Every New Year’s Eve we become oracles, each prophesying the big political, economic and sporting moments for the year ahead. My son Fred once predicted “Tottenham Hotspurs will play football next season”. He was hedging against his team’s chequered history; but in the matter of foresight, our own record has proved just as unreliable (you know what I’m talking about…) Our family’s game is a bit of fun but we are not alone in attempting to peer over the horizon. Since the earliest time humanity has yearned to know what tomorrow holds before the sun rises. And in the course of a few millennia we have made some progress, notably in meteorology. Even so, accurate long-range weather forecasting remains elusive. There is, however, a class of seers whose long-range view is of enormous value. This unique perspective comes from the men and women who are able to look back on the Earth from space and see the finely drawn line between here and eternity.
NASA Astronaut Don Pettit describes the “thin life-preserving blanket of our atmosphere” and how it looks “so frail that it might crack and be gone in an instant, rendering Earth as barren and lifeless as any other baked hunk of rock orbiting the sun.” Many other astronauts have come to the same view and while a great deal of technology, cash and courage has afforded these insights into the frailty of our eco-system, somehow many of us hesitate to heed them.
Amongst those who do not hesitate is former US Secretary of Energy, Ernie Moniz. Writing in the Boston Globe earlier this month he made the case that action on carbon emissions is not only urgent but must begin at home. Despite the US dropping out of the Paris Agreement on climate, Moniz has been working with individual American states to support their ambitions to manage carbon emissions and continues to do so even as the new administration prepares to recommit in advance of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, scheduled for November 2021.
Climate forecasting is critical, but at the heart of the climate agenda there is a tension between long-term gain and short-term pain. Crudely put, those who are poor or vulnerable are concerned about what each day might bring, while the wealthy and secure make store for their old age and the generations to follow (viz zero-hours Amazon delivery driver versus Bezos Foundation). This same principle applies to addressing climate change. In relatively rich countries policy makers, companies and consumers are considering which clean energy mix will deliver the goal of ‘net-zero by mid-century’; meanwhile around 800 million citizens world-wide struggle to get electricity of any sort, today.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) close to 4 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution, much caused by cooking with biomass. In Sub-Saharan Africa 90 million primary school children attend schools with no electricity, impacting on the collective ability of communities to step up and out of poverty. The Rockefeller Foundation notes that electricity can increase per capita income by 39% but here’s the rub: of the 1.2 billion who gained access to electricity since 2000, 70% did so through fossil fuels. Many developing countries already include renewables in their energy systems but for many others natural gas offers the most pragmatic interim alternative to coal, diesel and biomass. The tragedy is that all these fuels contribute to changes in our climate which are likely to have a disproportionately greater impact on less-developed economies. According to WHO, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition and disease in the decades ahead.
While global warming is a matter of science rather than faith, the call for behavioural changes in the present to secure a better future embodies an ethos typically found in religious movements. Rich or poor, we may live in the moment, and think only of tomorrow or the day after, but from the Bronze Age cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries onwards, in our spiritual lives we have been able to conceptualise eternity, not least through nature’s cycle of renewal – birth, death and rebirth as season follows season. As we stand on the cusp of 2021, and with spring almost within sight, I have no appetite for short term prophecy. This time round I’m taking the long view; having faith that as the world prepares for COP26, together we will find a way to protect the thin life-preserving blanket of our atmosphere. Here’s hoping….