Richard Sadler: Consumerism driving us to disaster

A resident of Moore, Oklahoma, examines the wreckage of her home after last week's tornado. Picture: Getty
A resident of Moore, Oklahoma, examines the wreckage of her home after last week's tornado. Picture: Getty
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OUR love affair with cars, consumerism and consumption is damaging the planet at an increasing rate – we must change our ways, writes Richard Sadler

IMAGINE you’re at the wheel of a car and you are careering towards a cliff edge, foot hard down on the accelerator. You don’t know where the cliff is because you are blindfolded. The stuff of nightmares? It’s an analogy for our collective plight here on planet Earth in the early 21st century. The car driver is humanity speeding recklessly into the unknown; the cliff represents the descent into chaos and turmoil when climate change spins out of control.

The fact that concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere have now passed 400 parts per million (ppm) will not make any noticeable difference. The Sun will still rise tomorrow and people will go about their daily business – but like Neil Armstrong’s one small step for a man, it has huge symbolic significance.

The 400ppm mark has been widely recognised in United Nations climate change negotiations as a dangerous threshold we should not pass. The last time concentrations were this high, around three to five million years ago, humans had not even evolved. Horses and camels grazed the high arctic and sea levels were at least 10m higher than they are today – a level that would inundate many of our major cities.

However, not only has that threshold been passed, as confirmed by measurements at the Mauna Loa monitoring station in Hawaii, but the rate of increase in emissions is accelerating.

As every schoolboy should know, when concentrations of heat-trapping gas rise, the planet heats up, polar ice caps melt and sea levels rise. Over millions of years of prehistory there have been natural fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels. Natural climatic variations – triggered by oscillations in the Earth’s orbit, or solar activity – occurred over tens of thousands of years, generally giving enough time for species to adapt.

Now the situation is very different. As humans have burnt more fossil fuels, CO2 emissions have risen exponentially. In the 1960s, the average annual rate of increase was 0.9ppm; now the rate is more than 2ppm – about 100 times that seen when the last Ice Age ended.

As if that was not worrying enough there is no sign of a slow-down. In fast-growing economies such as China and India, citizens are copying unsustainable western lifestyles characterised by high consumption of energy and consumer products, more car and air travel and carbon-intensive, meat-rich diets.

In the United States, the world’s second biggest polluter after China, 43 per cent of the population still do not believe there is such a thing as human-induced global warming and there are no binding targets for cutting CO2 and other heat-trapping gases. The European Union has managed a small reduction, but much of this is due to the economic slowdown and stricter long-term targets are being opposed by the UK coalition government.

However, there are a few honourable exceptions. Since devolution Scotland, together with Germany and Scandinavian countries, has made significant progress in restructuring its economy away from dependence on fossil fuels.

First Minister Alex Salmond says he wants to make Scotland the green powerhouse of Europe and his target for the equivalent of 100 per cent of electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2020 is the world’s most ambitious.

The Scottish Parliament’s 2009 Climate Act is widely praised by environmental campaigners because it sets annual emission targets. Although the 2010 target was missed – there is no data yet for 2011 or 2012 – tangible progress has been made. In 2012, a record 39 per cent of electricity came from renewables including hydro, wind, and tidal power. And last week the Scottish Government gave the go-ahead for the world’s largest wave power scheme, off Lewis.

But in other areas not much has changed. Little has been done to reduce pollution from agriculture or road transport, and recent approval of major new road schemes can only lead to further traffic growth.

In a global context, the slow-down in fossil fuel consumption in Scotland is far outweighed by fast-increasing pollution in the developing world. Nor should it be forgotten that much of that pollution is emitted by factories producing goods for customers in the UK. Which brings us back to the unpalatable reality of accelerating greenhouse gas concentrations and our fast-warming planet.

As the Earth has heated up, extreme weather events such as storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts have become more common – a trend accurately predicted by climatologists more than 20 years ago.

But events like the recent deadly Oklahoma tornado, Australian bush fires, record heatwaves in continental Europe and flash floods in the UK will seem trivial compared with what is to come.

So far global average temperatures have increased by only 1C since pre-industrial times, but the International Energy Agency estimates that if current trends continue we could see 6C of warming by the end of the century.

As sea levels rise, major cities including London, New York, and Mumbai may become uninhabitable, while in the developing world, crop failures will force hundreds of millions of people to migrate. This in turn is likely to start new wars over increasingly scarce food and water resources.

The nightmare scenario is that after so many years of unchecked warming, the planet will reach a tipping point, where climate change takes on a momentum of its own. This is the point of no return, where so-called “positive feedbacks” start to kick in, accelerating the rate of warming still further. For example as the Greenland ice sheets melt, less solar heat is reflected back into space which in turn leads to more warming, more melting, less heat reflection and so on.

If that happens, there will be nothing we can do to stop it and for us humans much of the planet will become uninhabitable.

Why would an apparently intelligent species put civilisation at risk in this way? Perhaps it is because western civilisation itself has conditioned us to expect ever cheaper material goods and the freedom to travel where we want and eat what we want regardless of the consequences.

Though we may have nagging worries about climate change, most of us are too wrapped up in our day-to-day concerns to think about changing our ways. Alternatively, we can convince ourselves that climate change is not really happening – or, if it is, that it is not of our making.

Politicians should know better but they have failed to provide the necessary leadership. When the occasion demands, they make fine speeches about how dire the situation is, but they are too easily swayed by powerful vested interests who want to maintain the status quo.

The irony is that phasing out oil and gas and investing in green technology could provide a huge boost to the economy, while numerous studies have shown that living simpler, less materialistic lives make us happier.

The Scottish Government – which estimates that as many as 11,000 jobs have already been created from renewable energy alone – has taken important steps in the right direction. It still has a very long way to go before the principles of sustainable development are hard-wired into every aspect of society, but it has made a start.

If it stays the course, it is just possible that this small country could become an example for others to follow. For all our sakes, the world needs one.

• Richard Sadler is a freelance science journalist and former BBC environment correspondent