Deny the poor world its carbon!

I heard Gwyneth Lewis on “Today” the BBC’s radio 4 yesterday morning. She wrote and read to us “A Letter to CP Snow”. She has the curious appointment of Wales’ first National Poet; I say curious because I never regard poetry as being bounded by national borders, only language, so the title, as all rewards of princes, is somewhat meaningless.

She explained to those of us listening at about quarter to eight how she was no Luddite and founded her work on fact. And then she said something interesting, but wrong. Very wrong. It is interesting because it identifies the most central problem about global warming and climate change.

This is what she said:- “See how the wealthy want to deny the poor world its carbon, having enjoyed its wealth for decades”. 

This really is looking at the wrong problem and there are some factual inaccuracies, which I am sure Ms Lewis will regret. Since about 1750 parts of the world have created much more carbon than the earth’s bio system can soak up, by burning carbon that has been stored in fossils. The United Kingdom (including Wales) have been responsible for on average 320 tons of carbon per capita since 1751, easily beating the United States into second place and Germany into third place. Japan is “only” responsible for 100 tons, but China for about 25 tons. India probably only emits, on this basis, a few tons, as does virtually all of Africa. Chinese and Indian emissions are rising incredibly rapidly. 

The UK, USA and Germany did not consciously seek to enjoy carbon wealth; they developed industries that mined and burnt coal for the benefit of the inhabitants of those countries (at for the benefit of some of them) and developed oil drilling and burning and then natural gas exploration and burning.  

The poor nations did not develop these industries and practices by choice, but usually due to a lack of mineral resources; it is inconvenient to establish factories in places where there is no ready supply of fuel. 

About twenty or so years ago leading scientists promulgated a theory of global warming due to anthropogenic causes; this theory had been around (but largely ignored) in earlier forms since 1827, but it was given increasing scientific credibility by United States scientists. Today, virtually all scientists think that there is a 90% probability that global warming is occurring and will lead to disastrous consequences if carbon emission is not reduced. 

In these circumstances it is not just the wealthy that want to deprive the poor of carbon; the whole planet ought to want to deprive the poor of “their” carbon. If, in a few years, China emulates the United Kingdom’s carbon out put per capita then we shall almost certainly be doomed.

And the poor will suffer the most and will suffer first; that is without a doubt as all scientific consensus shows that low lying areas that hold vast amounts of the poor, unable to afford flood defences and with no weher to go, like Bangladesh, will flood; the increasingly violent weather – longer harder monsoons and typhoons, longer and hard droughts, will hit equatorial and tropical regions first, where the poor live. 

So unless we deprive the poor of their right to emit carbon, the poor will suffer first and most. 

We must also recognise that the poor are themselves contributing not so much to carbon emission, but by destroying the source of storing and cleaning the atmosphere of some of its carbon, by a clearing  tropical rain forest each year about equivalent to the twice the surface area of Wales. They do not do this to poison the planet(any more than the rich did) but to live, beocme more prosperous and care for their families.

So you see that is why I think that Ms Lewis has got it very wrong. It is terribly important to get these things right, at least in terms of stating the problem. I have picked on a few words from a piece that took several minutes to broadcast, but those words typify the muddled thinking that exists about these critical issues.  

I do not know what the answer is as far as the poor and their standard of life is concerned, at least not completely, and we will all have to work out a solution. It will not be easy. 

I am not a scientist and I love poetry. I have always thought that science and poetry are similar in that they both need to be founded on sincerity to make sense. But sincerity must involve describing what actually is first (wart and all), and then what you feel about it. If you get the facts wrong, then your feelings are likely to be wrong, too.

Ms Lewis declaimed on the radio “Here’s to scientific fact.” I could not agree more.