By John Ames
47 years ago, in 1972, an incredibly influential report was released by the group of scientists and professionals known as the Club of Rome. Working with MIT, they commissioned a group of modellers and systems analysts to describe the global system as deeply as possible. Together they built World3, and showed clear evidence of how the combinations of population growth and resource use would strain our planet. The natural end result would be huge ecological damage limiting the earth’s ability to support life – both animal and human.
It caused serious alarm, and many promises were made by the world. The obvious catastrophe laid out in the book was the foolishness of expecting infinite growth on a finite planet. We were warned to change our economic goals, and soon, to prevent environmental (and societal) collapse. Their projections suggested rising material wealth until the first quarter of the 21st century, after which the damage to the environment would become so severe as to severely impact our way of life. Their projections have been shown to be highly accurate. They did not need to know exactly what technologies would be invented to show roughly how capital and human numbers would expand, and the damage that would inevitably cause.
Around this time, Big Oil started two campaigns. One was to study the science of climate change, with internal communications and published journals showing they knew full well the dangers of huge greenhouse gas emissions. The second was to try to cast doubt on the science, and convince the public that it was not a real issue. Unfortunately, they were largely successful.
20 years later, and 27 year years ago, in 1992, the world’s leaders met for the Earth Summit in Brazil, and signed the Rio Convention. 190 countries agreed to reduce their emissions and treat climate change with the seriousness it required. They agreed on the precautionary principle , a principle stating that when some science is still needed to prove something beyond a doubt, but there was clear evidence of risk, the cautious option would always be chosen. This principle is invoked for keeping GMOs out of Europe, for instance. The economic (and political) sacrifices from cutting emissions proved to be too much for most countries though, and the following Kyoto protocol has fallen victim to the moral hazard of “whoever cuts first, loses; whoever cuts last, wins”, prompting foot dragging and withdrawals from many countries..
In 2004, they published an updated Limits to Growth… the 30 year update. World3 was further
refined, the previous projections compared to the observed trends, demonstrating clearly the general accuracy of their thesis. They highlighted possible future scenarios where we started strong emission cuts at different time points and severity. Starting directly and strongly at 2004 would have led to the best future scenario. For every year we waited, the future we were giving to our children, grandchildren, fellow citizens and nature itself became ever darker.
They emphasised that we must begin immediately. We still did not.
In 2015, world leaders met again, and following lengthy discussions and concessions, the Paris
Agreement was undersigned by 195 countries. The limits originally decided have since been clearly shown to be wholly inadequate for keeping warming below 2 degrees, even if they are faithfully implemented. So far, they have not been.
Four years later, we are still planning policy that goes in the wrong direction. New runways, coal
power stations and other counterproductive things. And now the UN and IPCC are both screaming warnings as loud as they can. That is why we are now rebelling. Finally.
There is no doubt in the science. There is no doubt in our broad understanding of the systems and mechanisms. The only surprise for scientists is how much quicker it is now progressing. We are seeing feedback loops we had never expected – As the global system gets worse, a result of that damage is to then speed up the future rate of damage. Therefore we are not seeing linear growth in temperature with rising CO2 concentrations, we are seeing an increasing rate of temperature rise and system damage.
Many systems have tipping points in them, points where we lose control of the problem after a
certain point. After we cut down enough rainforest, the microclimate to sustain such forests will not exist any more, and we will turn our planet’s lungs into savannah. After we heat up the tundra enough, we will release huge quantities of methane, a gas around 50 times better at trapping the sun’s energy than CO2, causing even faster warming. These events would seriously undermine our chances of a happy ending.
What is the solution from those in power? They nibble at the edges of the problem. Rearranging the tablecloth and silverware while our house is on fire. Rearranging the deckchairs while the iceberg slowly emerges from the darkness.
These are not bad people. There are greedy people changing the dialogue for their short-term
survival. There are stupid people who believe the free market signals and human ingenuity can fix all problems, including super wicked ones like climate change. There are people who silenced their doubts and concerns with the reassuring lies and misinformation of vested interests. But there are no bad people.
The fact remains. The 10th biggest polluter in Germany is Ryanair, and air travel industry expands 6-8% globally per year. The rainforest in Brazil is being cut down at an alarming rate again. 95% of the things we buy are no longer in use 6 months after we buy them. GDP growth is still the greatest and only goal for every government in power.
Realistically, their behaviour is rational. Fighting against this will require sacrifices. We must consume less, and submit to less convenience. No politician wants to give that news to their voters. They only want to maximise the current “happiness”, ie GDP growth, now, and ignore anything that will happen beyond the next election. This “short termism” saps political will for meaningful change, and we have listened to their “beautiful words” for too long. How can we expect them to commit radical solutions without our clear support and understanding?
The Fridays for Future movement was originally written off as “Young and naive”. The media and politicians helpfully informed us that they don’t understand how the world really works. Alternatively, perhaps it is we that are “old and cynical”; we that lack vision and imagination, we that are not willing to fight for the world we and our children deserve. Seeing they needed support, scientists founded their own group, ScientistsforFuture, to show that there is no more doubt in academia. And also, supporting the same movement, is Extinction Rebellion; a group of concerned citizens, hoping we can follow in Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela’s footsteps. We believe we can finally force the issue with non-violent and creative demonstrations, using peaceful disobedience as our best weapon.
We need to acknowledge the global state of emergency for what it is. How many more “hottest
summer since records began”s do you need to be convinced? This is bigger than normal politics. This is not a matter of supporting left or right, the only important direction is forwards.
Only through working together with all the countries of the world do we have a chance. We cannot wait for other people to do this for us anymore, it is time we took control. We need the courage to really try to change our direction, with bold new economic organisation. We need the courage to be the global leaders in this, and to lead by example. And we need to rebel until our governments make that happen.
I will leave you with a slightly adapted speech from a timeless movie…
“We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is
going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are
living in is getting smaller, and all we say is: ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living
rooms. Let me have my Netflix and my steak and my cheap Ryanair flights and I won’t say
anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get MAD! You’ve got to say: ‘I’m a human being, god-dammit! My life has value!” (From “Network”, 1976).