We behave as if there is no penalty for our luxurious consumption
Climate scientists are warned to avoid words like 'disaster' - they lead to apathy and fatalism
In 1784, Robert Burns described a disturbing local phenomenon in a letter to a friend. A band of religious fanatics were roaming the countryside of south west Scotland, led by a woman who gave people the spirit of the Holy Ghost by breathing on them "which she does with postures & practices that are scandalously indecent." Their tenets, Burns wrote, were "a strange jumble of enthusiastic jargon" and their behaviour offensive enough to have them run out of several towns. Men and women "lodge and lye all together" and believed they could commit no moral sin. All in all, it was to Burns "one of the many instances of the folly in leaving the guidance of sound reason, & common sense in matters of religion."
These were the Buchanites, an obscure branch of Scottish theological history that died with its last adherent in the 1840s. Their leader, Elspeth 'Lucky' Buchan, had abandoned husband and children to become a religious voluptuary who imagined herself to be "the Woman Clothed with the Sun" in the prophecies of Revelations. As the end of the world was nigh, there was no point in celibacy or marriage and children. Infanticide and unusual degrees of sexual liberty were rumoured. Then, after more than three years of prophecy and rough sleeping, the Buchanites threw away what valuables they possessed (watches, rings, shoes) and obeyed Mrs Buchan's instruction to climb Templand Hill in Dumfries-shire. There, in July, 1786, they built a platform and stood singing and wailing on it to await their transfer to heaven.
A storm blew up. The platform collapsed. The disconsolate Buchanites tramped downhill through the mud. There was amusement from the watching crowd. Lucky Buchan never recovered from the ignominy and died five years later, when her remaining followers buried her in feathers so she would be in good condition for her resurrection, which was expected to be soon.
Consider the Buchanites on the hill that day in the summer of 1786, looking up to what they hoped would be the face of God. What was the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere up there beyond the clouds? Probably not much more than 280 parts per million (ppm), the figure we now judge to be its pre-industrial level, which in the records of climatology ended in 1750. But even in 1786 it was changing, thanks primarily to one of Buchan's fellow Scots. James Watt's improved steam engines were already draining mines of water and blowing iron furnaces and soon their rotary motion would be powering textile, corn and paper mills, breweries and distilleries. As Buchan roamed around Scotland she might see a pillar of smoke from a lonely coal pit, not realizing (as nobody else did for the next two hundred years) that its carbon particles contained a different prescription for the world's end to that in Revelations.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 379ppm in 2005 and rising at just under 2ppm annually. Add methane and nitrous oxide, and the current total of greenhouse gases expressed as carbon dioxide equivalents, stands at 459ppm. The European Union's ambition is to halt growth at 550ppm of carbon dioxide, and greenhouse gases in total at 666ppm. Even if this target proves achievable, it offers no hope that the world will stay much the same. "Dangerous" climate change is reckoned to be a rise in the global average temperature of more than 2C; the Stern Report says that a rise of 3C is more likely than not when greenhouse gases reach 650ppm.
The latest IPPC predictions are no more cheerful. No matter what we do to stabilize emissions in future, "anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries due to the time scales associated with climate processes and feedbacks." We can mitigate future consequences by cutting the growth in emissions and adapt to them by building sea walls, but about some things we can do nothing. During the rest of this century, coral will continue to bleach and species to die, there will be more droughts and wildfires, glaciers will melt, the Arctic will shed much more ice, coast will crumble. Sub-Saharan Africa, the big Asian deltas, low-lying islands: these are not places you would want to be. If the Greenland ice sheet disappears entirely - which at present rates of shrinkage is likely - then seas already swollen thermally could rise by another seven metres and the world would assume the shape of the inter-glacial epoch 125,000 years ago.
We should be frightened. Perhaps we are. But fear finds odd expression. The popularity of Cormac McCarthy's doomsday novel, The Road, may be a symptom of fear as entertainment, the make-believe of the story strengthened in our heads by the knowledge that, yes, it may well end like this. Elsewhere, there is what Leo Hickman warned against in the Guardian this week: "eco-fatigue". He quoted Professor Mike Hulme, formerly director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who told scientists and the media to steer clear of hyperbole - words such as "disaster", "apocalypse", "catastrophe" - when they were describing climate change predictions because it led to apathy and fatalism. Also, and never to be underestimated in a society that always demands new fashions, there is gathering irritation with the consumers of "green lifestyle choices" and their apparent belief that by driving to farmers' markets to buy organic carrots they have done their bit.
Mainly, we do nothing. No, worse than that, we behave as though there is no tomorrow, no penalty attached to our luxurious consumption, as thought the world's resources were infinite. London shops may ban free carrier bags, but the bar at Claridge's has introduced a specialism in bottled water: thirty expensive brands of it, with Berg from melted icebergs in Newfoundland selling at £30 a litre. What are we, the well off, prepared to renounce? Bottled water, air travel, cars, wage rises, profits, house price increases, central heating? The answer seems to be none of these things. In the last century the king of renunciation, the great advocate of restricting want, was MK Gandhi, who is the kind of figure that the struggle against climate change badly needs (unlike Al Gore, he practised what he preached). But it should be noticed that his followers tended to adopt the easier of his injunctions: chucking western clothes on to a bonfire was one thing, cleaning one's own latrine another.
I suppose we are in that state called denial, though that word suggests a refusal to acknowledge what Hulme wants us to stop calling a looming catastrophe. But a catastrophe is what it is, and our behaviour may be a reaction to that knowledge rather an avoidance of it; we may, in fact, be full and overflowing with acknowledgment. Future historians, should they exist, will surely look back on our time and see in its manic excesses the evidence of a society gathering its rosebuds while it may. At a conference on climate change last year I heard someone say that the fear of global warming was like the fear of death: always there but impossible to dwell on.
Lucky Buchan and her followers were very certain of heaven. That is their distance from the rest of us, then and now. In other ways, however, so many of us are Buchanites. We sense an inevitable apocalypse, live accordingly, and hope that our grandchildren have a high hill to live on, somewhere relatively wet and unpeopled like Scotland, and have learned to use a gun.