COP27: ‘Highway to Hell’ - Earthwatch

COP27: ‘Highway to Hell’

Our CEO, Steve Andrews, reflects on the first week of the climate summit COP27 in Egypt, the impact of global warming as well as the urgent need for protest and climate action.

When the Secretary-General of the UN says, as he did when opening COP27 last week, that we are on a ‘highway to hell’, what does that actually mean? What kind of world might we expect as a result of climate change?

If you have children or grandchildren aged 20 or younger – or you are hoping to have children or grandchildren in the next 15 years or so – these loved ones can be expected on average to live until sometime between 2087 and 2137.

What kind of world can they expect?

For a really excellent and detailed view of what climate change will mean for sea-level rises, dangerous weather events and our ability to grow food, I recommend the book Hothouse Earth by UK climate scientist Bill McGuire. I say ‘recommend’… well, it is a truly shocking and tough read. I’m having to take days off between chapters to gather my strength for the next.

In it, McGuire talks about the last IPCC report, published in August 2021. The IPCC is believed by many to be conservative in its estimates because it is a consensus-driven organisation with political oversight from 190 nations. In the report, the IPCC warned, to quote McGuire, that “in the absence of immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in emissions, limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5°C or even 2°C would be impossible.”

But 2°C doesn’t sound so bad, does it? For us in the UK, it’ll be quite welcome?

Well, the last time the Earth’s temperature was between 2°C and 4°C up on pre-industrial levels, sea levels were 20 metres higher than today. Let that sink in. Rises half that much would put cities which are home to billions of people underwater. And, in the words of McGuire, would “see the advent of a world plagued by intense summer heat, extreme drought, devastating floods (…) and reduced crop yields.”

20,000 years ago, the global average temperature was 6°C colder than it is today. Ice sheets kilometres thick buried large parts of North and South America, Europe and Asia; and sea levels were 130 metres lower than today.

It turns out the Earth is very, very sensitive to small shifts in temperature.

As I write, the news headlines are that COP27 may be watering down humanity’s commitment to keeping temperature rises compared to pre-industrial levels to under 1.5°C.

It is clear that the next few decades will see huge migrations across the world. And most environmentalists assume that this is not going to end well. In times of relatively low migration, politicians like Trump and Farage do not hesitate to exploit people’s fear, the former describing immigrants, as the Nazis once did, as vermin. It’s not hard to see a scenario where massive climate-induced migration leads to fascism rising again across the world.

So, in this context, what do you think of the climate activists that have been disrupting the traffic on the M25 or throwing paint on (well-protected) Van Gogh artworks?

I believe that if you spend time complaining about activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil or Insulate Britain, you probably don’t realise how bad hell is going to be when our highway gets us there. Their tactics are those of people who have listened to and understood the science and are absolutely terrified.

If you are against their tactics because they inconvenience the public, I don’t believe that you understand what the science is telling us and what kind of future awaits your children and grandchildren. I suspect you have a vague idea that things will get hotter, storms more wild and certain parts of the world unliveable… but maybe not so much in Europe. And yet the truth is so much more unbelievably shocking than that.

If you dismiss the tactics of these groups because we as a country have already accepted their arguments and understand that the world needs to change, you need to explain why the UK Climate Minister thinks that it is okay for the UK Government to issue 100 new oil exploration and development licences when the International Energy Agency say that it is clear that there is no room for any new oil fields from this year.

And if you think their tactics are not working, that they are turning people away from the cause, I’m sorry but you’re wrong. YouGov polling shows that UK public awareness and concern about climate change shot up during the 2019 Extinction Rebellion protests and has stayed high ever since, pushing to their record level last week. The protests are working, and the government has to listen.

For the people who are taking part in these protests, I have nothing but admiration. They may not all appreciate the analogy but to me they are Churchills in a world full of Chamberlains. They are not burying their heads in the sand, hoping it will all be okay or fixed by someone else. They do not seek appeasement. They have looked at the evidence and decided to act. Their courage is extraordinary and humbling. And history will vindicate them, for sure.

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