Below, my article, as it appears in the September edition of Forum, journal of the Irish College of General Practitioners
BY ALMOST any measure, climate change poses the greatest threat to human health and well being in the 21st century. An international scientific consensus attributes the same level of certainty that climate change is both extremely dangerous and primarily anthropogenic in origin as exists linking tobacco and a range of life-threatening conditions.
There are, of course, those who disagree. That a handful of historians continue to dispute that the Holocaust actually occurred, or that a tiny minority of doctors oppose all vaccinations hardly weakens the consensus evidence, accumulated over decades, supporting both the terrible reality of the Holocaust and the enormous health benefits that have flowed from vaccination programmes.
Philip Michael has detailed elsewhere the agonisingly slow progress of international efforts to curb the worst effects of climate change. Meanwhile, the unstoppable march of growth-based global consumerism is on a collision course with the immovable limits of a finite, battered planet.
Our shared biosphere is being unintentionally overwhelmed by the collective activities of billions of people going about their daily lives. “An Armageddon is approaching at the beginning of the third millennium. It is not the fiery collapse of mankind foretold in sacred scripture. It is the wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity,” is how famed naturalist, Prof EO Wilson put it.
In the four decades or so since 1970, the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish in the wild has declined by an average of 52%. For every two wild creatures alive on Earth when I was in primary school, today only one remains. “This global trend suggests we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history”, according to the WWF.
Our fellow species have thus far borne the brunt of this dramatic reshaping of the surface of the planet to provide for the needs and wants of a single species. It is difficult to imagine that, having sown the storm, human health and welfare can expect to escape the gathering whirlwind of a destabilised global climatic system.
The portents of widespread system failure are everywhere to seen. In China, air pollution is now so severe that scientists have described its effects as being akin to a nuclear winter, with plant photosynthesis being disrupted – potentially wreaking havoc on China’s food supply. Beijing’s pollution levels have rendered it “almost uninhabitable for human beings”.
Closer to home, the World Health Organisation (WHO) produced a study on European air pollution. The word they used to summarise their own conclusions was “staggering”. The WHO study attributed some 600,000 deaths in Europe every year directly as a result of air pollution; it calculated the annual cost of illness and death at some $1.6 trillion.
One in four Europeans falls ill or dies prematurely from environmental pollution, and the number one cause of this pollution is the wide-scale combustion of fossil fuels, notably the filthiest of fuels, coal and peat. Diesel engines are a major urban killer. A study in The Lancet in 2011 implicated traffic exposure to particulates as the single most serious preventable trigger of heart attack in the general public.
To date, global average surface temperatures have increased by around 0.85C. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s the fastest rate of change since the last Ice Age. Atmospheric CO2 levels haven’t been this high in at least three million years. At that time, sea levels were 20 metres higher than today.
The agreed threshold beyond which climate change accelerates from ‘dangerous’ to ‘irreversible’ is +2C above pre-industrial levels. We are almost half way to that red line, and emissions continue to rise, year on year. To have any hope of staying below the +2C guard rail, at least 80% of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves can never be burned.
Given that these are worth trillions of euros, persuading or coercing corporations and governments to not tap into this easy, but deadly, wealth, is a challenge of epic proportions.
Harnessing the power of fossil fuels has proved to be a Faustian bargain. It lifted much of humanity out of poverty, and allowed the explosive increases in food production necessary for a quadrupling of our numbers in a single century. Life expectancy and health outcomes have improved for many, yet growing inequality means billions more continue to live in grinding poverty.
The price of bare-knuckle ‘economic progress’ has been the unprecedented wreckage of the natural world – the very systems upon which, ultimately, all human welfare depend. In the words of author and activist Naomi Klein: “our economy is now at war with many forms of life on Earth, including human life”. In this war, there are no winners.