John Humphrys - Saving the Planet: Do We Care Enough?

August 19, 2022, 3:08 PM GMT+0

So that’s it. The big heat has come and gone and it’s back to normal. For now at least. But what does “normal” mean on a planet that has been growing hotter since the start of the industrial revolution and, unless all the climate experts have got it sensationally wrong, is on course to keep getting hotter to the point where life as we know it is no longer sustainable. That rests on two doom-laden assumptions. One is that there is no spectacular technological breakthrough which will enable us to generate all the power we need without pumping ever more carbon into the atmosphere. The other assumption is that those of us who consume the most – and therefore pollute the most - refuse to change the way we live. Which do you think is the more likely? Or are they equally implausible?

In one sense it’s pointless to discuss the pros and cons of a great technological breakthrough. We’ve been dreaming since I was in short trousers about the miracle of nuclear fusion, for instance. The rewards of developing a reliable way of fusing atoms together instead of blowing them apart would be incalculable. It would generate massively more power than nuclear fission and – crucially - without any of its risks. No fear of radiation or a catastrophic explosion. And no deadly nuclear waste to be passed on to future generations.

It would, at a stroke, solve the world’s energy crisis. No greenhouse gas emissions and a fuel supply that’s cheap and easily available.

There is, of course, one slight problem: we are not there yet. But we’re on the way. Only a few months ago the JET fusion reactor near Oxford produced 59 megajoules of heat over a five-second period. That may not mean much to you and me but it was double the previous record. And, yes, it’s only enough electricity to heat an electric kettle rather than a city but what it shows is that scientists are now capable of controlling a cloud of electrically-charged gas that is many times hotter than the sun’s core. An impressive achievement by any standards.

Another alternative is hydrogen. Many experts say that’s what should be powering the cars of the future, for instance, rather than electricity. Its advantages are obvious. We know it works. You get twice the mileage compared with petrol or diesel and, of course, the only thing that comes out of the exhaust is clean water vapour. So no pollution or carbon emissions. What’s more, there is no shortage of hydrogen. Where there is water there is hydrogen. The problem is it can be pretty dangerous stuff because it’s intensely flammable. It likes nothing more than to burn and form explosive mixtures with the air. It's difficult to store and to move around and it takes a lot of energy (usually fossil fuels) to manufacture it. New technologies are being developed and one day, maybe, we’ll all be driving around in clean, safe hydrogen-powered cars. But it’s the same old story: we’re not there yet.

There can, of course, be no disputing the existence of global warming. There is no longer a credible scientist who disputes it. Data collected over the past century proves that CO2 and other gases produced by human activity collect in the atmosphere and affect the climate by, in effect, insulating the planet. By 1988 it wasn’t only scientists starting to get worried. The summer of 1988 was the hottest on record. Widespread droughts and wildfires were common. The renowned NASA scientist James Hansen delivered testimony to the American Congress in which he said he was “99 percent sure” that global warming was upon us. A year later the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established under the United Nations to provide a scientific view of climate change and its political and economic impacts. Dire warnings became routine. Not just severe heat waves but droughts and more powerful hurricanes fuelled by rising sea surface temperatures, massive glaciers at both poles beginning to melt, sea levels rising high enough to swamp entire coastal cities. The first global agreement to reduce greenhouse gases, the Kyoto Protocol, was adopted in 1997.

Since then many important steps have been taken and many targets set. Our own government passed the Climate Change Act in 2008 pledging to cut our own carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. But many scientists warn that even if that target is achieved (and there are grave doubts about it) it will be nothing like enough. The world, they say, is currently on track for a global rise in temperature of at least 2.5 per cent. And the effect of that, according to an analysis of hundreds of scientific studies published earlier this month, will be disastrous.

Professor Maarten van Aalst, the director of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, says global heating in supercharging extreme weather events is happening at “astonishing speed”. He put it like this: “The world is changing fast and it’s already hurting us: that’s the blunt summary”.

For the first time, the analysis has drawn a direct link, using a technique called “attribution”, between extreme events such as terrible droughts, starvation, flooding and wildfires and the increase in greenhouse gases. The general secretary of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, says the world goal of limiting heating to 1.5C is “on life support”.

And while we wait for the scientists to come to the rescue we continue to burn fossil fuels to drive our cars, to keep our planes in the air, to heat and cool our homes and offices and to keep the wheels of industry turning. It’s true that more of our electricity now comes from renewable sources such as wind and solar power but that’s still a small proportion of our total energy usage. And it may be a tired old cliché, but it’s also true that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. And we have yet to develop the perfect battery to store it all. We are still massively dependent on oil and gas to generate the electricity we need.

There is, say all the experts, one unavoidable conclusion: if we are serious about tackling climate change we must use less energy.

I doubt whether there’s a single reader of this column who needs reminding of all the energy-saving tips with which we are constantly bombarded: turn down the thermostats; seal off all the draughty doors and windows; take shorter showers; wear a sweater indoors etc etc etc. Most of us are probably doing most of that anyway because of the staggering increases in the cost of electricity. The same applies to insulating our homes and offices more efficiently. Or possibly even installing heat pumps rather than boilers. Again, we tend to do cost/benefit analyses in all these cases because our motivation is saving money rather than saving the planet.

But saving the planet is what this column is all about and I’m asking two questions. The first is whether you accept that climate change really does pose an existential threat. In other words, do you believe that if we carry on much as we are, we are not just paying a price in our own lifetimes in terms of natural disasters because, for instance, the great polar glaciers are melting but that we are betraying the future for our children?

So I have two questions. If you dismiss those fears the second is irrelevant to you. But if you accept that the threat is real and, indeed, we are already experiencing that reality, the question is : what are you personally prepared to do about it?

Let’s assume you are already taking all the obvious energy-saving steps and maybe even cycling or walking rather than driving. All that stuff is good for us anyway – either for our pockets or for our health. My question really centres on what, if anything, you are prepared to sacrifice. Maybe eating less (or no) red meat. Or recycling old clothes rather than buying new ones. Or abandoning plans for a concrete patio and settling for a scruffy lawn. Or – and this is probably the big one for most of us - cutting up your frequent flyer card (if you have one), abandoning whatever plans you might have for your next foreign holiday and accepting that flying is simply too harmful to the environment.

You might well say this is asking too much. After all, most of us have worked hard to enjoy these luxuries. Aren’t we entitled to a little pleasure? And anyway, modern western economies rely heavily on consumer spending. We shall have to restructure or even abandon whole sectors. There will be a serious financial price to pay and we will all have to pay.

To which some will say that’s not strictly true. They will argue that it is the poorest people on the planet who will suffer the most from global warming and, indeed, are suffering already.

What’s your view? Do let us know.

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