The recent flooding in the north of England is just a taster of what’s to come. So why are we not taking climate change more seriously? Continuing our series on today’s major issues we take a look at what is arguably the single, most important problem facing all of us
The consequences of global warming will make the refugee crisis in the Middle East, Africa and Southern Europe look like a relatively minor event.
That’s the dire prediction of academic Dr Julia Meaton from the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for Sustainable and Resilient Communities, who says an estimated 250m people will be climate change refugees by the year 2050.
She said: “The unpredictable weather will be like nothing you have ever seen and huge numbers of people will be on the move. The refugee crisis at the moment will seem like nothing.”
Even with the changes promised by governments in last month’s UN climate talks in Paris she believes we’re in for many stormy years ahead.
She explained: “At the moment we are witnessing weather-related events linked to climate change and what we are experiencing is a response to the emissions of 30 years ago. So if we cast our minds forward 30 years it’s going to be so much worse. We are witnessing climate breakdown – we need to start doing something so we are not on a one-way trip.”
Dr Meaton, who wrote a series of blogs during the climate change negotiations, says there is no longer any doubt that global warming exists.
As she points out: “As many as 97% of scientists says it is happening and that human action is the cause. But the problem is that attempts by the media, even the BBC, to get balance means that they always speak to somebody who is a climate change sceptic – Lord Lawson is the most famous of them. That gives the public the idea that there is still some discussion when there isn’t.”
And so, instead of focussing our efforts on the single, most important problem facing the entire planet’s population, we continue to fiddle while Rome burns.
Dr Meaton believes there are several reasons for this.
She explained: “Most people don’t engage with climate change because they perceive it as a distant phenomenon. They think there’s nothing they can do and technology or governments will solve the problem. And there’s an uncertainty about it because even with computer modelling we can’t be sure what will happen. Also, we worry about our children and our grandchildren but we don’t worry about the future for our children’s grandchildren.”
She is dismayed that efforts to provide clean energy are often undermined and there is a reluctance to spend money on alternatives.
Citing a local example, she said: “Plans for the Colne Valley wind farm were withdrawn by the campaigners because it was turning out to be an uphill battle – there were complaints about damage to the scenery and wildlife. They thought they wouldn’t get permission.
“Green energy might be inefficient at the moment but just think how much has been spent on exploring the Antarctic to find oil. Money that would have resulted in large leaps in green technology. The tragedy is that by focussing on short term interests we don’t think about the common good.”
The current government has also backtracked on green initiatives and missed opportunities.
As Dr Meaton says: “I feel frustrated that in the last 30 years of house building the big builders could have done so much more. In Scandinavia, for example, where they have harsher winters, their building standards include triple glazing etc. Passive houses don’t cost much more to build and save a lot on energy bills.”
And she says that despite calling itself a ‘Green Government’ the Conservatives have not supported environmental initiatives – for example, doing away with subsidies for green energy and granting licences for fracking for natural gas and oil while ignoring the ‘Keep it in the Ground’ campaign that wants to halt the use of fossil fuels.
Dr Meaton says big business also needs to play a major part.
She added: “Over the last 20 years the ecological movement and green industry have clearly failed because we are in a worse situation. Tweaking what we do isn’t going to make for a sustainable future. If we are going to continue to grow the economy and protect the environment we need to completely change our business models. Fundamentally that means a shift away from shareholder benefits towards a slower and more responsive capitalism. We have to have an understanding of the environmental impact of businesses and make them pay for it – capturing money from companies instead of it going to shareholders and using it for environmental measures. But that would be unpopular.”
She says that individually we need to start thinking about consuming less, being more energy efficient and making fewer demands on the world’s natural resources.
Dr Meaton points out that we will eventually have to tackle the thorny issue of population growth.
She explained: “A lot of people in environmental work find it difficult to talk about population control because any kind of control of people’s choices is an anathema to their fundamental belief in freedoms. But it has got to be addressed although it will be difficult to find a humane and ethical approach.”
It is estimated that by 2050 the world’s population will reach 9b – it currently stands at 7.35b – and competition for food, energy and water will be at breaking point. Back in 2009 the Government’s chief scientific adviser John Beddington warned of a ‘perfect storm’ of events caused by global warming that could bring about a crisis as early as 2030 with the rapidly growing population in Asia of particular significance.
We’ve just had one of the warmest, wettest Christmases on record and some of the most severe flooding in Cumbria.
See pictures of local flooding over Christmas below
But, warns Dr Meaton, if we do nothing then this is simply a small taste of what’s coming.
“Flood defences in Cumbria have been breached, but that is going to happen time and time again,” she said.
And, despite Governments having reached agreement at the Paris UN Climate Change Conference she is concerned that the framework for how targets will be reached is too vague and there is still a lack of urgency.
In her final blog – the 12th Day of Christmas – which responded to the last day of the conference, she said: “On the twelfth day of Christmas Paris has given us the opportunity to march to a different drum beat. All of us, everywhere, need to get behind the drummers so that we can all march together for a sustainable future.”
But will we?
Meanwhile, Kirklees Green Party councillor Andrew Cooper says the Government is sabotaging attempts by councils to introduce Green policies.
“The Government is cutting back on all sorts of schemes that councils were using to help save energy and reduce emissions,” he explained. “In a few weeks we won’t be able to install solar panels cost effectively because we are losing the subsidy for it. We had an insulation scheme for homes but that has been cut back as well.”
And while the council itself is against fracking operations for shale oil and gas within its boundaries, Cllr Cooper points out that it has no powers to refuse developers. When asked if there could be fracking in Kirklees in the future he replied: “It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility, as we are in a coal mining area and there are sites very close to us.
“The way the Government is approaching this is quite nonsensical. Al Gore was saying that while other countries are gearing up to green policies we seem to be retreating. In the whole of Europe there are only three countries who produce less of their energy from renewables than we do. We are way behind.
“The tragedy is that there are huge opportunities in terms of providing skilled jobs, energy saving and saving people money, but locally we are finding it more and more difficult to do the right thing.”
Cllr Cooper is leading a working party to look at the feasibility of using Passive House technology on council land. Passive houses have a low energy requirement. He said: “They use 10% of the energy requirements of other houses and the usual reason given for not building them is the additional cost. But if it became the norm then those additional costs would not be as great.”
He believes the way forward is for householders to take control of their own energy production. He explained: “What we aren’t doing as a country is looking at how we can create a different and better society; a low-energy using society, with more people generating their own energy. Mrs Thatcher wanted a property-owning democracy; there’s now a real opportunity to have an energy-generating democracy. The big energy companies need to diversify as they will generate and sell less energy. They need to start investing in large scale projects such as social housing.”