Last weekend I went for a walk amongst an ancient grove of oaks – not just a picturesque carbon sink, but a useful illustration of how different communities experience uncertainty about the future. Once numbering 4,000 trees, this oak plantation was planted sometime in the Middle Ages by a landowner who would already be dead by the time his crop could be harvested. The plantation is testament to his confidence in the future: his certainty that, generations hence, his progeny would continue to own the land and enjoy the revenues to be had from pollarding the great boughs used in building the ships on which the wealth and security of these islands once depended. But the oak-planter’s certainty about the future was undoubtedly mirrored by the uncertainty of those who sailed on the ships built from those same timbers. For centuries, thousands of lives were lost around these coasts every year, on fishing boats, warships, ferries, trading vessels, pleasure craft.
In our own era, we face a similar imbalance about the future. The wealthy nations are able to scan longer time horizons, not least the threat of climate change, while less-developed economies struggle to deal with the immediate challenges inherent in their lack of access to power and clean water.
Technology is the key. What changed marine fatalities in the 19th century was the invention of the telegraph. Being able to send information very quickly from one place to another allowed for the introduction of weather warnings, giving vessels the chance to return to port many hours before a storm hit. The widespread adoption of ‘shipping forecasts’ took time and was ultimately driven by the interests of the shipping insurers. Fewer sunk ships meant fewer lost cargoes and fewer pay-outs, but it also meant many lives saved. Importantly, it was a collective solution, with international interests working together to adopt protocols and share data.
There is no single solution to tackling climate change, or to energy inequality. But we must and we will continue to search for technologies that impact both sides of the equation; balancing the need to reduce global CO2 emissions while recognising the right for less-developed economies to increase their energy consumption on the road to ‘levelling-up’.