It’s Happening

Just as we tried to ignore Germany’s preparations for war, now we refuse to acknowledge the impending global catastrophe

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 14th December 1995

As memories of the scorching summer are soothed away by snow, the 600 water tankers trundling around Yorkshire have been all but forgotten.Yorkshire Water regards the situation as exceptional – the Met Office has told them that the drought was a once in 500-year event. The possibility that it might reflect a long-term trend, the company confesses, hasn’t even been raised.

The findings of the world’s foremost climate scientists, officially revealed at this week’s conference in Rome, expose a strange disjunction. We’ve all heard about global warming. Most of us are aware that the world has basked in nine of its ten warmest recorded years since the early 1980s, and everyone knows that our own summers have been exceptional. But these considerations don’t seem to connect in our heads. When two Englishmen meet, they talk about the weather, but somehow they seem to have missed the point.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now agrees that the balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on global climate. While they are properly hedged with cautions and uncertainties, its members’ data should be enough – poor thermal insulation notwithstanding – to throw us all into a muck sweat.

Some of the events the IPCC’s climatologists have observed in the last five years have, with uncomfortable accuracy, fulfilled their predictions of what would happen if global warming were to begin. In the 1970s, scientists proposed that an early sign of warming would be the disintegration of the Wordie and James Ross ice shelves in the Antarctic. Both have dutifully broken up. Thirty per cent more tropical storm activity was forecast for the Atlantic in 1995 – it came. Glaciers in New Guinea are retreating at the rate of 45 metres per year; snow cover in the northern hemisphere has declined by ten per cent in the last 20 years; less ice in the Greenland Sea means that its convection currents have virtually stopped. Last year the Hadley Centre in Bracknell found that the temperature record of the last 130 years doggedly tracked the predicted effects of the carbon dioxide and sulphur emissions of that period.

The IPCC climatologists predict that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – which would take about a hundred years – would mean a worldwide temperature rise of between 1 and 3.5 degrees. This sounds trifling, until you hear that the difference between the average temperatures of the last Ice Age and those of today is 4 degrees. No one can be certain quite what this warming would do, but the predictions include droughts, floods and hurricanes, a severe decline of harvests in some poor counties, the retreat of forests and invasions of tropical diseases. No one can say whether change will progress steadily towards 2100 or flip into sudden convulsions – such as the postulated disruption of the Gulf Stream, which could leave Britain with a climate like Labrador’s. But the message, repeated again and again, is that global warming is likely to mean not just the odd inconvenience here and there, but the end of life as we know it.

So why aren’t we panicking? Why aren’t we mobilizing? Part of the reason is that, while we are waiting for government, government is waiting for us. Cowed by oil, transport and power lobbyists, governments won’t act until they hear people baying for change. Worried about the loss of our comforts, we won’t bay for change until it is cheaper and easier to conserve fossil fuels than to waste them. This means more public transport, more incentives for energy saving and alternative energy generation, and more expensive fossil fuel. All these depend on government.

Both the scale of what might be happening and its complete disproportion to the apparently innocuous causes – switching on the lights, Christmas shopping, trucking water round Yorkshire – take effort and imagination to grasp. Never before have such trivial pursuits had such vast implications. Never before have we been so well-insulated from the consequences of our actions.

Our inability to respond to what seems to be happening has been compared by the environmentalist George Marshall to our refusal to believe that Germany was preparing for war. The comparison is a good one. Stanley Baldwin’s complaint that the people would not rally to the cry of rearmament will doubtless find echoes in Rome this week. The American fixation with seawalls is horribly reminiscent of the French reliance on static defences, while the governments and missions of most of the big industrialized nations seem to be stuffed with Chamberlains, Hendersons and Halifaxes.

The crisis of 1939 arose from a failure to apply what environmentalists call the precautionary principle. We can’t afford to wait for certainty. The time to start sweating is now.