The Climate Crisis: Badgers at dusk
Badgers at dusk: ' … elsewhere on the planet, floods, fires and famine rage'
Alamy, Christopher Mills
I’m writing these words an hour before sunset. At my back is a veteran oak tree whose immense girth suggests it’s about 300 years old. Below me, down a steep bank, lies an ancient badgers’ sett. I can see the great mounds of earth dug out by the tunnelling animals, and the fallen tree trunk on which their cubs play. I can also see three entrance holes from which I hope soon to witness the brock family emerge. The August evening light filtering down through the ancient oak is a deep, slowly darkening green, but bright enough to write by.
Tranquil as it is here at the badgers’ sett, elsewhere on the planet, floods, fires and famine rage. And the news from the recently published report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the first global assessment of the state of the climate since 2013, is that if we carry on as usual, these current biblical floods, brimstone burnings and the relentless displacement of peoples will spiral completely out of control to a bitter ending.
Is there no hope? According to the IPCC report, we still have time. Just. But what’s required is going to be very, very hard to achieve. And it must be done now. Our only chance is by meeting the requirements of the UN Paris Agreement, the 2015 landmark, legally binding international treaty, aiming to keep global temperature increases down to 2°C (preferably 1.5°C) and attain a climate neutral world by 2050. But in February, the UN admitted that most countries were not on track to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement. Moreover, many experts believe that even the Paris Agreement is insufficient to avert climate catastrophe. Which means that, against all odds, the upcoming, annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) has to result in countries immediately decarbonising on a level that they couldn’t comprehend as possible even a year ago. Which means that COP26 is one of the most important gatherings in human history.
And this is where I feel hope starting to fray. The UK government is hosting the meeting of 190 world leaders – and, it is hoped, Pope Francis – and over 30,000 delegates. The host is always instrumental to the success of a conference, but our current government shows no sign of embracing the depth of action that’s required. Or of even understanding it. Alok Sharma MP is the president of COP26 – the pivot on which our global fight against annihilation turns. Yet he habitually votes against measures to prevent climate change. In preparation for this vital last chance to avert catastrophe, he has flown to 30 countries in seven months. Can he really think that any part of the solution to limiting temperature rises to 1.5°C is by flying 200,000 first-class air miles whilst not quarantining during a pandemic? He also drives a diesel car. It’s not just the physical act; it’s the mindset it reveals.
Then there is Allegra Stratton, official spokesperson for the president of COP26. When asked how we can save the planet, she suggested not rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. On being pressed about inadequate government ambitions to fight the catastrophe, Stratton said that people could join Greenpeace or the Green Party. Sharma and Stratton take their lead from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who specialises in crass, provocative jokes when given the opportunity to talk to the world about climate change. Whether it’s on his recent trip to Scotland – when he cracked that Margaret Thatcher gave us “an early start” in fighting climate change by closing coal mines – or at the 2020 Climate Ambition Summit, when he talked in deliberately divisive tones about “hairshirt-wearing, tree-hugging, mung bean-munching eco-freaks”.
In another, less deadly context, such ineptitude might be comic, but behind this veneer of bumbling farce lies the government’s grinning skull of climate-aggravating actions – a third Heathrow runway, £27 billion of new roads, attempts to sink a coal mine in Cumbria, licences for fresh oilfields, and cuts to an aid budget, which is essential in helping poorer nations to meet their Sustainable Development Goals from the Paris Agreement.
Boris Johnson is an expert in Greenwashing – the art of pretending to nurture and protect the environment when actually smashing it up. A prime example of this is his grandiose pledge to build 300,000 new homes without harming nature. Will he achieve this by a rigorous and itemised plan of making the homes not only carbon neutral, but carbon negative? No, but by the much vaunted biodiversity net gain (BNG) system. The system will only allow housing and infrastructure developments if there is no “overall” loss of biodiversity. Sounds great. But it’s a barefaced lie. Developers will still be allowed to trash a site as long as they increase biodiversity by 10 per cent elsewhere. But biodiversity is something that takes a great deal of time to brew. For example, it would take a century for 10,000 newly planted saplings to match the biodiversity of the single oak at my back. As if that isn’t bad enough, the BNG algorithm that “measures” the biodiversity-worth of a site registers scrub as degraded land with no biodiversity value. Although it happens to be one of the default landscapes of Britain, developers can destroy it with impunity. BNG allows the Prime Minister to pretend he is taking action while allowing developers to continue as usual. If accepted at face value, this is the kind of lie that will destroy the world.
I’ve just written these solemn last words when I hear a telltale snuffle down below. A striped head emerges from the sett. It’s joined by a second. These are the cubs born last spring, and their mum soon joins them. It’s a sight I see often, but it never loses its wonder. A song thrush suddenly sings from the oak above. The badgers look up for a moment, then carry on playing.
Fortunately, my pencil can glide silently enough across the page not to attract the attention of this family 30 metres or so below me, so with one eye on their antics as they roll and tumble, and take turns climbing up a hawthorn, I carry on writing.
Along with the pessimism, I also feel a kind of unruly optimism that somehow the alchemy of a conference will lead to the kind of practical changes that can stop the current climate dystopia. Somehow COP26 will conjure up more ambitious legally binding targets by which governments and corporations can be held responsible for the damage they do, as happened recently when the oil company Shell was forced to lower its CO2 emissions, in a legal action brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands.
But even this would just be the start. Worldwide, citizens will have to oversee their governments’ every move, every action, every promise. We’ll have constantly to write to our MPs and councillors (and vote appropriately in elections) to make sure they’re doing enough to avoid Armageddon. In other words, the powerless will have to oversee the powerful. And this is where pessimism and optimism meet. If we don’t succumb to climate change as a species, then we will have grown more cooperative, compassionate and capable of coexisting. Our species will have improved out of recognition. COP26 will decide.
As the badgers continue to play, the song thrush still sings, and my battle between optimism and pessimism resolves into calm hope. After all, this precious world is worth saving. Those are the last words I can write. The light has faded. It’s too dark to see now.
Jonathan Tulloch writes the weekly Glimpses of Eden column.