That sinking feeling

IssueJune - August 2004
Feature by Mark Lynas, PN staff

PN: Tell us a bit about yourself: your background and how you got interested in climate change issues?


ML: I've been fascinated by the natural world since I can remember - especially untouched places like mountains. I think the realisation of so much wild beauty being destroyed was my first impetus.

When I was at university I edited an environment page in the student newspaper, and I remember being furious about the M3 [motorway] cutting at Twyford Down at the time - although it was too far to go and visit, because I was at Edinburgh. After I'd left, I did get more involved in the direct action scene - starting off with roads and Manchester Airport, and then moving onto GM crops.

More recently I did a pie action on the anti-environmental writer Bjorn Lomborg, and only a couple of months ago I spent a few days at Blackwood, the anti-roads protest (now evicted, sadly) in South Wales.

I came to the view about four years ago that all these local campaigns, however valuable and important, were as nothing if climate change was allowed to spiral out of control over the next century. Look at conservation, for example. At the moment endangered species are conserved through protected wildlife areas. But once the climate changes, these areas will no longer be in the right ecological space, and many species will die. These ecosystems cannot easily adapt, given all the other human pressures on them. Nor can they move: the great-crested newt, for example, can't go north even if it wants to - it can't cross the motorway!

Tuvalu, south Pacific

  • Mark Lynas

I had been in Tuvalu for only two days when the first puddle of water appeared at the side of the small airstrip; more puddles soon joined it.


The sea had welled up suddenly through thousands of tiny holes in this atoll's bedrock of coral. People gathered to watch the water flow down paths, around palm trees and into back gardens. Within an hour, it was knee-deep in some places. One of Tuvalu's increasingly regular submergences had begun.

A similar thing occurs most winters in Venice, but Venice has #1.6 billion to spend on a system of protective floodgates. Tuvalu is one of the world's smallest and most obscure nations: 10,000 people, scattered across nine tiny coral atolls. Sea-level rise here is a crisis of national survival: very little of Tuvalu is much more than 20 inches above the Pacific and its coral bedrock is so porous that no amount of coastal protection can save it.

According to Professor Patrick Nunn, an ocean geo-scientist at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, atoll nations such as Tuvalu will become uninhabitable within two or three decades, and may disappear altogether by the end of the century. Pleas by a succession of Tuvalu's Prime Ministers (and those of other atoll nations such as Kiribati and the Maldives) for dramatic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions have been ignored by other, more powerful states. Tuvaluans will have to move.

The first batch of evacuees, 75 of them, is scheduled to migrate this year to New Zealand, 2,000 miles to the south. But many of the older people say they will refuse to leave. Toaripi Lauti, the first Prime Minister of Tuvalu when it became an independent country (it was a British colony until 1978), said: “I want my children to be safe. I tell them: you leave so that Tuvaluans will still be living somewhere. But I want to stay on this island. I will go down with Tuvalu.”

Government officials are angry at the international community's lack of response, and particularly with the Bush administration in Washington. Paani Laupepa, a senior official in the environment ministry, told me as we sat on a white-sanded beach: “We are on the front line of climate change through no fault of our own. The industrialised countries caused the problem, but we are suffering the consequences. America's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol will affect the entire security and freedom of future generations of Tuvaluans.”

Tuvalu has recently embarked on legal action to try to win compensation from the countries emitting most greenhouse gases. “But how do you put a price on a whole nation being relocated?” Laupepa asked. “How do you value a culture that is being wiped out?”


PN: The impact of climate change on sea levels appears obvious at first glance (sinking islands, receding coastlines and so on). But presumably it is the social, political and the knock-on environmental implications which cause the biggest concerns, for example: forced migration of populations, destruction of land-based eco-systems, loss of access to resources, sovereignty issues, and so on?

ML: Well, the point I try and make in the book is that all the current impacts - however terrible for the people on the front line - are just the first whispers of the hurricane that is bearing down on Planet Earth. We've lost a fifth of the coral reefs, half the glaciers in the Alps, large areas of coastline and lots of agricultural land already, with only half a degree of global warming. This next century could bring ten times that amount of warming, and the impacts will be catastrophic. The social and ethical implications of this are daunting - most people simply haven't thought about it. There are no international legal mechanisms for compensation, and laggards like the US seem simply content to stonewall for as long as they can. The Tuvaluans are already asking how anyone could value the worth of an entire nation. One can also ask the same of bio diversity: how much is the loss of the polar bear worth, once the northern sea ice melts irreversibly?

PN: You have talked about the islands of Tuvalu quite a bit and the court case the government has threatened to take against the US and Australian governments. What do think the prospects are for using the international legal system in this way to apply pressure on the world's polluters?

ML: See above. Also, Greenpeace is currently working on a campaign showing how UNESCO World Heritage sites are endangered because of global warming - this might force the UN to take stronger action. But legal systems are not established, and it's difficult to quantify the precise contribution a particular state or corporation has made to the problem and therefore assign responsibility. We are all responsible for submerging Tuvalu, every time we drive a car or hop on a plane. Should we all pay? So it isn't just a simple matter of having a go at the US.

PN: Earlier this year it was made public that even the report-writers for the US Pentagon were issuing dire warnings of the impact of climate change, with suggestions of European cities being under water within 20 years. Meanwhile in the White House - and around the world - the deniers were accusing climate change campaigners of scaremongering and flaky science. What impact do you think Schwartz and Randall's controversial report (see box on p28) might have on the US administration - and perhaps further afield?

ML: The Pentagon report has been taken slightly out of context, not least with claims in the Observer and others that it was “leaked” and “secret” when in fact it was on the internet the whole time. Basically it was never intended as a scientific study; it is simply a worst-case scenario visioning exercise highlighting some of the potential national security implications for the US of abrupt climate change. I also found it amusing that the authors of the report don't mention reducing greenhouse gases as one of the policy measures they advocate!

So it's not true to imagine that the Pentagon is fighting the White House on this, although it is a sign that thinking within the military top brass is moving away from the outright denial position adopted by the Bush Administration. The reason for this is straightforward: military people say “know your enemy” - they are not in the business of deceiving themselves about real threats, whilst Bush needs to wish away global warming in order not to have to confront its implications for his main support bases: the corporations and a consumption-obsessed American public.

PN:: You have co-authored texts with members of climate change campaign network Rising Tide. Are you involved in the RT campaign directly (or other climate change campaigns)?

ML: I helped set up Rising Tide, but I'm not involved directly any more - I found I had to be very careful about where I put in time and energy. At the moment I am doing other campaigning work: I'm helping organise a coalition of groups to generate momentum for a mass mobilisation on climate change at next year's G8 summit. This will involve Rising Tide, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other environmental groups, but hopefully also bring in a much wider constituency. Anyone wanting to get involved should contact me. At the moment it's at an early stage, but things should start moving faster in the next few months. We're aiming for a repeat of the success in Birmingham of the Jubilee 2000 movement, and Blair has indicated that to some extent we'll be pushing at an open door politically. One of the things that really worries me is that civil society is getting behind the politicians and businessmen here: we are still not advocating any coherent response to climate change, and if we don't come up with some unified demands soon, the chances are that those in power will define the agenda first.

PN: This issue of Peace News really focuses on stuff to do with the sea, but we know that your investigations into climate change have taken in a wider range of events and consequence, for example drought and dust storms. Could you briefly tell us about some of these?

ML: One of my case studies in the book is northern China, where two and a half thousand square kilometres of farmland turns to desert every year. Rainfall has declined and temperatures increased over vast areas of Inner Mongolia, Xin-jiang, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, leading to massive dust storms - which are so destructive that they ruin crops, erode the tarmac from roads, and in some cases even kill dozens of people. These storms are so big that sometimes their effects spread right across the Pacific and even spread a pall of Asian dust over the Rocky Mountains. People were telling me that they used to be much rarer: in the 1960s there were just a few dust storms in the whole decade, whereas now there are five or six every year.

PN: In a recent article for New Statesman (“Time to forgive Tony Blair?”) you suggested that it may be time for public concern to shift from the Iraq occupation to climate change. partly to give the British prime minister an opportunity to redeem himself. Don't you think the “war for oil” (and the obvious role oil plays in generating greenhouse gas emissions) is directly related to this issue and can be used to encourage an even wider group of concerned individuals to make the links and participate in climate change campaigns (as well as anti-war ones)?

ML: I admit this was a rather ill-timed article - it came out just as the Battle for Falluja and the al-Sadr rebellion started to flare up. And Blair certainly doesn't deserve forgiveness so far - it seems like US troops have been involved in war crimes and unspeakable atrocities against civilians in Falluja particularly. But my wider point stands: that wars, however horrific, come and go, whilst climate change will keep getting worse for decades and centuries unless we act fast to stop it. It's true that the Iraq war, being largely about the control of oil reserves, will simply worsen the problem by delivering the second-largest reserves in the world straight into the hands of the biggest climate criminal of all: the US. But it looks now as if the US is going to have a lot of trouble getting its hands on the oil - there's no way they will be able to maintain a fully-fledged occupation and still pump out large quantities from the ground without suffering major security threats. It would be great if some people in the anti-war movement began to make these links, though I haven't seen much sign of it so far. It's a fact that much of the orthodox left remains woefully ignorant about the environmental crisis, and some on the extreme left are absolutely opposed to any action, like those crazy “Ferraris for all” Communists.

PN: What do you think should be the main building blocks of future campaigning on climate change and what do think individuals and communities can do to impact negative climate change in a positive way?

ML: We don't have time to save most of the Andean glaciers or coral reefs. But we still have time to avert an ecological catastrophe that would rival the end of the dinosaurs in scale and destructiveness. However, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing: I estimate that we have less than 10 years to put in place a fully fledged international programme of greenhouse gas reductions. Currently we're still on the worst-case scenario curve of business as usual. Politically speaking, I'm committed to the “contraction and convergence” approach, whereby an upper limit for greenhouse gas concentrations is set, and the budget of remaining emissions is divided fairly amongst the world's countries on a per-capita basis. Visit the Global Commons Institute website for more on this: . The equity aspect of C&C isn't intended to be just nice: it's a political compromise intended to bring in the South. At the moment, countries like Brazil and India are refusing to make any cuts, because they say it would impinge on their “right” to development. If they go the same way as we did, we're all in deep trouble, so the historic rich-poor compromise involved in C&C is that rich countries buy the right to keep polluting (though under a contracting budget, eventually arriving at sustainability) from the poor. There's a lot more I could say about this, but I'm convinced it's the only solution that will get us to where we want to be. Nothing else comes close.

Topics: Climate Change
See more of: Interview