Slouching toward Karachi

Published on ENDS Report Blogs, on 25th August 2010.

Pakistan is experiencing the worst floods in its history. 20 million people have been displaced. Many have died. More will die. The waters have washed away more than homes and livelihoods, they have washed away years of investment in the public infrastructure that makes development possible. With it will have gone all confidence in the government.

Russia recently announced a ban on the export of grain. This is a consequence of its hottest summer on record. What harvest the fires did not burn, the drought destroyed. Grain production this year will be a third less than usual.

The smoke from the fires doubled the death rate in Moscow. But the real death toll will never be measured. Much of it will take place far away from Russia in those countries, Pakistan among them, where the poor cannot cope with a higher price for bread.

The Russian government has been strikingly complacent on climate change, sceptical about its occurrence, delusional about its impact on Russia. Among the major powers it has paid the least attention to the problem and been first among the laggards to do anything. Earlier in the month, Russian President Mevedev announced, to little notice, that climate change was a problem that the world really must do something about.

In China, heavy rains, together with considerable forest loss which does not get mentioned in the media reports, has resulted in massive landslides. In Peru a crisis emerged when temperatures in the Andes plunged to minus 24°C. In Greenland an ice island four times the size of Manhattan broke away from a glacier and floated off into the Atlantic Ocean. In Britain, we are experiencing the driest summer since 1914.

All of these events are a consequence of a shift in the path of the jet stream which is disrupting normal weather patterns around the globe. No one could claim that these events, however extreme, were a result of climate change. No single set of weather events can ever be attributed to climate change. But it is now well beyond reasonable doubt that what we have witnessed this year is a foretaste of the 4°C world we now seem determined to explore.

But you would not know it from anything you saw, heard or read in the media. So cowed has the editorialate become by the climate deniers and the failure of Copenhagen that it is doing a good impression of Basil Fawlty not mentioning the war. This current failure of our collective consciousness is collapsing the life chances of everyone on the planet under 40. But we seem to be suffering from an attack of moral constipation too embarrassing to discuss in public.

History does repeat itself, though not always in ways that we recognise at the time. Working on climate change, I imagine myself at times transported by a time machine back to the Germany of 1936. I know with certainty what is going to happen next. All the signs of that catastrophic future are already visible.

The people I speak to treat me with kindness. They listen to what I say. They agree that such things are possible. But they do not think they will happen here. The more agitated I become at their calm confidence in the constancy of the present, the more concerned they become about my welfare.

The historical stresses that led to the French Revolution were a long time building. They were locked deep into the unreformed feudal edifices and gross inequities of 18th Century France. Like many an old building, they creaked and groaned in the winds of events, let the rain in sometimes, but rode out the storms for year after year. Then a harvest worse than usual cut away the ground from beneath the foundations. The building collapsed and the echoes of its fall are still reverberating through history.

It is hard watching the current nightmare unfold in Pakistan, a country whose internal stresses and inequities are at least as great as they were in France, not to wonder if the floods are not cutting the ground from under the state itself. But, imagine what a nuclear armed Bonaparte might have wrought in Europe.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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