For some people, the carnage in Ukraine is just an annoying distraction from their own priority: fighting climate change. To put this right, the technocrats who run the United Nations and other well-financed entities, often accompanied by young ladies who tearfully tell us they do not want to die in a burning wasteland before they have had a chance to enjoy life, are voicing increasingly strident warnings about the horrible fate that awaits humankind unless it stops using fossil fuels.
Delegates to the COP27 Climate Change Conference at Sharm El-Sheikh, which has just ended, did their best to frighten malingerers by describing what was in store for them and everybody else if they refused to cooperate, but despite the heated rhetoric of the UN secretary general and others who shared his trenchant views and the presence of dignitaries such as Rishi Sunak, Emmanuel Macron and Lula, they did not make that many headlines. Much to their disappointment, the resounding statements coming from Sharm El-Sheikh kept getting upstaged by the latest bulletins from Kyiv.
While the Red Sea beach-resort conference was on, government leaders did their best to appease campaigners by dutifully pledging themselves to turn their countries properly green before the century reached the half-way mark, even though they must be well aware that there is little likelihood of this happening.
Appealing as solar panels, wind farms, tidal energy and the other “clean” energy sources they go on about may be, they will be unable to replace coal, oil and gas for many years to come. As for nuclear power stations, which by most standards are clean, safe and efficient, they have long had a sinister reputation among climate activists who seem convinced that, like the old-fashioned one in Chernobyl, they could all blow up at any moment and scatter radiation over a wide area. That was why Angela Merkel decided to phase out Germany’s ones and make her country, and much of Europe, even more dependent on Russia as a source of energy than they already were.
Some climate campaigners are determined to persuade people in power that, like so many other things we have grown accustomed to, industrialisation was an appalling mistake because, by building artefacts big and small that spew out huge amounts of toxic waste and encouraging farmers to breed flatulent bovines, it is turning the world into an inferno. To save the planet, we must therefore dismantle existing economies and start again from scratch. People in poor countries are told they must rely on clean energy, a recommendation that does not go down well in coal-using countries such as India or China.
Optimists insist that technology will provide the means to make whatever transition may be required fairly easy for common folk who, if the politicians who promise to do whatever “The Science” says have their way, would have to resign themselves to a far lower standard of living, a prospect which, unsurprisingly, most people find unattractive. Pessimists, of whom there are many, think the situation is so dreadful that sterner and distinctly authoritarian measures are called for; for starters, they would like to put an end to mass tourism, ban petrol-using vehicles, and order people to do without air-conditioning, hot baths and much else, as some are already doing in parts of Europe.
For politicians in poorer countries, the willingness of their counterparts in rich ones to shoulder the blame for droughts, forest-fires, unexpected hurricanes, the flooding of coastal areas, the melting of glaciers and the like – taking it for granted that had it not been for economic progress nature would be far kinder to them – means they have a right to be compensated with lots of hard cash. They are therefore happy to agree that industrialisation was bad and, while about it, to overlook the enormous benefits it has brought to most human beings.
Had it not been for the revolutionary changes that began two-and-a-half centuries ago in the United Kingdom, when at an accelerating rate machines took over from the craftsmen who had made things by hand, a very large proportion of those living today would have died in early childhood. For those who think the planet is overcrowded, it would have been better if that state of affairs had persisted, but though few of them are willing to do their bit to repair the damage done to Gaia by committing suicide, relief is on the way: women the world over are increasingly reluctant to give birth and, specialists tell us, men are running out of the ability to impregnate those who still believe motherhood to be a desirable option, so throughout the world reproductive rates are dropping fast. This has been going on for several decades, but few showed much interest in what it could mean not only for pension schemes but also for our species.
Exactly when the last humans will finally call it a day is something for statisticians to work out, but if current trends persist they will be certain to do so several centuries from now. For example, unless South Koreans, whose women, have on average less than one child, go back to procreating in the traditional way, by the year 2400 their country’s population will have shrunk to a hundredth of its present size. Elsewhere, birth rates are slightly higher, but in most places they are well below replacement levels.
Dissatisfaction with the world one lives in has a long history, but until fairly recently it was regarded as an affliction limited to a handful of mystics and romantic poets of a theatrically gloomy disposition. Today, a variety of world-weariness is suffered – or enjoyed – by young people in search of a cause so righteous that it entitles them to go to virtually any lengths to make the rest of the population see the light. Fighting climate change, even if it is only by waving banners, dressing up in exotic garments and shouting slogans in noisy protests, is one such. Whether or not bringing economies to a halt and reducing to beggary much of the population would make much of a difference is an open question, but there can be no doubt that the belief that the people in charge really do have access to a global thermostat which, if made aware of what is at stake, they could use to stop temperatures from rising, does give many a sense of purpose.