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Can anything or anybody stop climate chaos?

It says a great deal about current human values, the grip of the economic elite over society, and the scarcely challenged dominance of free market capitalism that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere passed 400 parts per million for the first time in 4.5 million years, yet it scarcely merited a mention in the news and certainly took any notice.

Of course the 400 ppm threshold is purely symbolic and a single figure actually conceals what is really disturbing – that the level of CO2 concentration has risen by almost a third in just 50 years which is scarcely a flicker of the eye in geological time or even in human terms (homo sapiens has been around for some 250,000 years).

Even more disturbing, per capita emissions of CO2 have more than doubled over the last 60 years and the rate of increase is gradually accelerating to the present rate of nearly 2ppm per year. At that rate it could be 800 ppm by the end of this century (it had been stable for centuries at around 280ppm before the Industrial Revolution). That could raise average global temperatures by between 4 and 6 degrees centigrade, more than twice what scientists regard as a safe level.

So why do we collectively ignore such an extreme risk which James Lovelock, one of Britain’s foremost scientists of climatology, believes will decimate the human population of the world by some 90%? Why does the human race go on pursuing such an enormous, uncontrolled and very likely irreversible climate experiment which could wipe out most of like on Earth? There are several factors which throw a penetrating light on the human condition.

First, the Industrial Revolution was, and is, built on fossil fuels and no government and no people are prepared to give up the lifestyle this has conferred, the assumption being made (however incorrectly) that any departure from a fossil fuel economy will irretrievably undermine the quality of life.

Second, the prevailing global ideology holds that any intervention in the free market must be resisted, even though the absence of intervention is producing an ever greater global external cost which could end up making life on our planet unbearable.

Third, the intense rivalry between the US and China is seen by both parties as overriding every other consideration, even though the catalogue of huge climactic disasters in both countries indicate this attitude is extremely short-sighted.

One can add other influences, such as the complexity of achieving an international consensus for action, the fantasy that whatever the problem science will fix it, or on another dimension individual short-termism and selfishness: “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”

Perhaps the most useful way of breaking this impasse would be a convincing, honest, and politically sellable vision of a prosperous low-carbon economy to show that it did not mean universal privation, far from it.

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