The world does not end in 2100

Why is there so little engagement with the concept of historic legacy when it comes to climate change?

10 Jan 2014, 00:05

Back when I was an English Literature undergraduate (I know, I am yet another under-qualified humanities student writing about science and technology; I am part of the problem, I get it) I spent about six months completing a course on African-American literature. It was one of those courses that would give Niall Ferguson palpitations: the primary focus, beyond familiarising students with some amazing and criminally neglected literature, was on the manner in which African-American cultural products, from Frederick Douglass to Jay-Z, were informed by the economic and political context in which they were produced.

As such the course explored numerous texts that highlighted two underappreciated, yet incontestable, realities. The first was the manner in which the horrors of slavery were experienced, albeit in searingly different ways, by all Americans, and by extension the whole world. The brutal system of slavery - as powerfully demonstrated in Solomon Northup's testimony, the memoir that provides the basis for Steve McQueen's soon to be released 12 Year's a Slave - provided the foundations for American and European economic growth and was interwoven into every aspect of existence at the time, however opaque the links may at times have appeared. It is a fact oft-highlighted by the analysis of how Bristol's 18th and 19th century success was based on plantation wealth or the observations about the number of US presidents who owned slaves. But a reading of both the canonical and neglected literature from the period serves to emphasise the all-encompassing nature of this appalling system in a way historical documents often struggle to do so.

The second reality was the way in which events from the 17th, 18th and 19th century have swept through history and generations in a way that is still painfully evident today. When you think about it, it is almost perverse that discussions about US inequality so rarely acknowledge that we are only a handful of generations on from emancipation proclamation of 1863. So many of the socio-economic challenges faced by the US, not to mention Africa and Europe, have their roots in that benighted, dehumanising system of exploitation and brutality - this fact is so self-evident that it is bizarre that it needs mentioning and yet the topic is barely mentioned in modern political and economic debates. Equally, countless cultural texts and the tropes they explore have been and are still being informed by this history, with patterns, techniques, and genres echoing through the ages. There are numerous examples, but perhaps the most well-known is the manner in which spirituals informed blues and jazz, which have in turn gave us hip-hop, before it came to shape all modern pop music.

I distinctly recall our lecturer at the time highlighting the historic proximity of slavery by demonstrating how the great grandparents, and perhaps even grandparents, of the grandparents of our almost universally white English Literature class would almost certainly have worn cotton picked by slaves. Someone born in 1920 and alive today may well have known elderly relatives born in the 1850s who either directly or indirectly experienced US slavery.

The reason I've been thinking a lot about a lecture theatre from 10 years ago is that the past few months has seen the climate change debate informed by what I regard as a highly dubious fixation on short term concerns - and by short term I mean up to 2100.

A lot has been written in the past about the tactical and strategic lessons environmentalists can learn from successful campaigns for socio-economic transformation, such as emancipation, universal suffrage, and civil rights. But what these analyses often fail to emphasise is the way in which the success or failure of these campaigns is felt decades and centuries later.

Just to be absolutely clear I am categorically not arguing that there is an equivalence between the current carbon reliant economic system and the economic systems underpinned by slavery, sexual discrimination, or apartheid. Environmentalists can learn a lot from previous economic transitions and humanitarian campaigns, just as they can learn a lot from the industrial mobilisation achieved during the war years, but the parallels are not exact. Decarbonisation is not the same as ending slavery, just as it is not the same as mobilising for war, despite the tendency of some environmentalists to equate the green economy with these historic events.

However, there are similarities in the way that the implications of historic industrial, economic, legal, and political revolutions are measured using timescales that run into decades and centuries, not just the next quarter or the next political cycle.

When it comes to climate change, this historical perspective is hugely important and oft-ignored. The vast majority of climate models run through to 2100 and warn that we face hugely damaging warming of between 4-6C unless urgent action is taken to curb global emissions with almost immediate effect. Throw in the "known unknowns" that could materialise in the form of runaway climate change trigger points and the last few decades of this century could end up looking extremely bleak. But the world will not end in 2100. Unless we get a handle on climate change in the next few decades we risk bequeathing the next century environmental challenges so great they will make our current problems look like the Garden of Eden. The relatively few projections that have been done for the 22nd Century based on business as normal emissions suggest that climate change and ocean acidification could leave generations just a few decades hence with a biosphere only science fiction directors would recognise.

Does any of this matter? None of us will be around to see it and we all know that economists discount future generations. Besides, some of the short term impacts of climate change may actually benefit us, as everyone's favourite climate contrarians keep arguing.

Well, I'd argue it does matter. It really matters.

First, some of us will see it. As I've argued before, if I live as long as my eldest grandfather I will see the 2070s. A child born today, and you'll probably each have your own young relative to think of here, has a good chance of seeing the turn of the century. The future is unknowable, but it is generationally true that many of the grandchildren of my coevals will be able to remember us in 2150. In this context, I'm not sure how much the precise year that we get an ice free Arctic Sea matters if scientific projections are right and it is a likely occurence at some point in the decades hence.

Writing about HS2 recently, Times columnist Matthew Parris expressed his bemusement of the attitude of those in late middle age who dismiss the project on the grounds that they will never be able to ride on it, as if there is no merit in infrastructure that will benefit future generations. As the famous Ancient Greek proverb goes: "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never see". Exactly the same argument stands as one of the primary reasons why urgent action to tackle climate change is not just economically sensible, but morally essential.

This is one of the main reasons I find those arguments that accept manmade climate change is happening, but insist we should relax because some climate impacts may benefit us, because we are uncertain about the precise nature of the impacts, or because a silver bullet technology will make it easier to combat in the future so flawed. Not only are they guilty of blatant cherry-picking from climate models to support their case, but they operate on the reckless assumption that in just a few decades time we will somehow solve this problem and we need not worry about it too much in the meantime. We are being asked to play Russian Roulette and the point at which we get to pull the trigger isn't even that far away. Even if the suggestion climate change benefits outweigh costs through to the 2060s is valid - and there are plenty of scientists and economists who argue that it is not in any way valid - many of us will still be alive in 2070. I'm not sure about anyone else, but I don't really want to live through the results of an experiment on the biosphere during my last few years on this mortal coil.

Of course, advocates of this relaxed approach to climate change would argue that something will turn up to address the problem and in the meantime the current generation must take primacy and we must do all we can to help poor and vulnerable communities now, including by giving them access to low cost dirty power. There is some genuine merit in this argument, but it rather ignores the fact many of these communities are already being impacted by climate change, they would prefer cost effective clean power (a reality in many parts of the world) over dirty power, and regardless of short term concerns absolutely no one will thank our generation if the worst case climate scenarios prove even halfway accurate. Moreover, simply hoping that the technology fairy will save us is the very height of recklessness when the stakes are so high.

Does this matter to businesses, particularly when they face such intense short term challenges? Well, it matters to those businesses that have been around for decades and want to be around in decades hence. There are many great corporate institutions that were founded during the last industrial revolution and want to prosper during the next industrial revolution. There are even some that played a role in either prolonging or challenging slavery, much as they may like to now forget that part of their history. Virtually all businesses will want to still be around in the 22nd century. Moreover, any political or business leader who puts any truck in the concept of legacy - and don't they all? - must realise that where they stand on climate change has the potential to echo through the ages.

There are numerous short to medium term reasons why the world should mobilise urgently to build a low carbon economy. BusinessGreen reports on them every day and they include, but are not limited to, the need to minimise the climate impacts we will experience in the next few decades, the health benefits associated with cleaner air, water and soil, the economic benefits associated with resource efficiency, energy efficiency, and less volatile energy sources, the commercial gains that will come from new green technologies, and the humanitarian benefits that could be realised through a more sustainable agricultural system and better fisheries management. But there is also a compelling long term reason for action that can best be articulated by a simple question: How do you want the students of the 2150s to remember us?

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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