It’s the end of the world – again

Environmentalists claiming that the Copenhagen summit is ‘the last chance’ to save the planet sound like a broken record.

From crusty green protesters to besuited politicians, everyone seems to be saying that the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is the ‘last chance’ to save the planet from runaway climate change. But considering the green movement’s history of setting ever-shifting deadlines for the End of Days, this is beginning to sound like ‘the boy who cried doomsday’.

‘We have 18 months to stop climate change disaster’, declared green convert Prince Charles on the BBC’s Today programme in May 2008 (1). Yet eight months later, the prince told a group of businessmen in Rio that we have ‘less than 100 months to stop climate disaster’ (2).

Prince Charles may have been impelled to postpone his deadline of doom after Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) launched a high-profile campaign in August 2008. He claimed that if drastic action wasn’t taken within 100 months, then by December 2016, ‘atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will begin to exceed a point whereby it is no longer likely we will be able to avert potentially irreversible climate change’ (3). The NEF set up a website dedicated to counting down the hours and minutes until the tipping point (4).

Mark Lynas, author of the environmentalists’ apocalyptic bible, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, also used the tipping point tactic back in 2007, when he placed the deadline at some point in 2015 (5). However, one year on, he did not want to lend too much weight to the NEF’s 100-month prediction because the drawback of such a campaign is that, once the deadline passes, ‘people might either become fatalistic (“we’ve passed the tipping point, so let’s give up”) or might turn increasingly sceptical’ (6). 

Certainly this is a risk that Franny Armstrong, director of the documentary The Age of Stupid, which portrays a 2055, post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by climate change, thinks is worth taking. However, Armstrong feels that 100 months could seem too distant to most people, so she has only given us until the end of next year to cut our emissions by 10 per cent. ‘It’s now or never for the climate’, she warned (7).

A growing body of environmentalists believe that the date of the ‘tipping point’ has, in fact, already passed. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, for instance, says we have already reached way too dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and so he sees no other solution now than imposing drastic measures, such as closing down all coal-fired plants by 2030 (8).

But even this is far too optimistic for former deputy editor of the Ecologist, Paul Kingsnorth, who recently said the window for reducing emissions has already closed. Rather than ‘wishing for the impossible’, such as any success at Copenhagen, we should instead face up to reality and accept the inevitable, ‘…becoming more self-sufficient, learning to live with less and learning to reconnect with communities and places’ (9).

Kingsnorth says we need to ‘move towards an ecocentric view. A lot of environmentalism now still acts as if humans are the point of the planet and that we are saving the planet to save people.’ (10) Here, Kingsnorth echoes James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, according to which humans have infected the natural systems of the Earth with a ‘fever’ and now Gaia – mother nature – is falling into coma. It’s already too late to halt this and ‘much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert; before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs that survive will be in the Arctic, where the climate remains tolerable’ (11).

The idea that humans are killing nature and have a short amount of time to change their ‘ecocidal’ behaviour has been around for far longer than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s science body whose recommendations are being discussed in Copenhagen. But the amnesia that environmentalist campaigners and theorists display when it comes to past predictions of doom is striking.

For instance, in 1990 Ecologist founder Edward Goldsmith co-authored the book 5,000 Days to Save the Planet, calling for an urgent decrease in CO2 emissions to avoid the Earth expiring by 2003. As it turned out, the Earth outlived Goldsmith, who passed away in August this year.

But even when his book was published, Goldsmith announced that it was ‘very much the same thing as we said 18 years ago, except that some of these issues have become mainstream issues now and the scientific community which was, on the whole, against us at the time, is now saying the same things as us on a number of these issues’ (12). In other words, the ‘tipping point’ notion had gone more mainstream by the start of the last decade and even the ideas propounded in Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 Malthusian tract, The Population Bomb, had begun to appear credible to more people. Erlich predicted widespread famines in the 1970s and 1980s, none of which materialised.

Indeed, the Campaign against Climate Change acknowledges, with some satisfaction, that, today, climate change is not viewed as ‘just another’ environmental problem. ‘At one time talk of “Saving the Planet” was a rather meaningless slogan. Climate Change means that now it’s for real.’ (13)

Climate change campaigners rely heavily on the authority of science to support their case, but rather than allowing for science to be an open inquiry, always subject to change and challenge, the environmentalist movement bends it to support its own campaign messages; whether it is implying a direct, causal link between flying and the extinction of polar bears - as the anti-flying group, Plane Stupid, have - or predicting that natural catastrophes will lead to waves of ‘mass migration, warfare and world hunger’. This, says climate change guru and leading UK government adviser, Lord Nicholas Stern, will be the outcome if a deal is not reached in Copenhagen (14).

The IPCC’s 2007 report, the key text for many a shrill doom-mongerer, appears strikingly sober by comparison, arguing that ‘unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt’ and acknowledging instead that mitigation strategies are possible over the next few decades (15). In the hands of groups like the Campaign against Climate Change, however, the IPCC report takes on an air of hysteria.

There is a near pornographic obsession amongst greens with things falling apart, and a refusal to accept humanity’s capacity to exert control over nature and to manipulate it to suit us – something human beings have done throughout history.

Even when greens themselves doubt the logic of their ever-fluctuating deadlines for climate doom, they seem to think that the only way to convince people that we have to Do Something is to scare - or, in PC terms, ‘nudge’ - us into submission, and so new deadlines are set over and over again. Yet, in the same way that no one noticed when Goldsmith’s 5,000 days ran out in 2003, when the clock stops ticking on the One Hundred Months site, few will pay attention. By that time, another Nostradamus-like prophecy of climate catastrophe will surely have been declared.

Patrick Hayes is volunteer co-ordinator for the education charity WORLDwrite and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.

(1) Prince Charles: Eighteen months to stop climate change disaster, Telegraph, 18 May 2008

(2) Prince Charles: ‘We have less than 100 months to stop climate change disaster, Daily Mail, 8 March 2009

(3) The final countdown, Guardian, 1 August 2008

(4) See the One Hundred Months website.

(5) How to stop climate change: the easy way, New Statesman, 8 November 2007

(6) The climate change clock is ticking, Mark Lynas, 1 August 2008

(7) 10:10 – our chance to save the world, Guardian, 1 September 2009

(8) Earth in crisis, warns NASA’s top climate scientist, Associated Foreign Press, 6 April 2008

(9) Paul Kingsnorth: environmentalists have lost their way, Ecologist, 9 December 2009

(10) Paul Kingsnorth: environmentalists have lost their way, Ecologist, 9 December 2009

(11) Global warming: Is it too late to save our planet?, The Scotsman, 17 January 2006

(12) The future of man on the planet Earth, Edward Goldsmith, October 1990

(13) See the Campaign Against Climate Change website.

(14) Copenhagen summit is last chance to save the planet, Lord Stern, Telegraph, 2 December 2009

(15) See Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report (PDF).

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