We have left it late. But it is not yet too late. In the first of those truths lies the justification for fear. In the second lies the possibility of hope. The Cop26 summit on climate change crystallises a moment when the fate of humanity hovers between these realities.
It is all too easy to be overwhelmed by terror and despair. The first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published in 1990. It laid out very clearly the catastrophic consequences of continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Yet global greenhouse gas emissions are on course to be 16 per cent higher by the end of this decade compared to 2010.
Thirty years of failure to heed the warnings raises grim questions. Are our political systems so corrupted and dominated by those who have vested interests in the carbon economy that they cannot act in the collective interest?
Are our imaginations so limited that we have to see apocalyptic fires and biblical floods before we truly believe what is happening?
Despair is both disabling and unwarranted. Those gathering in Glasgow must not allow themselves to succumb to the two most wistful words in the language: if only.
There has been an abundance of sheer malignity: Donald Trump’s assaults on science and truth; Jair Bolsonaro’s savaging of the Amazon rainforest; Rupert Murdoch’s systematic support for climate denialism.
There has been the more subtle propaganda of the big carbon producers, the false reassurance of greenwashing.
And there is the gravitational pull of mere inertia, the million immediacies that obscure the wider canvas of existential necessity.
These forces have driven us very close to the edge. The last decade has been the hottest on earth for 125,000 years. It is now, according to the IPCC, a virtual certainty that the world will experience within the next two decades 1.5 degrees of heating over pre-industrial levels.
Some of the forces we have set in motion, like rising sea levels and the retreat of glaciers, will not be reversed for centuries to come.
We are living in the future we were warned against. There is little doubt that in 2031 we will be looking back on this year’s weather-related disasters with some degree of nostalgia.
Moment of crisis
Yet despair is both disabling and unwarranted. Those gathering in Glasgow must not allow themselves to succumb to the two most wistful words in the language: if only. It is sadly true that they can look back over the last 30 years and sigh that if only their governments had acted sooner, humanity would not be at this moment of crisis.
But that realisation must galvanise their determination that their successors will not look back in 30 years’ time and utter those same words with a much deeper sense of anguish.
Seeing the damage as clearly as they do now, they must act to limit it. They must commit themselves – not on paper but in reality – to cuts of at least 50 per cent in carbon emissions over the rest of this decade and their complete elimination by 2050.
They have the power to do so: rapid, co-ordinated and transformational action can ensure that heating is kept to 1.5 degrees by the end of this century.
The technologies needed for this transformation are already well developed. The science is increasingly difficult even for the worst deceivers to deny. Above all, people the world over now understand that the price of passivity is infinitely higher than the cost of change.
Cop26 is not a chance for global leaders to make history. It is much bigger than that. It is their one-off opportunity to reshape humanity’s relationship to the natural world.
The idea that our species can and should dominate and exploit nature has driven the progress of civilisation. It has now reached its end point: the realisation that if we treat the world as material to be burned we ourselves will be consumed in that fire.
In this end must be a beginning. This conference can be the start of a new epoch of interdependence, one in which we finally accept that no country can prosper without the others and that no species – even one as arrogant as ours – can afford to be careless of the fate of all the others.
James Connolly, in a very different context, wrote that “our demands most moderate are, /We only want the earth.” That is all that humanity demands now of those who hold its fate in their hands.