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Let’s be realistic

Politicians and journalists habitually say, condescendingly, that environmental campaigners are unrealistic in our demands. The problem is not that we are unrealistic. The problem is that we have read the science and are operating with a different understanding of what is realistic.

The response to covid has demonstrated that what is politically and economically unrealistic can change in a few weeks. Two years ago a demand for everyone to stay in their own homes for 23 hours a day was politically unthinkable; 18 months ago nearly everyone complied. In 2007 it was unthinkable that the government would give private banks support worth £1.162 trillion (£1,162,000,000,000, i.e. more than one million million); it was done by 2009. During the second world war businesses were left in private hands but subject to a degree of state direction that would have been unthinkable in 1938.

Scientific realism is not open to such adaptation. Change is happening on a geological scale, a scale that is difficult for us to comprehend. Geological speed is too slow for the human eye to detect the change so we look to the people with the tools to detect the change, the scientists. In geological time, the fifth major extinction was 66 million years ago when three quarters of plants and animals, including the dinosaurs, were driven to extinction by climate change. Then climate change was caused by an asteroid. Today we are living through the sixth major extinction, an outcome of climate change caused by us. The faster the climate changes the more difficult it is for plants, animals and ourselves to adapt.

If we want to limit and slow climate change we have to cut our green house gas emissions fast. Scientists inform us that carbon emissions need to be cut 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 to give us a 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C. If all the pledges made at COP26 are met, global emissions in 2030 will be 14% higher than those in 2010. Politicians and journalists tell us that, in terms of political realism, this was a success. To be realistic in scientific terms, it was a failure.

When political and economic realism collides with scientific realism there can be only one winner. Slowly but inexorably scientific realism will grind political realism to dust. Slowly but inexorably more species die. Stewardship of the natural world is not only a moral responsibility, it is in the interest of the vast majority of people. Responsible stewardship requires substantial and rapid action. It is the only realistic response if we want to protect our beautiful world.

by Rebecca Saville

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