She was still on her bed when George stuck his head in at the door.
‘You texted, but didn’t respond to my reply!’ he complained. ‘Come on, let’s go for a walk; there’s still plenty I’ve yet to see. Let’s just try to avoid the Christmas shopping scrummages though.’
He glanced at her laptop screen, which had come to life as she prepared to go out. ‘I thought you were looking at Electrical Properties of Materials for the next practical? He moved closer and leant towards the desk. ‘Oh no, not global warming!’
‘What is the point? Why do I need to learn about silicon bloody chips?’ Rhan’s response was brittle. ‘Once the ice is gone, do you think that understanding how electrons move in doped crystals will be a route to the future? We will have more pressing needs, and that stuff won’t help me mend a generator once the electronics are fried. As you said, we learn nothing of any use except how to screw things up more and bloody more.’
‘Bloody hell, I never heard you swear and now you won’t fucking stop!’ He looked at her, as it dawned on him that she was not in robust condition. The room was littered with sports gear from her early-morning activity and she was biting her lip as she shut down the computer.
‘It never works this way in books or films,’ she muttered. ‘Someone is supposed to know how to save the world. Yet who is going to prevent this future if it is taboo to even mention it? Is it too late, George?’
‘God knows. Everyone, including the UN reports, still seem pretty relaxed about the total Arctic ice melt and everything else, so maybe it’s all fine after all. The computer models all say it’ll be fine; it’s only reality that’s on the blink! You could ask my father; he spoke in the Paris climate talks for the engineers, telling them they were all doomed, I imagine. But he’s nuts. Come on, you definitely need a walk. It’s cold.’ He smiled, adding gently, ‘You look good in my jumper, but you’ll also need a coat.’
The cool air was refreshing, but she felt surprised to see her fellow students gathering for activities, laughing and talking around the college gate. She had the strange feeling that the people around her were there just to act out normality, perhaps for her benefit. She must be the Queen of Hearts and they were the playing cards, pretending that everything was correct and normal; the white roses had all been painted red. College rowing was more important than global warming.
She walked slowly and deliberately on the flat paving slabs which formed a path around the grassed quad.
‘I feel as though I might miss a stepping stone and the ground of this fantasy world might tip up. I might fall through a gap into reality.’
‘Oh, and there was me just thinking that you would be grabbed by the bears!’ he mocked. ‘Was it A.A. Milne who did the poem about bears grabbing anyone who stepped on the cracks?’
‘Maybe. The bears could easily haul me away right now. I no longer feel part of this world.’
‘You could take my arm or hand,’ he offered awkwardly as they passed into the shadow of the rear gateway arch. ‘There’s no way I’m going to fall through any cracks.’
She took his hand surreptitiously once they were under the vault.
‘This is all so surreal and dreamlike. Do you know the unreal Wood between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew?’
‘No, sorry, I don’t know that one,’ George apologised as he ducked through the doorway into the street after her, still holding her hand.
‘From The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series – the first of the Narnia books! Two children get stuck in a sort of junction world and they need to find their way from there to Narnia. The danger is that the transition world has a soporific atmosphere and the children are in danger of forgetting and neglecting their concerns and purposes; they just want to sit down beside a pond and relax.’
‘I don’t recall much of that book, but C.S. Lewis used to hang out in that pub there.’ George pointed at the tiny, quaint pub opposite their college, his knowledge of pubs making up for his missed literature.
‘I never even noticed a pub there before!’ she gasped. It is right opposite the college, but it’s not noticeable…like the pub in Diagon Alley. This place is just fantasy land, within a dream.’ Rhan sighed, and added dejectedly, ‘Is anything real, anywhere?’
‘Probably not. I heard a tourist guide telling a small group about that lamp-post down Turl Street, the one you may be able to see from your room if you lean out far enough,’ George said. ‘The guide claimed it could be the one set at the edge of Narnia as there’s a Lion Yard next to it.’ He smiled at her and at his own small talk. ‘But I think there’s another in the square just behind our college with a better claim.’
‘My God!’ Rhan exclaimed unexpectedly. ‘I noticed that lamp-post on my first day, just after getting off the bus. I walked past it with all my cases on my way to the college. That explains much – this is fantasy land. I entered it as soon as I entered The Turl.’ Rhan’s eyes were wide. ‘Everything, from the architecture to the sport around here, seems to be aimed at providing a distraction – to help us forget things that really matter.’ They were walking past the showy architecture of the Sheldonian Theatre.
‘We play games while our planet is in real trouble,’ she continued. ‘We think that we are in a timeless pleasure garden where we never need to worry about the future. People neither know nor care that the planet is on the edge of a precipice that will change their lives completely. Everything we now consider important is actually pretty meaningless. I don’t know that much, but George, there must be a relatively high chance that this whole way of life is doomed? It can never survive in its current form with what I have begun to see. Things could start to change by our fourth year!’
‘Well, Oxford has institutes that specialise in climate change somewhere, and education’s hardly going to stop, is it?’ he replied, the voice of reason.
‘Education came to a crashing stop for my school mates and at my intended first-choice university, in Aleppo.’ Rhan’s voice was brittle and sarcastic. ‘A few years of drought, a clash of militant ideas and the whole lot has been blown away. What about the First and Second World Wars here? They must have had some impact on Oxford, or did everything just continue as before? What would it take to get lecturers and students to focus on the issues at hand; or even acknowledge the threat or the concept?’ She looked at him sadly, but continued again when he said nothing.
‘After that pathetic sustainable concrete lecture, I doubt that a single student gave their future a second thought.’ She paused, before going on. ‘I have a confession. I was just annoyed with you. You were totally engrossed by the lecture. For the first time since we met, I felt irrelevant. The subject seemed hardly relevant. We are all so gullible! I didn’t have the sense to question what we were told; and neither did anyone but you.
‘Students of Geography don’t worry about the world, and we engineers are not being trained to handle hotter and more primitive or hostile environments. The economists think that carbon has no value. So what does it say about most of the other disciplines? Just what is the use of our education?’
‘Welcome to Oxford!’ he answered sarcastically, stopping in front of a high stone-walled building. ‘We’re lucky that we don’t have our lectures in Latin! My uncle had a compulsory exam in Latin to read Law here. Remember that this wall is part of New College, which dates back to the thirteenth century or something; they are still trying to decide if it should be renamed…OK, I’m joking!’
After a few moments he went on. ‘But Rhan, you’re missing a trick! Don’t you have a reference to anything as cultural as Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure?’ He pulled her arm and stood right in front of her so he could watch her intently. When she shook her head with a puzzled look, he explained.
‘Another literary point to me then! You’ve been in that pub with the hidden courtyard, the Turf Tavern, down that passageway there behind me. Well, Jude the Obscure was about someone who wanted to come to university here, and one of the major scenes was set in that pub, the Turf. Jude wanted to be a scholar but had the wrong background for Oxford. He stood up in that pub and recited the creed in Latin to prove to other drinkers that he should be a scholar.’ George smiled sympathetically at her troubled face. ‘But don’t read Jude if you value your sanity; as soon as anything starts to go well, there’s a dreadful catastrophe.’
Rhan now shook her head, smiling at his advice, but still looked sad. He changed tack.
‘Well at least it wasn’t a fantasy story!’ George tried again. ‘But on the subject of disasters, dare I ask what you found in your research? What’s going to happen to us?’ They remained standing, while Rhan assembled her thoughts. She let go of his hand to concentrate.
‘Well, please remember I start with only the basics that I learnt at school in Sunderland and Aleppo. I probably had no more than two or three hour-long lessons and perhaps a bit of reading afterwards.’ She spoke slowly. ‘The alarming thing is that I discovered there are huge dangers that should have been addressed decades ago and certainly now, yet they – or we – have decided against any action. So timescales could be extremely close, yet we are making it all hush-hush.’ She bit her lip, not minding how close he stood. After a brief pause she continued.
‘What did I find? Well, temperatures have been shooting up, with almost every year hotter than in previous decades. Within a pretty short time I think I found the ice area and the ice volume charts that you mentioned, and yes, the curve has plummeted, but it lifted for a couple of years around 2012 before being indesisive from 2015. The ice looks doomed. It was very strange though: there was no text to go with it; there were no claims that it indicated a sensational event. In neither the plummeting ice volumes nor the soaring temperatures were there even discussions on how it would affect us. Yet the threat was there – the end of the world as we know it.’
‘Things won’t remain the same,’ he agreed. ‘But aren’t you being rather melodramatic? Will it really be the end of the world?’
Rhan shrugged. ‘It took quite a bit to find, but an article from the Met Office confirmed the curve was “about right” based on recent Cyro, no, I mean Cryosat data from the European satellite. So why all the hush-hush? Why do they then deny it?’
‘Well that’s what greenhush is all about, as my dad would say,’ George sighed as he explained. ‘Greenhush is pretending there’s nothing to worry about. It’s what everyone wants to hear. And anyone suggesting there are dangers and that we need to do something…well, you’ve seen what happened to me. I bet your old teachers have had to change their science-based lessons too.’
‘So it’s fine to deny that millions of people may die, or will it be billions?’ She looked him full in the face. ‘If anyone tries to stop it, will they be condemned?’
‘Yes,’ George confirmed. ‘It’s a taboo subject that you can’t talk about, apparently. I know it’s crazy, but it’s stupid to offer resistance. There’s no point. I could have been sent home for arguing against the use of concrete or steel. Anyway, there’s little that can be done at this stage, so it’s no great shakes.’ He moved on eagerly. ‘What about the other side? Did you find anything convincing or interesting from the sceptics?’
‘That was much easier to find,’ she said, relieved that she could answer his question. ‘There were plenty of websites and I expected complexity because I had heard that the science was not at all clear-cut, yet the arguments I came across were just shapes in the mist – not even footprints in the snow.’ Rhan felt smug at her metaphors and felt confident in her subject. ‘They were sufficiently forceful and plentiful to be persuasive, but each item melted away when I considered the details, even with my limited common sense and technical knowledge.
‘For example,’ she went on, counting the points on her fingers, ‘one argument is that ice melting at the North Pole is not significant as there has been an increase of snow at the South Pole. Gains on land in Antarctica are supposed to balance out the loss of ice cap at the Arctic. How could anyone believe that?
‘There was no attempt to justify how the loss of reflective white cover, the loss of cooling ice in the sea, and the risk of methane releases from clara-whatsit could be balanced by an extra widening of the fringe of ice around the Antarctic continent or a few deeper snowdrifts on the frozen land.
‘What I don’t understand is why everyone thinks the loss of Arctic ice is unimportant and will soon return to normal after a harsh winter. Nor how thin new ice could match the staying power of the ridges of solid old ice. It is all so irrational, even in the international forum, the IPCC.’
‘What did they say would happen next?’ George asked.
‘Nothing really,’ she complained, holding her arms out in condemnation while stepping backwards. ‘No one seems to know or want to know. Apparently, once the floating ice is gone, the Greenland ice will follow, and that is apparently inevitable. There are no timescales to suggest when coastal towns can expect waves at their doorsteps, or when huge numbers of refugees from Bangladesh will wash up around the world along with farmers from East Yorkshire!’
He moved closer to Rhan to let a pedestrian pass, standing right in front of her again, looking into her troubled face. She could almost taste his warm breath, anchoring her back to the present in the dark street. He did not appear to notice or mind. She continued, feeling slightly stronger.
‘Then there were pathetic assertions I have heard here among students. Even if there is climate change, then it is only natural and not related to mankind’s actions. It is apparently normal for the planet’s climate to flip about and is hardly affected by the rising concentrations of greenhouse gases. In fact, it is even suggested that the heating of the planet at various times in the geological past caused extra carbon dioxide gases in the atmosphere, rather than the other way round. Carbon dioxide is natural and can therefore do no harm!’
‘I’ve often heard that too,’ he confirmed. ‘Huge numbers of people cling to the argument that global warming is due to the sun’s activity.’
‘Well, it took me just a few minutes to work out that the sun can cause fluctuations in the region of 0.6 watts per square metre,’ Rhan continued. ‘Yet we now have problems with an extra six watts – ten times that value. And temperature rises over the past decade or so have set so many new records, even when the sun has been relatively dormant.’
‘People believe what they want,’ George repeated. ‘There’s probably no logic for you to spot,’ he smiled before continuing. ‘Come on funny face! You’re getting cold just standing here.’ He moved away from the head-to-head discourse.
‘Oh yes!’ she began again as soon as they were walking. ‘There was stuff that argued we could not afford to do anything and that jobs were too important, give or take Brexit. It was all very depressing. Sceptics emphatically deny science that the Victorians had established a hundred and fifty or so years ago.’ George grunted his agreement.
‘Arguments against climate concern involve flat denial or just snipping at the facts from the margins,’ Rhan complained. ‘Yet those margins are so narrow and they fail to address anything meaningful in the science! It is all just based on hope and denial: we cannot afford to address the issues and it is all a left-wing plot to put people out of work.’ She stopped suddenly and turned towards her companion.
‘How come you have never looked at this yourself?’ she asked. ‘You have more knowledge than me, so why the lack of interest?’
They had now left the narrow streets and were walking through Magdalene College gardens and park, so they could talk and walk more freely.
‘I’m afraid I’ve never really looked,’ he confessed. ‘After years of having it forced on me at home, I never felt like looking for answers in textbooks, online, or in the great beyond. You seem to have picked it all up pretty quickly though.’ George neatly deflected the questions.
‘I had done a bit of research since that lecture, but then it seemed to really click today,’ she said, barely aware of their route or surroundings. ‘I have just a scattering of the concepts. The bigger problem is then determining meaningful and usually hard-hitting facts from the optimistic predictions of a soft global warming. The soft approach seems to involve sticking the term “sustainable” in the sentence and allowing things to work out in decades or centuries to come. I have a feeling that nearly all of the recommendations are just window-dressing, like that lecture we had here.’
Rhan clasped her hands together and looked down as she vocalised her opinions as she walked.
‘On the whole, the emphatic information is from the climate deniers, which is obviously rubbish, as I mentioned. The half-truths appear to be from the governments and scientists who want to remain popular and credible. The more worrying stuff is often in biological studies of birds and animals or is presented as stark facts, with little in the way of supporting opinion. That makes it difficult, so I could have it all wrong.’ George nodded his understanding, but Rhan was keen to continue.
‘My worry is that what you said in that lecture could be true. It looks like our generation will “cop it”, as my grandmother apparently used to say. Reliance on the certainty of the sceptics is as sensible as belief in…oh, I don’t know…relying on Father Christmas to make Christmas Day happy. Yet there seems to be enough data to suspect that most climate scientists, with their timescales for heating in hundreds of years with big sea-level rises in thousands of years, are only telling us a fraction of the truth! They say we still have a decade or so to act! Their opinions on the future seem to be tailored to make people happy. It feels wrong to rely on the future.’
She looked up at George’s face again. ‘I acknowledge…that I am messed up enough to be looking for trouble, war, drought, famine and deceit in my lifetime. But all this could make wars in the Middle East seem petty. We must do something!’
‘Oh no, Rhan,’ George sighed. ‘What have I done?’
‘Do you think I could be swayed easily by indoctrination, with my background? I am grateful for your outburst at the concrete lecture and will remain so, even if you run off with a jolly-hockey-stick from Christchurch and never speak to me again.’
‘Right. But what happens if I don’t do that?’ he enquired.
In answer, she grabbed his hand and held his arm tight against her as they walked back in friendly silence through the darkening lanes. She dropped his hand and arm as they neared the bright lights of Broad Street.