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From Munich to Copenhagen

A climate deal is like trying to halt the rains in Cumbria

Comment is Free, November 2009

For a while, it looked as if things might be returning to normal. The road outside my house, which had become a stream bed, reverted to asphalt. The waters which had coursed through nearby homes were falling back. The roads are still closed, the bridges still down, the fields still lakes, but it seemed the worst was over. Only now it’s raining again in Cumbria, and everybody is waiting to see when it will stop and what it will leave behind.

I have no idea whether the extreme weather currently raging outside my window has anything to do with climate change, but I do know that describing it as ‘extreme weather’ seems unconvincing. The last major floods here were just four years ago; some people had barely recovered before they were hit again last week. And I wonder how many more people will have to be rescued from their cottages with military helicopters, and how many more A-roads will have to collapse into the torrents beneath, and how many more National Trust tea rooms will have to be submerged under eight feet of water before we can grasp that the future is not behaving in the way it was supposed to.

There is a standard response to a situation like this which, as an environmentalist, I might be expected to follow. It is to say that these floods are a warning of what will happen if we can’t urgently reduce global emissions. It is to say that next month’s Copenhagen conference is a turning point, and that we urgently need a deal to stop climate change.

But I find I can’t say this stuff anymore; not because I have stopped believing in climate change, but because I have stopped believing we can prevent it. As the politicians prepare to fly to Copenhagen, I can’t help thinking of Chamberlain’s trip to Munich in 1938. Everyone could see, then, what the future held: it was there in Hitler’s speeches and in the ferocious aggression emanating from Germany. But still, Chamberlain hoped for the best. He came back with a worthless agreement, and everyone cheered. We forget now how the public loved Munich. They desperately wanted to believe that peace was possible, precisely because it was obvious that it wasn’t.

Perhaps when Copenhagen fails, like Munich before it, it will help us to accept that our visions of the future are also skewed by false hope. The mainstream narrative on climate change decrees that if we can get the Urgent Political Agreements in place, and produce enough turbines and electric cars quickly enough, we can ‘stabilise the climate’ and carry on much as before. It is a narrative built on an outdated faith in our reach and our technology, and it is rubbing up hard against the buffers of ecological reality.

We have pushed back the forests, denuded the oceans, exhausted the soil, tipped other species into extinction, expanded our population to the point where we can barely feed ourselves, and changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere. There is no quick fix for this, and possibly no fix at all. Our systems are simply not designed for it. An economy predicated on constant growth cannot be the engine of a change which urgently demands less of it. Democracies predicated on giving their consumer citizens What They Want are unable to tell them what they cannot have. And the psychology of a culture which reacts in fearful horror to any pothole on the road to utopia is not well placed to take a different path.

Which is not to say that the End Times are here. One of the other problems with the climate change narrative is that it presents us with only two futures: Saving The World, or Apocalypse Now. We will probably get neither. More realistic is that we will experience what most previous human societies experienced: a painful decline after a period of over-expansion. We hear a lot about the year 2050: it is a handy date on which to hang our hopes of a ‘sustainable society’, which has come to mean business-as-usual without the carbon. It seems much more likely that by 2050 we will be mining our landfill sites for valuablemetals and struggling to keep the electricity on, while we dream of the coral reefs that once flowered in the emptying oceans.

It looks to me like a descent has begun. A physical descent, from the peak of our oil supplies and our squandering of resources, but also a psychological descent from the peak of our comfortable illusions. The world is not going to be as we once believed it would be, and if failure at Copenhagen brings that reality nearer, then it could be of some use. It might help us to understand that windfarms and green consumerism are not harbingers of a ‘sustainable future’, but the last gasps of a wounded beast. We have less chance, now, of keeping this show on the road than we in Cumbria have of stopping the rain. In both cases, though we may not like it, we are going to have to learn to live with what comes from the sky.