentalism of the poor (2013), is now a key text for almost anyone working in the field of environmental justice  and ecocriticism – a work of scary brilliance.

By far the most approachable South African book on climate change that I’ve read is Leonie Joubert’s Scorched: South Africa’s changing climate (2006). It’s a chatty but informative work aimed at a general audience, enlivened with illustrations and often amusing anecdotes about Joubert's own researches. She can be charmingly self-deprecating (“It was not my finest moment...” she begins one chapter). This style might annoy some purist scientists, but it’s part of Joubert’s strategy for bringing global warming down out of the stratosphere of economic theory, tables of figures, and the abstruse languages of policy, and into the realm of the immediate and observable. She has a particular gift for revelling in the existence of a particular frog, or the astonishing symbiosis between an ant and a rare butterfly, the fynbos biome’s relationship to fire or the distribution of the quiver tree – and then showing how their existence is being affected by global warming. She travels from the lobsters of the West Coast to the coral reefs of the east; though her focus is on non-human creatures, she also has a chapter on “Food for the human animal” (dealt with more fully in another book), as well as some closing thoughts on the IPCC projections of the time. For the South African general reader, definitely the first port of call.
            South African novelists are also starting to incorporate climate change into futuristic narratives (including my own The Wisdom of Adders). I’d like to leave the final word to the protagonist of Patricia Schonstein’s novella The Master’s Ruse, a passage concerning the fate – and retaliation –  of our oceans, which we all share and depend upon, but deplete and pollute.

Dan Wylie: "Cityscape, 2170"
[A] messianic force ... to redeem the earth from human dominion... used the oceans. It made use of that mass of dead, black water and all the rubbish and filth that burdened it. Cataclysmic shifting of tectonic plates created tsunamis, which slammed the shorelines, tossing dolosse aside and pouring through coastal cities and town. They engulfed skyscrapers and highways, drowning their human prey in the very oils and solvents that had brought about oceanic demise.

I don’t know about a “messianic” force, but these events are already happening. If we are not to fulfil this imagining, what are we to do?


1 comment:

  1. Thanks Dan! It is always both a pleasure and an education reading your posts.