Climate change and the global economy



In the time available I must be more categoric and dogmatic than I usually am, which might be corrected on further debate. For example, I accept the phenomenon of global warming and that it is, in considerable part, the result of human activities. I accept that an ideal would be a non-carbon-burning future. I believe that the world cannot accept the present inequalities between nations regarding standards of personal development and standards of living. In my own limited worlds of water and waste, I have seen the dreadful effects on people that lack of easy and economic access to potable water and efficient sewerage systems can have.

It is easy to describe the condition of our present world and we can with varying degrees of uncertainty construct some ideal future world – if we can agree on what cultural paradigm it should be founded. The challenges are getting from the present to that chosen future. How long will it take? How long have we got? By which route should we travel? How much energy will the journey require and how is it to be supplied?

In considering these matters, I have been greatly influenced by the works of two people. First, by Lord Blake (1984), who analysed what he termed ‘the tyranny of democracy’ and, second, by Professor John Roberts (1985), who described ‘the triumph of the west’. Lord Blake warned that, although democracy was perhaps the best political framework available, it had its weaknesses. Lord Hailsham named the major weakness ‘elective dictatorship’. It is not easy to be a minority when the majority always has its way, e.g. in Northern Ireland, parts of the Middle East, Central Africa, and perhaps within the British legislative and planning systems. It is this inequality that has led to the creation of a Human Rights Convention to protect minorities. Human Rights are one thing, but what rights do trees and birds have? Or a fragile coastline? I shall return to that issue in a moment. For his part, Professor Roberts postulated that the ideologies and lifestyles of the West (i.e. Europe and latterly the USA) are being adopted worldwide; adopted even when the historical cultures are very different.

When the two philosophies are combined, i.e. democracy and westernization, then a future is foreshadowed that needs to be approached with caution. It will, for example, demand high and constant levels of energy input. I know from experience in the water industry that adopting standards such as those in the Urban Waste Water Directive has boosted energy requirements considerably (c. 20%) – and that is but a tiny example of what will be a worldwide feature. A sustainable future cannot be built on low or unreliable energy levels. Thus we must pursue energy efficiency and new sources of energy as a matter of urgency. There is a global mismatch between the distribution of resources such as water, food and energy and the distribution and needs of populations (e.g. in Africa, China, Spain and some southern states of America). We must move either resources to people or move people to resources. Relocating people is difficult in a democracy; to take a local example, successive British governments have fought shy of enforced relocation of industry and people from the overcrowded and resource-limited South East. Economic migrants are another powerful example. Worldwide trade thus becomes an essential part of global sustainability. It makes little sense in Britain to use energy to grow ‘sunshine crops’, but we can export water in the form of grain or dairy products to countries short of water. Already the import of ‘virtual water’ in the form of grain into Egypt is equivalent to a second Nile river; and grain is an easy way to store water as Joseph demonstrated to the Pharaoh. Underpinning global trade is the need for sound money and reliable credit facilities, and thus a need for secure banks and credit agencies.

Most of all we need the spread of skills and ingenuity. We are fortunate in having available in the future the potential intellectual capabilities of large numbers of so-far under-educated and under-utilized people in many highly populated countries. That brainpower is probably the finest untapped resource still available to us Finally we shall need space; space on which to construct houses, schools, hospitals, power sources, etc., and it is in this area of available habitable space that we face some of the most challenging aspects of global warming. Because, if sea-levels rise, if flooding and inundation become the norm, if temperature regimes alter and new deserts appear, then many people (perhaps 150 million people according to Sir John Houghton, Co-Chairman of the UN Global Warming Panel) will be displaced, along with their schools, factories, farms, etc., and those displaced people, although mainly in the East, cannot be ignored by the West. They will need social integration into the new world we have envisaged. The present world is finding increasing difficulty in dealing with refugees, even in hundreds and thousands. In future, we may be contemplating the relocation of a number equal to half the population of the USA. I suggest that such a challenge will be a test for global democracy, because governments must heed the voices of their electorates if they are to stay in power. Human prejudices as well as human needs and wants will exert their influences through the democratic processes and will determine government policies. Commerce and industry will supply the skills and probably the considerable capital needed to construct the future, given that governments find it difficult to both tax and stay in power.

Where will those democratic decisions leave species and habitats? I said earlier that they have no intrinsic rights. How could they? ‘Rights’ are a product of the human mind. Whatever rights are conferred are conferred by humans. Once again I have been influenced by the thoughts of one person – Christopher Stone, an American lawyer who explored whether natural objects should have legal rights (Stone 1974). His ideas, inspired by the work of John Muir, may need revisiting as globalization and global warming exert their pincer power on the Earth's future.

Finally, to the subject of our Conference – for it is on the coastlines of the world that I see the greatest pressures being exerted. It is there that we shall measure the rises in sea-level and inundation. They will be the sites for windfarms, wave and tidal power generators, container ports, sewerage terminals, new cities and new airports. The offshore (shelf) zone is considered less visually sensitive and therefore more easily developed than onshore. To deny coastal development may appear to be denying humanitarian needs and desirable material advances. Thus the two global forces of warming and well-being will in future drive large parts of the world economy. The World Trade Organization (with China and Taiwan joining) now represents 142 nations, 97% of the world's people and 90% of world trade. We, i.e. conservationists, must face with realism the implications of globalization and consumerism. We must not be merely ‘the dogs that bark’ as that mighty caravan passes.

Where can conservationists find their place and contribute to the sort of future I have outlined? We must be neither Canutes nor Luddites; we must develop and re-examine our philosophies and arguments. Human evolution has produced a powerful industrial and commercial species that is transforming the Earth, but it has also produced the ideas and values of men like Christopher Stone and John Muir. We must find more of that vision and dedication, in quantity and quality to match the changing expectations and rising living standards of the world, and argued with conviction enough to influence the democratic processes of government. For while commerce and industry will provide the motive power, it is governments which provide the laws and the regulators who determine the direction of social evolution.

We should also recognize that, although science has an important contribution to make, it is a limited one. Science and scientists can take sides; science can be used selectively. What is most important in decision taking is ‘ideological persuasion’, i.e. the belief that individuals have of what is right and what is wrong, and those beliefs are usually driven by self-interest as much as by altruism. It is regrettable that many western countries seem to have concluded that global warming is unlikely to be too detrimental to their own interests when expressed in terms of gains and losses of GNP. World-wide the sums look very different (ten times so).

Sir Crispen Tickell once famously said: ‘We know what to do, what we lack is the will to do it’, and I was recently at a debate on these issues when John Houghton reminded us of the words of Edmunde Burke: ‘No man made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little’. However, at that same debate a former Astronomer Royal (Sir Arnold Wolfendale) asked: ‘Does it matter, in the context of geological and evolutionary time, that this generation warms the globe?’ Certainly, events of the past tell us that the Earth is almost certain to experience further gross climatic change in future, regardless of what we do. Perhaps there will be another ice-age which, as in the past, will ‘cap’ much of the Northern Hemisphere with ice. Looking back, do we feel sorrow or guilt at past cataclysmic events and extinctions? Is it only the vanity of Homo sapiens that is at stake?

The great palaeontologist/theologian Teilhard de Chardin (1959) said: ‘With man, evolution became conscious of itself’. Perhaps it is that evolving consciousness that requires and drives us to action.