By the time this letter goes out it may have become clear whether a tipping point has occurred in the global spread of the coronavirus.
Its foothold outside China (in S. Korea, Italy and Iran) is already beyond a point where there can be confidence about its containment. Without downplaying the deaths, suffering, fear and disruption caused by the virus, some rueful contrasts can be drawn between how urgently this silent and invisible killer is being responded to and the seemingly endless prevarication and avoidance by governments over our own lethal disruption of entire Earth systems. So for CPA, it’s business as usual against a backdrop of shifting attention.
Rolly Montpellier, co-founder of Below 2C, wrote an article in July 2019 characterising our situation as a race between two tipping points. Either we sail past 2 degrees of heating into irreversible and escalating climate chaos and continue damaging the web of life on Earth beyond recovery, or a critical mass of human action tips us back into a set of “livable” if depleted Earth systems.
This is an arresting narrative and one which may itself help to mobilise and motivate, even perhaps to help us contain our uncertainty. So it is worth exploring. The complexity and unpredictability of tipping points in both Earth and human systems makes confident prediction difficult if not impossible, but we can still look at what is going on in each of those realms and try to weigh the evidence and trends.
Head in the Clouds
An article in Vice by Maddie Bender, featured on 8th February in Richard Pauli’s The Climate Vote, carried the alarming title Climate Change Predictions Have Suddenly Gone Catastrophic. This is Why. Our first reaction to such a headline might be how could predictions get much more catastrophic? Roger Hallam, months before he rose to controversial prominence as co-founder of XR, was presenting a dire analysis based on current heating, “baked in” further heating, an estimate of feedbacks and the worrying paradox of a temperature spike that would or will ensue from cleaner air, due to loss of the dimming effect of atmospheric pollution. This analysis was presumably behind the XR skull motif and the placards saying “We’re F****d” which have been visible at some of its demonstrations.
So what does Bender’s article reveal that’s new? It’s all about climate sensitivity – the heating effect of a doubling of atmospheric CO2 and the role of clouds in determining this. Reading the whole article suggests that the headline is an attention-grabber. The content is a bit more circumspect, with comments like “scientists are scrambling to understand why” the new models are making things look worse…”and if they can be trusted”. Also: “Just because clouds are being modelled more realistically does not make the model as a whole better”. This recent work may in time add significantly to our worries, but for now it looks like one for the uncertainty box. Those suffering from bad news fatigue will probably ignore such items; those drawn to fresh news of catastrophe will add them to the already large tally. Most will remain unaware, by intention or not, of material from specialist channels like Vice. Perhaps commonest amongst the concerned will be a weary shrug. We already know how bad it’s looking.
A similar range of reactions can be heard in response to the latest extreme weather calamities across the globe. The big difference here is that, whereas scientific work can be overlooked with relative ease, fire and flood are visible and tangible disasters which make not just headlines but deep impressions. CPA being an increasingly global network encourages us to remember that we all inhabit the same planet and we are linked to each other through our experiences and in our grief, fear and anger. We also share a journey of Earth consciousness, which means noticing all that is other-than-human around us but also the bonds and being alert to distractions in our own culture which pull us away from that noticing. CPA member Denis Postle has created a film The Climate Tsunami in which the Earth itself tells the story of what we are doing to it and to ourselves in the process. This is a powerful yet gentle contribution to the shift in consciousness, the awakening from our sleep walk, which has been so long and so desperately needed.
A Social Tipping Point
It has long been clear that an extraordinary alignment of forces pursuing climate action will be needed, to have any chance of transforming an economy built on fossil fuels, with all the inertia, investment and vested interests which keep it in place.
An impressive alignment has indeed been forming over the past couple of years, largely through the eruption of protest in response to official climate reports, backed up by powerful commentary and warnings from many quarters that have been hard to dismiss or ignore. XR and Greta Thunberg now seem like part of the landscape and it’s easy to forget how quickly things have changed. The grief, anger and horror over humankind’s ecocidal rampage reached a kind of crescendo over the colossal loss of wild animals during the recent Australian bushfires. It was as if a collective cry went up round the world: Have we no shame, no compassion, no sense, when it comes to cause and effect? Is there no end to our blindness, greed and evasion? Perhaps this experience and response has etched itself deeply enough into collective awareness not to be washed away by time and distractions, or our strong desire for comfort.
The alignment has several other ingredients. It has been ironically observed that the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism. (Terms get argued over. “Capitalism” here very briefly refers to a culture for the maximisation of private profit and externalisation of costs into the global commons). Fly tipping (an increasing problem in the UK) reveals this at the individual level. Collectively and globally, we are fly-tipping into the atmosphere, land, oceans and rivers. But voices from the pinnacles of capitalism too have been issuing warnings for a while now. Ex Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has repeatedly warned that our financial system is ill-prepared for the shocks of climate change. He was recently backed up by Larry Fink, CEO of Black Rock, the world’s largest fund manager, although there have been warnings against reading too much into that statement. Urged into action by his employees at Amazon, Jeff Bezos has pledged $10bn towards the fight against climate change. Alison Rose, recently appointed head of British bank RBS, has promised an overhaul in light of the threat. And JP Morgan, leading funder of fossil fuel enterprise, has now joined the chorus of voices suggesting that the industry’s days are numbered. Even BP’s new boss has flagged up a change of direction. Are these people indulging in greenwash or getting serious about system reform? And could the former motive serve the latter outcome? Maybe the corporate world is waking up to the prospect that even their all-important brands and profits will suffer on a dying planet. All we know for sure is that a growing number of powerful people have learned their climate lines and that there is employee pressure for action in at least some of their organisations.
A division has emerged in the Murdoch Family with Rupert’s son James condemning the company’s support and promotion of climate denialism, particularly through Fox News. Such news is likely to ignite a flicker of hope, if only to be followed by a dose of scepticism, in recollection of numerous false dawns. The tipping point is being questioned in our hearts and weighed in our minds.
Another development in the mix is the advent of citizens’ assemblies in France and the UK to grapple with the options for climate action. This is a partial realization of one of XR’s core demands, but as one of its spokespeople commented, the UK version is not commissioned by the government and lacks teeth. This does not completely rule out its value as a piece of participatory democracy – it is a model of serious, well-informed and carefully devised engagement with the greatest problem in our history. Although Stephen Buranyi declares bleakly in The Guardian that a citizens assembly is pointless if the government won’t listen it could, despite the December election result, yet prove to be part of a movement which will force the government to listen. This would admittedly take some doing, under a Prime Minister who reputedly does not “get” climate change and apparently has no time to visit the areas most devastated by the floods in the wake of storms Ciara and Dennis.
The Vagaries of the Law
It has been a very mixed month for the workings of law in the climate arena. The failure of Juliana v USA was a big disappointment, though CPA member in Washington Lise Van Susteren, an expert witness in the case, says the battle is not over. A US Court of Appeals found for the plaintiffs on nearly every count, but ruled that it has no power to prevent the government from harming children through climate change. More chilling in terms of the sheer ruthlessness of some corporations and the degree of legal bias and corruption from which they can benefit is the story of Chevron’s determination to destroy the career and life of lawyer Stephen Donziger, who had won a ten-year battle with the company over the damage caused by their operations in Ecuador. The only crumb of comfort to be found in this story is the observation at the end of the article that the overwhelming resources deployed by Chevron to neutralise Donziger are a sign of the fear of the fossil fuel industry that the tide is turning in favour of holding it accountable for the damage it has inflicted.
An outstanding victory in the UK has been the decision by North Somerset Council to reject plans for the expansion of Bristol airport. XR was at the forefront of the campaign to oppose the proposal. Also involving XR and following a previous case where the jury voiced regret over their guilty verdict, was the summing up by District Judge Noble at City of London Magistrates Court:
“This is going to be my last Extinction rebellion trial for a little while. I think they only allow us to do so many of these before our sympathies start to overwhelm us.
When I started, I was fully expecting to see the usual crowd of anarchists and communists, and all the dreadful things the Daily Mail say you are.
I have to say I have been totally overwhelmed by all the defendants. It is such a pleasure to deal with people so different from those I deal with in my regular life. Thank you for your courtesy, thank you for yor integrity, thank you for your honesty. You have to succeed.”
The impression from this remarkable statement has been reinforced anecdotally by people witnessing other trials of XR activists. It will take a lot more than a few aware judges and juries to make a Summer, but in the workings of law as elsewhere, we can see signs not just of oppression but of recognition that the dire necessity of a social tipping point is a conceivable possibility.
Just in time for this letter was the spectacular news that a third runway at Heathrow Airport has been deemed illegal by the Court of Appeal. The plan was deemed inconsistent with the UK’s commitment to the Paris accord. At last the treaty has found some teeth. May this decision be the first of many and not be reversed just because it halts the fatal march of business as usual.
1. Tipping Points: For anyone interested in an extensive but readable analysis, this Carbon Brief article and diagram is recommended. “Nine tipping points where a changing climate could push parts of the Earth system into abrupt or irreversible change.”
2. Nature can do her own tipping. There is an increasing number of examples around the world of restoration taking place naturally when we stop trying to manage everything and allow it to happen. Here is one example.