I sometimes wonder, were an asteroid on a collision course with the earth, how would humanity would react?
I would like to imagine that we would rally together, unify, take immediate action, and secure our future on this wonderful planet, but our current behaviour brings this assumption into question.
The benefits of a high-tech civilisation are many, but the downside to the incredible amplification of human power that comes with it, is possessing the technological capability to destroy ourselves. This threat manifested itself in 1961 with a nuclear armed face off between the USA and Russia, but also saw them eventually cool off and realise the futility of such action.
Our Bay of Pigs moment has already arrived, and to survive it we must respond.
On 9 May this year the number of parts per million (ppm) of carbon in the atmosphere exceeded 400ppm for the first time in at least 800,000 years. Anything above 450ppm dangerously risks pushing us passed an irreversible tipping point. This is would mean the climate is then out of our control and a series of deadly events would unfold: the melting of the icecaps leading to a reduction in the amount of sunlight reflected back into space, increasing amounts of the greenhouse gas methane being released from melting permafrost, and forest fires and rainforest destruction reducing the planet's ability to remove carbon from the air, therefore leading to more heating. The end result is a planet 6°C warmer and no longer capable of supporting our current civilization.
To anyone who wishes to claim that 400ppm is merely one more than 399ppm, surely you celebrated the millennium, your tenth birthday, your anniversary? And yet, not one mainstream British newspaper led with the 400ppm headline. Instead, the lead story was Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United.
A month later, data from the New European Commission showed that Britain's carbon emissions rose by nearly 4%, more than any other nation in Europe except Malta. Whereas the EU as a whole saw a reduction of 2% in its emissions, and Finland and Belgium cut by nearly 12%. The current behaviour of Britain is not only self-defeating, but roguish and recklessness, both in terms of its disregard for the welfare of its own citizens, but also its neighbours in the global community.
If we return to the asteroid example, but this we time suppose that someone comes forward proposing a plan to avert its collision with earth. Imagine if this was the response to them "Ministers say the target would place too many restrictions on business at a time of economic difficulty." Yet this was the precise response from the government to conservative rebel MP Tim Yeo`s decarbonisation amendment, which aimed to greatly reduce the amount of carbon intensive fossil fuel power generation by 2030, but was defeated on June 4th in the House of Commons by 290 votes to 267.
It is interesting to observe how national leaders express their goals - especially as our future now depend on them - since it provides an insight into their level of seriousness and commitment. John Kennedy, in 1961, said "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon". The statement could not be more clear or precise, and was a brave risk on his part, since failure would have been obvious to all. But compare it to David Cameron, who in 2010 said that he wanted the coalition to be "the greenest government ever". A statement so vague as to be meaningless, containing no objective definition or method of measurement, and therefore providing a built in escape hatch for him to leap out of; which he gladly has done.
Yet I do not despair, and feel more hopeful than years.
I remember marching in the streets before the Copenhagen treaty in 2009. I know I was alone in my confidence, there was a general sense that the wind was in our sails. When the treaty crashed to the ground I was shocked. The despair was sensed from outside, and the denial industry - backed by fossil fuel money - pounced on the situation, sending waves of orchestrated doubts spreading like a cold in winter.
Now the wind appears to be draining from their sails, as people realise the magnitude of the situation. With 97% of climate scientists agreeing that global warming is man made, the argument is over among sensible people. Without treating the internet like a panacea, its increasing sophistication provides greater numbers of people with more diverse information and viewpoints than the historically more delimited and factional world of the traditional media. This has helped result in more than 3.1 million people signing a Greenpeace petition to make the Arctic a global sanctuary in defiance of fossil fuel companies desires to drill it. There are also transition movements growing throughout the country, with ordinary people taking matters into their own hands; a prime example being the sustained occupation at Heathrow airport where they are resisting a third runway.
It might be said that talk of asteroids and destruction to civilisation is alarmist, polemical, and childish, but the great climate scientist James Hansen said in response to the unprecedented Arctic ice melt last summer that "We are in a planetary emergency". In the face of such a stark warning it is childish and irresponsible not to respond, and polemical and alarmist to ignore the scientific community's advice. We owe it to the children of today, and the future, who are relying on us to act now.