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‘The time to act is now'

Peter Roffey | Published:

I WROTE this article before the truly inspirational student march last Friday but that amazing event sparked me to submit it sooner rather than later. I start with two assumptions.

Last Friday's students' march was an inspirational event. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 25913620)

1. Climate change is happening.

2. It’s largely down to human activity.

The dwindling minority of islanders still in denial about this despite the overwhelming scientific consensus may as well turn the page now – unless they enjoy getting annoyed and muttering into their coffee.

If you’re still with me, I presume you accept that climate change is happening and that it is down to us – humanity – to do something about it. So what can be done? Where does Guernsey fit in? What will it mean for our standard of living?

Let’s start with the big picture. Clearly humanity needs to drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses it releases into the atmosphere.

What’s the best way to do that? Some have sought to provoke a completely false argument about the root cause of climate change. Is it global population growth? Or is it the sort of modern lifestyles which started to develop in the West during the industrial revolution and are now increasingly spreading to developing nations?

The simple answer is ‘both’.

Greenhouse gas release = world population x the typical carbon footprint of each global citizen. So we need to work on both sides of that equation.

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Let’s start with global population.

When I was born there were fewer than three billion people living on planet earth. Now it is 7.7bn and rising. That’s the bad news. The good news is that in recent decades the growth curve has started to flatten considerably and is projected to continue to do so.

Counter-intuitively it was the rich countries, where infant mortality is low and life expectancy is high, which were the first to stop growing their populations. So we definitely don’t need any pandemics, but we do have a conundrum.

It may well be that as the developing world gets wealthier it follows the West in seeing lower fertility rates. The problem is that unless there’s a global revolution in the way we live and measure ‘a good life’, each of their citizens will also start to have a bigger carbon footprint.

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Clearly it is a crucial part of any long-term solution to climate change to stop the global population rising and eventually see it decline. Not only would that help with the carbon equation but it would hopefully allow other species the space to thrive.

Greta Thunberg is right that climate change is one of the causes of the frightening number of species extinctions these days. But far more are simply down to a loss of habitat as human activity expands and dominates the surface of our globe, squeezing out other species. What is undeniably true is that the reduction in natural, unspoilt habitats also adds to climate change.

Before moving on from the population question, let me acknowledge how difficult it will be to manage a falling world population while ensuring humanity still thrives both economically and socially. Already the developed world is struggling with the fallout from the demographic time bomb. We are seeing an ageing demographic, with fewer young people as a proportion of developed communities. That will only worsen as the baby boomers get older and fertility rates fall.

If we want to promote global population reductions as part of our response to our climate crisis – and we should – we need our eyes wide open. These demographic challenges will worsen. Humans who have already been born are here for a lifetime, so falling birth-rates will skew humanity’s age profile for several generations.

How to cope? Well firstly by accepting that it’s necessary for our species’ long-term survival, so we should put our energy and our creativity into making it work rather than saying ‘I would rather not start from here’. Secondly, by realising that most people, of whatever age, like to feel useful and should be regarded as a resource to tap into rather than a burden or a dead weight on society.

What about the other side of the equation? How do we reduce the typical carbon footprint of the typical global citizen?

I’m no expert, but I think we all know most of the answers by now and if I had any doubt I received a blunt reminder recently when I attended an assembly at the Grammar School. Pupils there gave a stark shortlist of the behavioural changes required to tackle climate change.

Firstly, try to leave as much as possible of the world’s remaining reservoirs of fossil fuels, oil, gas, coal, peat and so on untapped. Instead, swap massively towards renewable, clean energy sources.

Relatively easily done for those things which can run on electricity, but it still requires governments to incentivise the right choices. I confess I still have an oil boiler, largely because the last time I needed a new one I found it was far cheaper than going electric. Shame on me.

Eat less meat. Here I score slightly better, having been a strict vegetarian since I was a teenager. Mind you, I still haven’t made the leap to being a vegan, so I suppose I only deserve a ‘could do better’.

Fly far less – at least until electric planes, charged from renewable sources, can be developed. I would prefer not to say how I score on this one.

Drive less and use public transport or active travel (cycling, walking and so on) whenever practical. Actually I think this is one of my better KPIs.

Plant like hell. Trees for preference, but any plants will act as a counterbalance to human activity and take carbon out of the atmosphere so if it’s green and alive, plant it. On the other side of the equation, stop clearing or developing green, living spaces. DPA take note – focus on brown field sites please.

Finally, back to where we were a moment ago – have fewer children.

I confess that I have always been slightly amused at how many of my greenest friends seem to have bigger than average families. Here I can at least bask in the knowledge that I have no biological progeny – at least I don’t think so.

Before moving on, can I say ‘thank you’ to those Grammar School pupils for inviting me to an inspirational assembly. Plus a huge congratulations to the organisers of the students’ march on climate change. Wow! What an event.

What should islanders be doing except all of the above? Well the first thing is to realise that the small size of our community is no excuse for inaction. Stop the whining chorus of ‘what difference can little Guernsey make?’ The global population is made up of 7.7bn individuals and the actions of every single person in Guernsey are just as important as their counterparts in China, India or the USA.

Secondly, start to realise that the issue is too big to tackle if we never do anything we don’t really want to do, or stop doing anything we really do want to do. Actually I think that penny has started to drop over recent years. I hope it isn’t too late.

Thirdly, we all really must stop the aggressive cynicism over environmental initiatives which are already making a difference. Whether it is the outstanding success of our bus service (could be even greater with paid commuter parking), measures to encourage cycling, or Guernsey Electricity finally exploiting photovoltaics, the reaction of some islanders (including some deputies) is always the same. Instead of celebrating a real difference being made, they think it is clever to snigger and belittle such efforts. We need a change of tone and attitude. Of course there is room for debate and disagreements, but scorn really isn’t helpful.

Lastly, we all – including me – need to develop more of a sense of urgency. Don’t panic, but do realise that the time to act is now.

What about the States? What are they doing? Not enough.

I have found it so frustrating that throughout this term whenever I have circulated ideas to colleagues for measures to respond to climate change I have been warned not to go off half-cocked. What was needed was not a scattergun approach but a joined-up strategy. Fine, but no such strategy ever seemed to be in the pipeline. Now at last it is.

Environment & Infrastructure is charged with reporting back to the States in the spring with a raft of measures to ensure Guernsey plays its part in tackling the biggest global challenge of our age. I have confidence in the membership of that committee, but I do worry.

Why? Because it is a department so ground down by years of relentless negativity towards almost everything it tries to do from a section of our population (not to mention the media) that they might just bottle it. Particularly just weeks before an election.

That would be understandable, but it would be tragic. The challenges are urgent, the zeitgeist is rapidly changing, and what is needed is a radical package not a damp squib. The States and the community need to be taken out of their comfort zones.

My message to E&I is to ignore the last roars of the dinosaurs who are blind to the increasing number of extreme weather events, storms, floods, droughts and desertification. You will never appease them anyway, so you may as well be bold. Better to risk a bloody nose for trying to do something meaningful than to be too timid when decisive action is clearly called for.

Finally, if we are positive for a moment and presume that our great-grandchildren will live in a world where the worst of the climate crisis has passed, what sort of life will they enjoy? Will they have to live in a post-industrial world, wearing homespun flax and ploughing their fields by horse? Not a bit of it.

It is not regression which will save humanity but progress. The green revolution will be a combination of lifestyle changes coupled with exciting new technology. Done well it can not only save our species but also create jobs,

increase wealth and lead to a better quality of life. Although we may need to slightly change the way we measure that.

Can the green revolution find ways to allow us to travel to the ends of the earth without damaging it? I really hope so as travel is my big passion, but if not I suppose we all need to make sacrifices. I can’t let my pleasure trump (small t) the future of humanity.

It really is that big. Of course the world is not in danger – in fact it might even be better with most of us gone – but our species is.

We like to think of ourselves as very clever apes indeed – so let’s start acting like it.

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