Can we stop Climate Change?
In Green Angel Syndicate, we are working with the express purpose of fighting climate change. We are working every day with the problem of reducing carbon emissions, of lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Yet, in the four years since we really started doing this seriously and in the eight years since we founded GAS as an experiment in the early days, no-one has asked, can we really stop climate change?
Earlier this month, Sir David Attenborough released the latest documentary in his remarkable career. Called Breaking Boundaries, it shows how far we have travelled down the path of destruction towards the point where disastrous climate change is inevitable. We have brought the Holocene era to an end after more than 10,000 years, during which the climate on the planet has been stable, consistent and predictable. The climate has facilitated human life, and the plant and animal life on which human life has depended, not just for the resources humanity has required, but also for the continued maintenance of the stable, consistent and predictable weather patterns that allow us to plan our economies.
Breaking Boundaries shows how we have been the agents of the end of the Holocene period, and ushered in the Anthropocene, the geological era in which human actions have created a new geological age on the planet. This new era has already been characterised by changes in the underlying conditions required to sustain life. We saw horrifying images of the symptoms: forests in the outback reduced to lifeless burnt skeletons, a woman grieving over her lost years of studying the bird life in the region and another scientist weeping over the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, caused by ocean acidification due to the irrevocable alteration in the carbon balance in the ocean itself.
We are seeing the galloping extinction of entire species and the desertification of previously thriving areas of the planet, due to the destabilisation we have caused. The root cause is simple to explain. Climate conditions are a result of a combination of factors – ocean currents, prevailing winds, moisture and humidity, precipitation – at the centre of which is temperature. We can see how temperature variations change from different parts of the world and cause different climates in each.
Overall, the temperature of the planet is governed by the warmth of the Sun’s rays, and the extent to which this warmth is captured by the Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth, alone among the planets, has developed an atmospheric layer capable of filtering the Sun’s heat as it approaches, so that the planet is not too hot for life. It also traps a proportion of the heat after the rays have been reflected back into space, so that the planet is not too cold for life. Hence Earth’s unique climate, which in turn has the life-creating and life-bearing properties that give rise to our existence. And, until now, its comparative consistency over more than 10,000 years.
Carbon dioxide is one of the components of the atmosphere that gives it this unique filtering and capturing capability. You would not imagine it to be terribly important. Throughout the history of the human race, it has never risen above an apparently insignificant 300 particles per million in the atmosphere. However, in charting the carbon content of the atmosphere, and correlating it with the variations in temperature throughout the history of the planet, the scientists have established a direct relationship. Carbon dioxide content fluctuates directly with temperature variations. In the 20th century, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the amounts of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere caused the level to rise above 300 ppm for the first time in the history of the human race. In the 21st century, it has risen above 400 ppm. It now stands at 420 ppm. At the same time, we have seen temperatures on Earth rising. We are already coming close to an overall level of 1.5 degrees above pre-Industrial Revolution levels. It is certain we will pass this dangerous threshold. The ominous and enormously threatening 2 degree rise is the next milestone on the journey towards self-destruction.
So can we stop Climate Change? In Breaking Boundaries, the answer given is Yes. But the message is No. The programme lasts 75 minutes. The vast majority of the time is spent showing how we have passed irreversible tipping points (their term precisely) beyond which fatal climate change is inevitable. It spends a few minutes at the end saying that we can still put all of this right. But how? The programme is not long enough to do anything other than give headlines – stop burning fossil fuels, change our diets, transform our heating systems – which carry no more weight than campaign slogans.
Breaking Boundaries seems to give minimal hope. It provides the stamp of authority on the long list of commentators prophesying doom, from James Lovelock and his Gaia theory, which first saw the light of day in the 1960s, to John Gray and his groundbreaking approach to philosophy and the meaning of life in Straw Dogs in 2002. The human race is just another species which has outgrown the carrying capacity of Earth, and will be obliterated as a result. The climate will change, and those life forms which can adapt to the changing conditions will survive. New life forms will emerge, but the beneficiaries of the Holocene period will largely die out.
Yet we heard another voice in Green Angel Syndicate within a week of the release of Breaking Boundaries. Duncan Grossart talked to us about his work in connection with Rewilding, which you can see here. He showed how projects which apply principles of natural freedom, unconstrained by human control, sometimes with interventions that restore previous species to the area, especially apex predators, are successful in restoring ecosystems that we know characterised the planet before we started to interfere with it. These are the ecosystems that were developed over the 10,000 year consistent, continuous climate that prevailed during the Holocene period, the ecosystems on which human life depends.
This is a practical intervention that works. At Green Angel Syndicate, we ask the same question of ourselves. We are setting out to support practical interventions that work. But how? They use the same principle as Rewilding, in that we require entire system change. But we are working mostly with different types of system, types that are man-made rather than natural, the systems that enable our economic life rather than our natural life. These can be broken down by sector, but all are driven by production systems that provide the goods and services communities and families seek to access, in order to support their own lives.
So now we can define the problem more precisely. We are not able to approach this as we approach Rewilding. Rewilding is based on the knowledge that a previous system existed which worked, and that we need to do our utmost to restore the system by which the natural life of the planet thrived. The template exists. But every sector of the human economy is based on a system which is new, has taken some 100 years, sometimes more, sometimes less, to develop, and has developed largely where nothing at all existed previously.
The most contentious example of this might be farming, where it might be argued that farming practices have been undertaken for millennia without harming the environment. While this is true, it is also true that Industrial Farming is no more than 150 years old, and it brought introductions and innovations that were nothing like previous practice. It has been completely new, and, with the pollution of chemicals in fertilisers, the creation of enormous monocultures, the elimination of biodiversity, Industrial Farming has been both new, and intensely destructive. It, along with the systems in every other sector of the economy, was a product of the Industrial Revolution, and, at its core, the use of hydrocarbon sources of energy to do more, quicker, larger, faster and cheaper.
Here is our problem then. How do we change an entire system, while nevertheless still making it possible for the global community to access the products and services it needs to sustain life?
Our answer is this: we can. And in doing so, we can stop Climate Change.
Let me explain how. It requires attention to the smallest detail, in order to make incremental changes that integrate with one another to enable complete system change. It will work if we don’t worry about the whole, but concentrate on the parts.
Let me illustrate this with an example. How do we engage with Renewable Energy? Yes, we are interested in renewable energy. We are interested in different types of Renewable Energy, like wind energy, for example. We are interested in different types of Wind Energy, like Offshore Wind Energy. We are interested in different aspects of Offshore Wind Energy, like the turbines. We are interested in the different challenges respecting the turbines, like maintenance. But we are not just interested, we are actually working on an innovation that provides underwater scanning of the cable connections which enables more reliable, cheaper and more efficient examination and maintenance of the cables.
In other words, it’s not the sector, it’s not the infrastructure, it’s not the installation, it’s not the process that we are interested in, it’s the detailed operations that all have to work together if the transition to new systems is to be achieved. We are trying to replace hydrocarbon dependent systems that developed over a span of more than 150 years in every industrialised sector. We are trying to do it in less than 15 years. But we can, if we all bring this kind of attention to detail with a vigour, determination and collaboration in which we are all working together to the common goal – stopping climate change.