The IPCC is sounding the alarm but, as Nigel Doggett says, magical thinking rules the UK Government

As the saying goes, science is true whether you believe in it or not. The long-heralded reckoning on global heating is looming, as set out in the publication of the 6th scientific Assessment Report (AR6 WGI) from the IPCC. This develops the messages of the previous report in 2013:

  • The global mean surface temperature has risen by 1.08⁰C since pre-industrial times and the 1.5⁰ target is likely to be breached in the early 2030s; but achieving net zero emissions will rapidly reduce the rate of heating and even start to reduce surface temperatures.
  • Global mean land temperatures have already risen by 1.59⁰ (and more in polar regions) and even with very low emissions temperatures will remain above the latest decade until at least 2100, with worse impacts than those we already struggle to handle.
  • Methane (CH4) leaking from fossil fuel extraction, meat and dairy agriculture and melting permafrost is an increasing driver second only to carbon dioxide (CO2).
  • Potential tipping points triggered by cumulative temperature rises that might accelerate warming include rapid melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice shelves and permafrost regions, as well as die back in forests.
  • The rate of sea level rise increased to 3.7mm/year to a total of 20cm between 1901 and 2018, driven by thermal expansion and increasingly by melting of ice sheets and glaciers.

Its conclusions are stark, notably:

  • “Unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5°C will be beyond reach.
  • “To limit global warming, strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases are necessary.”

Two recent research reports have also concluded:

  • Ongoing deforestation in the vital Amazon basin makes it a net source of carbon emissions; and
  • the Atlantic gulf stream that brings warmer water (and weather) to north west Europe is starting to break down.

Magical thinking is a term used for the belief that one’s thoughts correspond with performing an action, often defying laws of causality. The last five years have provided ample evidence for its prevalence in the UK Government, manifested in at least three major crises: Brexit, Covid and now Afghanistan. Each time, statements of intent were presented without either factual backing or proper contingency planning. Likewise, Boris Johnson is still failing to address the climate emergency seriously, see-sawing between grandstanding and genuflecting to his ‘real boss’ the Telegraph and right wingers.

There are clear divisions on the right, with some Conservatives – including COP26 president Alok Sharma, the 100 MP-strong Conservative Environment Network and Climate Change Committee chair Lord Deben, alongside much of big business – taking it seriously, though most cling to free enterprise mantras rather than accepting the need for government intervention. But others, such as Nigel Lawson’s notorious Global Warming Policy (sic) Foundation, claim action plans are unaffordable in the wake of the Covid pandemic. New GWPF trustee Steve Baker stated: “I’m increasingly concerned about the astronomical costs of the current Net Zero plans… [Taken] to their logical conclusion, it would mean the end of the comfortable lifestyles we have enjoyed for generations.” (Clearly a man with a short and selective memory, despite his recent discovery of poverty in his Wycombe constituency.) Such sentiments are at odds with leading economists and financiers, such as Nicholas Stern and Mark Carney, who recognise the case for rapid decarbonisation whereby even narrow cost-benefit analyses show climate mitigation as a sound investment.

Erstwhile climate sceptics and deniers are also switching tack to a position of “it’s too late and we must look after ourselves”. This message, just as with the pandemic, would be disastrous. We need international solidarity with the Global South to create resilient sustainable social and technological systems worldwide: ‘either we hang together or we hang separately’. A political tipping point may be underway to reach an international consensus, with or without leadership from the UK Government. Labour and the left must keep climate firmly on the agenda, applying pressure for both domestic and coordinated international action at COP26.

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