I have spent most of my life living with the assumption that, despite various objections to our political leadership, if some impending doom was approaching, some catastrophic disaster, the people who run this country would make sure we were all aware of it at the very least. Climate change has put this misplaced assumption to rest.
This naïve trust in institutions of government and law to, on average, ensure the prevention of major cataclysmic events is probably a product of those same institutions being run by people who look and sound like me. It is also, I suspect, a result of inheriting the general sense of optimism that characterised our parent’s generation. The end of the cold war, the apparent victory of social democracy, of regulated capitalism embedding a conviction that the trajectory of history is upwards and wedded to the forward march of progress.
Alternatively, people our age have grown up with the shadow of the Iraq invasion and its political legacy, the Financial Crash and the stagnant wages and living conditions that followed, the resurgence of populist nativism in Brexit and Trump and most importantly climate change. We have become accustomed to a pessimism entirely informed by our circumstance. As David Wallace-Wells notes in the Uninhabitable Earth, over half the carbon emitted to the earth’s atmosphere has been done so in the last 25 years. 85% since the Second World War.
Therefore, we are aware that the irreversible, for plenty of it now is irreversible, damage that is being done to our one and only world has been done with the risks knowingly understood, yet ignored. The consequences of this dereliction of duty constitute a failure of political leadership so dramatic and unprecedented that no one quite believes it is real.
The effects of climate change will have real and terrifying consequences in all of our life- times. A Met Office report shows that already the 21st century has been warmer than the past 3 centuries. At 1.5* warming above pre-industrial levels – the very, very best-case scenario – we will still see a significant worsening of our current climate condition. More wildfires, more floods, more droughts, more disease, more mass migration and more climate deaths. That is the outcome we should all be praying for.
At 2*, the irreversible melting of the polar ice caps intensifies. The melting of permafrost will release 1.8 trillion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, more than double the quantity at the moment. Cities like Miami and Bangladesh will be underwater by the end of the century. The UN estimates the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming would be 150 million more deaths by air pollution alone. At the most conservative estimates there would be 200 million climate refugees needing new places to live by 2050. That is at 2*. At the current level of carbon emission, we are on course for 4.5*.
It goes on and on. The impact of even higher degrees of warming, made all the more likely by Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and Jair Bolsonaro’s climate change denial, will result in even greater levels of human and ecological catastrophe. Huge swathes of the earth will be simply too hot to live in, natural disasters will cause damage so extensive the money needed to even begin repairs will bankrupt entire nations. At 8* of warming, unlikely but possible, the direct action group Extinction Rebellion’s ominous name becomes all the more poignant.
These descriptions are only scratching the surface of the chaos that will most likely be unleashed whilst we grow up in the world our parents have left us. Young people are taking a stand, striking across the world, and defying the dangerous idiocy of climate deniers and Toby Young’s advice to do something more constructive and do a big London litter pick-up. Extinction Rebellion have on the 15th of April begun their daily protests, employing direct action until the government meets their three demands of recognition of the climate emergency, zero-carbon emissions by 2025 and a citizen’s assembly to take control of the response to environmental disaster.
What we all know is required is big, international, structural changes to how we produce energy, how we measure an economy’s output, how we travel and what degree of material living conditions we must come to expect. This type of fundamental change requires a level of political will and leadership that is quite simply not there. It is our generation’s responsibility to tackle this impending apocalypse, as the previous few have so far fallen short at nearly every stop.