The outcome this week of the climate change conference in Cancún can be read two ways. Yes, multilateralism (although not the role of the UN) has been saved, and as one minister timidly put it “people are still talking to each other”. But as Greenpeace have commented, “The conference may have saved the multilateral process after last year’s abject failure in Copenhagen, but we have not yet been saved from climate change.”

Green MP Caroline Lucas used very similar wording: “It’s a very weak deal – enough to keep the ongoing negotiation process alive, but not enough to save the climate.”

And although both organisations have given encouragement to governments for the little that has been done, when it comes down to it, all that matters is the bottom line, and the bottom line is “What kind of world will this agreement create?”

Unfortunately, according to scientific commentators such as those at Climate Tracker Action, the agreement will deliver 3.2 degrees Celsius of overall global warming. The Bolivian government was more pessimistic, estimating 4 degrees. While the difference between 2 or 4 degrees on a summer’s day doesn’t mean much, averaged out all over the world, it’s disastrous.

In his recently updated work explaining the outcome of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 3rd Assessment Report, British author Mark Lynas makes it very clear what the consequences of a 2 to 3 degree world would be:


Summer heatwaves such as that in Europe in 2003, which killed 30,000 people, become annual events. Extreme heat sees temperatures reaching the low 40s Celsius in southern England.

Amazon rainforest crosses a “tipping point” where extreme heat and lower rainfall makes the forest unviable – much of it burns and is replaced by desert and savannah.

Dissolved CO2 turns the oceans increasingly acidic, destroying remaining coral reefs and wiping out many species of plankton which are the basis of the marine food chain. Several metres of sea level rise is now inevitable as the Greenland ice sheet disappears.

Previous climate change agreements had aimed to keep overall global warming below 2 degrees C. Going any further, into 2 degrees and above, means that vital feedbacks such as the burning of the Amazon occur, and reinforce the warming, taking us straight into a 3 degree world:


Glacier and snow-melt in the world’s mountain chains depletes freshwater flows to downstream cities and agricultural land. Most affected are California, Peru, Pakistan and China. Global food production is under threat as key breadbaskets in Europe, Asia and the United States suffer drought, and heatwaves outstrip the tolerance of crops.

The Gulf Stream current declines significantly. Cooling in Europe is unlikely due to global warming, but oceanic changes alter weather patterns and lead to higher than average sea level rise in the eastern US and UK.

Once in a 3 degree world, then further feedbacks occur. Methane is released from permafrost at 4 degrees and above, and when that happens there is literally nothing to stop the Earth from being almost completely uninhabitable to humans. I’m going to quote you the whole scenario, because it’s important that you know:


Another tipping point sees massive amounts of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – released by melting Siberian permafrost, further boosting global warming. Much human habitation in southern Europe, north Africa, the Middle East and other sub-tropical areas is rendered unviable due to excessive heat and drought. The focus of civilisation moves towards the poles, where temperatures remain cool enough for crops, and rainfall – albeit with severe floods – persists. All sea ice is gone from both poles; mountain glaciers are gone from the Andes, Alps and Rockies.


Global average temperatures are now hotter than for 50m years. The Arctic region sees temperatures rise much higher than average – up to 20C – meaning the entire Arctic is now ice-free all year round. Most of the topics, sub-tropics and even lower mid-latitudes are too hot to be inhabitable. Sea level rise is now sufficiently rapid that coastal cities across the world are largely abandoned.

6C and above

Danger of “runaway warming”, perhaps spurred by release of oceanic methane hydrates. Could the surface of the Earth become like Venus, entirely uninhabitable? Most sea life is dead. Human refuges now confined entirely to highland areas and the polar regions. Human population is drastically reduced. Perhaps 90% of species become extinct, rivalling the worst mass extinctions in the Earth’s 4.5 billion-year history.

So. The politicians are now aiming to fail. Their best efforts take us within the disastrous territory of snowballing feedback loops. The Climate Tracker Action thermometer now rests at 3.2 degrees, with a margin of error of between 2.6 and an obviously disastrous 4 degrees. hp_thermometer 12Dec2010

So, the only thing to do for us all now is to hope for the best, to hope that the estimates are somehow on the pessimistic side, and to close our eyes and pray that we come out nearer 2.6 and not 3.2 degrees and somehow just avoid the snowballing feedbacks. Right?

Well, unfortunately not. Climate Tracker Action’s 2.6 degrees estimate is correct “If countries would implement the most stringent reductions they have proposed with most stringent accounting, the remaining ‘reduction gap’ would shrink to 8 billion tonnes CO2eq/yr”. But with current political will, that is clearly not going to happen. It’s politically highly unlikely that the governments who have so narrowly managed to cobble together any agreement at all will suddenly go hell for leather in enforcing it in the most stringent way. And one reason is, as Caroline Lucas mentions, the agreement itself is not even binding! And of course it isn’t. Governments including, notably, the United States, have been trying to avoid renewing the sensible and fair Kyoto protocol in favour of a more voluntary system. The US government’s manipulations, threats and bribes to other countries during last year’s Copenhagen process have been well documented by Wikileaks. And all to have a more voluntary process that would better suit the imperatives of the US economy.

Now in Cancún it has become obvious on which side the governments consider their bread to be buttered, and it seems to be the side of corporate consumer capitalism and the status quo, rather than of taking a responsible attitude to protecting the future of everyone and everything in the world. The World Development Movement’s Kate Blagojevic sums it up in a tweet from Cancun: “a ‘deal’ wasn’t reached- text’s not binding anyone to anything.That’s why they can agree it, which is of course pointless +a betrayal”.

So, I guess we have to hope that the science in general in wrong and climate change isn’t really happening at all? Again, unfortunately, the 100 year history of the science of climate change represents the greatest collective scientific effort of the human race, ever. We’ve never had so many computers, so many satellites, so many scientists, drilling holes deep in the Arctic core, measuring weather patterns, analysing and checking data. The likelihood that these thousands and thousands of scientists, funded from different sources, for different reasons, working in many languages in different nations, are wrong, is, sadly, staggeringly unlikely.

We’re all going to have to come to terms with the fact that climate change is real, and – thanks to our “leaders” aiming to fail at Cancún – on its way.

So, what do we do now? Knowing that the worst, or at least some incredibly bad things, are likely to happen, how should we change what we’re doing? Is the whole green movement a bit of a waste of time, and have we essentially failed? Well, yes and no. We still need to be doing most of the same things. Greens have always tried to focus people’s attention on the economy as the main root of problems, specifically a globalised corporate-owned consumer economy highly-dependent on fossil fuels. This (and the values and motives behind it) is largely what has created the problem of climate change in the first place. But transforming our economy is still the most important thing we need to do. For just as the global economy is causing climate change, so we still need to limit the worst that happens; there is still a spectrum of better and worse. And a globalised consumer economy is the kind that is most vulnerable to the economic shocks that environmental disruption will bring. We need to localise our economies not just because it will help prevent the worst excesses of the disaster of climate change, but because localised economies will be the ones that are most resilient.

If your food comes from overseas, you are going to suffer with increased oil prices, or droughts in some far off region of the world where you’ve never even been but where your vegetables come from. At its extreme, when supermarket supply chains (which are arranged around this kind of globalised trade) collapse, you might go hungry. And yes, when it gets bad enough (and, now, sadly, in a 3 degree world, there is no reason why it wouldn’t), you’ll starve and die. And not without a lot of crime and societal chaos in the mean time.

But, with localised economies, with local food production, with a bit of land set aside for growing vegetables, you might be OK. I don’t want to have to tell people this, but this is the reality that our governments have left us with. As I say, the only two ways out is for our governments to suddenly all change their attitude completely (unlikely) or for the science of climate change to be somehow wrong (very unlikely). If you don’t want to be defending your field of carrots with a shotgun in 40 years time, the time for political action – and transforming the world economy – is now.

This is perhaps a pivotal moment for humanity. For me, it’s the first time that I’ve been certain that the worst is going to happen. Our case has been proven, in the worst possible way, and we are still largely powerless to call to account the financial powers-that-be. But we must try, because now more than ever we are not just fighting for our principles, or fighting for a “greener” world, we are fighting for the world, for our world. Everything we’ve ever known; all of human culture, society, history and civilisation. It all stands at risk from the path our governments have so ignorantly put us on. So, if you like human beings, if you like your life, if you like your family, your home, your country, your ability to live a full and wonderful life with all the incredible things the world has to offer, and you don’t want to see almost everything you have snatched away from you by economic collapse, chaos, selfishness and violence, then fight. Fight to limit the disaster of climate change, fight to make your government change its ways, fight to change how big business operates, fight to grow the alternatives, and fight for the world you know. Fight for your life.

Email This Post Email This Post