Chief Research Advisor for the Grantham Centre, Prof Peter Horton FRS, reflects on the summer of 2018 – and how Brexit is distracting the UK government from catastrophic climate change
The summer 2018 will be remembered for three things. First, we had the World Cup – what a fantastic tournament it was, some thrilling football, lots of goals, many controversies, the brilliance of Mbappe, Modric, Hazard and Pogba, England winning a penalty shoot-out, the Pavard goal, that fabulous Ronaldo free-kick during the first weekend, the early demise of the “favourite” Argentinian, German, Spanish and Brazilian teams. And the spectators – upon their thousand they came to Russia from as far afield as Peru, Panama, Australia, Japan and Nigeria. It showed what can happen when people come together in a common purpose – to watch football and enjoy themselves. I admit to watching some or all of every match, judiciously filling in my World Cup wall chart and helping my grandkids collect their Panini stickers, those weeks provided welcome relief from the tedium of the second issue – Brexit.
It is with some bewilderment that I see that the Government is now planning for Brexit as a state of emergency – stocking up on food supplies and medicines, building car parks to accommodate stranded good vehicles, taking precautions against civil unrest, preparing documents about what we should do, even thinking of using the army. We learn about the huge amount of money this is costing and the dire economic consequences predicted by the Bank of England, not to mention the sequestering of the time, effort and talent from Government departments to devote to this planning process, and we see the focus of our elected politicians being on nothing else – Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, morning, noon and night. What a mess! But this is a self-inflicted mess – did that very narrow majority, some 37% of eligible voters, really vote for all this turmoil, waste and hardship? I am yet to hear any evidence or even a convincing argument for any proven benefit that will flow from leaving the EU under the circumstances being considered. Taking our country back is an empty meaningless slogan. For the hard-line Brexiteers on the right and the left this is a vanity project, satisfying long held beliefs, contempt for foreign institutions, and nothing to do with improving the lives of the British people.
One might compare this to the third issue, the other crisis covering our news media this summer – the summer heat-wave. We are witnessing catastrophic weather events affecting huge swathes of the Northern hemisphere – extreme temperatures, drought, floods, wildfires, as far North as the Arctic Circle. This summer’s events follow record breaking low temperatures and snow falls, extreme monsoons, disastrous hurricanes, events happening all over the globe. We see images of alarming levels of melting of polar ice sheets and retreat of glaciers, and descriptions of biodiversity loss everywhere. The list is endless, and it is clear why this is happening – global warming arising from the burning of fossil fuels. We have changed our atmosphere and our climate and are already seeing the consequences. Like Brexit this is self-inflicted. Unlike Brexit, it affects every person on the planet, threatens our very existence and cannot be stopped.
These extreme weather events should be a wake-up call. This is serious, it is happening, people are dying and lives are being ruined. Action is needed, now. First the Paris Climate Agreement needs to be pursued with renewed vigour. People everywhere need to persuade their governments to act with more urgency. We can take inspiration from the “climate kids” who are taking out lawsuits against governments all over the world. Or the way governments and businesses have been forced to take action to reduce plastic waste following public pressure arising from campaigns in the news media and TV documentaries. We need new policies, based on evidence, policies that will lead to the stopping of fossil fuel burning within a decade, not phasing out or reducing the rate of increase, not setting self-monitored, non-binding targets. Not calling a switch from coal to gas or burning imported wood chips a success, or failing to account for outsourced emissions associated with our import of food and manufactured goods.
Second, all countries, including our own, need to take urgent action to adapt to climate change. It is for this reason that the Brexit folly must stop. The Government’s energy, creativity and resources need to go into this. Now. It is a national emergency, a real one this time, not one created by misguided politicians. We need to secure our supply of food, fortify our coastlines, protect our wildlife, preserve our landscapes and water courses, make our infrastructure more resilient, modify our homes, adapt our health care and social care, and so on. Every part of our way of life is affected by this. We need to learn how to deal with floods, drought, winds, heat-waves, cold, snow and ice. We have to realise that our way of living has changed the climate, and that climate is something beyond our control. There is no technology to control the weather, no proven way to quickly reverse the elevated CO2 level. Even if we stop emitting CO2 altogether, tomorrow, it will take hundreds of years to return to pre-industrial levels. We have to adapt. We have the means to do it, working together, with bold and imaginative solutions and new technologies. Returning to football and another inspiring news story this summer, the rescue of the trapped boys team in Thailand shows what can be done when people work together, when human endeavour and technology combine with bravery, ingenuity and determination in a multinational effort.
It is the Government’s overriding duty to protect its population from adversity, from whatever source, not to blindly follow a course action that it knows will needlessly add to it, and so, instead of pursuing Brexit, it needs to focus on the real problem – mitigating and adapting to climate change! The summer of 2018 is not yet over – let the events so far bring us all to our senses.