I had a fascinating encounter with two Extinction Rebellion activists in a television studio last week. We were there to film a pilot episode of the new Scottish evening news bulletin, and specifically to discuss the so-called “climate rebellion” and the crowds of schoolchildren who were being encouraged to bunk off school last week, ostensibly out of concern for the planet.
In the event, the studio discussion was rather uneventful – too short to be informative, and pitched at a rather numpty level – but I did enjoy my discussion with my opponents in the green room beforehand. Extinction Rebellion is noted for its avowed intention to use civil disobedience as the main tool of its campaigning armoury, and I was therefore expecting its representatives to be rather sinister, if not outright thuggish. In the event though, I found two personable young people who were happy to talk and share views. And while it’s fair to say we didn’t agree on anything very much, I think we learned a lot from each other.
I can report that they were both entirely sincere in their views. But I was shocked at how little they knew of the issues they were campaigning about. Their position was that the world was going to hell in a hand-basket and that they were going to do something about it.
So, when I suggested that the world wasn’t in fact on the brink of disaster, I got blank, uncomprehending looks. By way of example, I brought up the weather extremes that are said to afflict us in this age of global warming, and I pointed out that there was now little evidence to support such a view. In fact, this is hardly even the stuff of controversy any longer: The official position of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their latest report is that there are no significant trends, although they note that many studies have found that hurricanes have become less numerous and less intense in recent decades. Similarly, they find little evidence that droughts or floods are becoming worse on a global scale either. Heatwaves seem to be slightly hotter, as you would expect in a slightly warmer world, but evidence of problems is hard to come by.
At this news, my opponents looked suspicious – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the mainstream media never report inconvenient facts like this. Instead, they moved the conversation on to agricultural yields, which they said would start to plummet in five years’ time. This again seemed to fly in the face of the evidence: farm output continues to rise across the world and yield records are broken anew every year or so. Indeed, our agricultural output is so vast that one researcher has already suggested that we have reached “peak farmland”, a possibility that could lead to a vast transfer of land back to nature.
Unfortunately, the IPCC’s renewed enthusiasm for biofuels seems to have killed off this opportunity. They imagine vast areas of agricultural land being converted to biofuels: in essence, whatever crop might sequestrate carbon dioxide the fastest. In this country, that probably means mile upon mile of deathly Sitka spruce plantations.
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What was worse, neither of my two environmental activist friends had heard about what happened the last time the world tried to introduce biofuels on a large scale, again in a bid to “save the planet”. This is understandable because they would have been no more than children in 2007, but readers of a certain age may recall that people in Africa started to go hungry as grain prices rocketed. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Hunger said at the time that biofuels were a “crime against humanity”.
The decades of global warming have coincided with the most extraordinary flourishing of humankind. The extraction of hundreds of millions of people from absolute poverty in countries like China and India has been a triumph of the human imagination, and it has been powered almost entirely by fossil fuels. Life expectancy is rising, health outcomes are improving, human happiness is growing. Meanwhile, there is abundant good news from the natural world too. Manmade carbon dioxide emissions have brought about an extraordinary greening of the Sahel – the arid fringes of the Sahara – a development that is unarguably wonderful news both for nature and for the people who live there.
There is little or no sign of a “climate emergency”, yet here we are, with children taking to the street, arguing explicitly for “panic” in the face of a historical experience that suggests that this, rather than industrial capitalism, will bring down disaster on the heads of the most vulnerable, as well as destroying our chances of restoring vast swathes of the natural world.
And allegedly serious commentators are saying that we need to listen to them.
Andrew Montford is deputy director of the Global Warming Policy Forum. He can be found on Twitter at @adissentient