Chapter 22 – Licence to Kill

The atmosphere at supper was light-hearted and fun. Although this was her first meal there, Rhan quickly gained the impression that the family knew about her and she soon relaxed, feeling like an honoured guest. June had prepared a lovely meal for them which included homemade bread straight from the oven. They talked about their college and the characters that George had previously described. George’s family were keen to get more views of the Marxist, the rough Cornishman, the sophisticated chemist and some of the girls they had heard about from George. George’s father, William, was interested in the engineering course. Grace, who was still at sixth-form college, wanted to hear about the life her brother was leading and the various pubs and drinking exploits.
Although George and Rhan were excused from clearing up at the end of the meal, Rhan insisted on staying to help, on the grounds that it would make George help too. Grace was delighted to find a comrade in arms against her brother.
The evening was not yet fully dark when George and Rhan wandered back down the garth through the orchard to the old agricultural sheds where George’s father was siphoning cider from one jar to another. He was pleased to have help with holding the tubes in place and extracting them at the right moment to avoid transferring the sediment. This time Rhan had grabbed the tatty old nylon gardening coat; she was very glad of its insulating qualities on her shoulders.
‘This is one of the few relatively consistent harvests that we manage to produce in this garden,’ William explained, pointing at the cider. ‘We’ve just finished off last year’s eating apples but still have cooking apples. Yet in some years I have had to beg for apples to keep up cider production when we’ve had a poor crop. It must be really difficult being an agricultural producer, particularly with bees and weather-sensitive crops. Global warming has not sorted out the spring frosts that kill our blossom. Our hazel and walnuts are probably the most consistent products here.’
‘He’s not joking!’ Grace announced as she entered the shed behind them. ‘We plant three bags of spuds and harvest two! After Dad prunes an apple tree, it takes nine years to recover!’ she laughed.
‘Yes I’m afraid there is so much more to this “grow your own” than I imagined,’ conceded her father. ‘God help us if, or when, we have a shortage of food, as our vegetable patch only provides food for a couple of weeks a year, so we’d be doomed without the nuts. My concern is that in the near future, the Gross National Produce, which we as a country can eat, may be much more important than the Gross National Product that we currently hear about so much.’
‘Absolutely!’ Rhan exclaimed. ‘Our economics friends at college spend their lives discussing GNP, yet it will have little relevance when food runs short. The people of Syria simply seek security and food and hardly have a nation, never mind a GNP.’
There was a short pause after this surprising outflow; George and Grace said nothing.
‘It’s so refreshing to hear of a youngster taking an interest,’ their father responded encouragingly with a laugh.
‘Well, George may have told you that I am particularly interested in climate change,’ Rhan continued awkwardly, yet pleased to be discussing the subject. ‘We never learn anything useful about changing climate on our engineering course. In the Middle East, my family have, over the generations, experienced the terror of social and political collapse several times. They – and most recently my parents – needed to face the possibility that all normal life was over and that we had to make the hardest decision of all: when to run. My fear is that environmental change could mean even worse social upheaval and that everyone will need to run, yet there may be few places to go.’
‘There’s Scotland,’ piped up George, yet Rhan gave him a look which she hoped was withering, knowing that he was being facetious. Grace added a slap on his arm for good measure.
‘Hmm, yes,’ his father responded, ignoring the squabbling. ‘I’m afraid there are few places as good as the British Isles, and Scotland has the best potential. It seems unfair on the rest of the world, considering how Britain started climate change with industrialisation.’
‘It is so strange to hear your father saying the same as me,’ said Rhan as she shot another reproachful look at George.
‘I know, I know,’ George sighed. ‘Climate change was made in Britain.’
‘Can I just ask?’ Rhan paused before plunging into her question. ‘Do you still have some hope that something can be done?’
George’s eyebrows shot upward in surprise, but he said nothing. Grace quietly slipped away.
‘Well it’s a brave question which I have never heard anyone ask!’ The older man stopped clearing away the siphoning paraphernalia and sat down on one of the massive timber beams that were stacked around the sides of the long agricultural shed. ‘Oh, by the way Rhan, this is one of those ash timber beams we were talking about,’ he added before addressing her question. ‘This one is around six metres long. Lovely aren’t they, compared with a steel section?’
With a slight change in tone, William turned to the matter of interest.
‘Well, if our planet was the Titanic after it hit the iceberg, we’ve not only been re-arranging the deckchairs, but are still planning the following week’s menus and events. And now we are continuing to stoke the boilers while heading into more ice fields. We may have cut some of our coal burning, but we’ve done little else and have no plans to prepare for the bad years that are to come.’
William patted the beam contemplatively.
‘There’s no way now to avoid major warming. I was told over twenty years ago, in 1996 – by a climate scientist from Oxford University as it happens – that we had ten years to change our ways if we were to avoid a major disaster. By 2006, it was clear that we had missed the chance of avoiding that disaster, and since then we have just been banging nails into our children’s coffins,’ he laughed without mirth. ‘After two or three decades, nearly all the powerful politicians are more interested in avoiding rather than taking effective action. No voters call for action.’
Rhan was heartened to hear statements from William that were not shielded by polite fudging. She found it refreshing that someone other than David was arguing against denial and unwarranted optimism, or was not suggesting that it was all a waste of time, as in George’s case.
‘The next couple of decades will be “interesting times” regardless,’ William continued. ‘It might be totally demoralising once society realises that everything will only get worse. Almost everything will suddenly be seen to be vulnerable, judged by today’s standards. There will be massive breakdowns in lifestyles, morality and stability. I presume that you know this better than any of us, Rhan?’
At this bidding, pictures of warfare in Aleppo from the web and imagined images of her bombed house were conjured.
‘Dad, that’s not the issue,’ drawled George, bringing her back to the present. ‘Rhan asked what can be done. She knows how doomed we are – we discussed that, literally to death, last term. Tell her whether or not you have any ideas that will help, then we can go somewhere warmer.’
‘Ah. OK – my approach. Well I would start by simply rationing the use of dangerous fossil fuels that eventually produce greenhouse gases. Each person would have an allowance for emissions and anything beyond that would need to be purchased from those willing to sell, after payment of tax, of course. Carbon ration would allow our society to face the issue of dangerous greenhouse emissions from the bottom up; from people’s demand, rather than the top-down taxation approach attempted so far.’
‘Come on Dad. You sound like our friend Tom with such communist-like diktats. No peacetime democratic government would be allowed to intervene like that. There is no war to justify rationing.’
‘Well, people are already dying because we have not waged war against those who want to destroy the planet. Why should we be allowed to burn as much carbon as we want, knowing it will kill others in time?’ There was no response, so William carried on.
‘The sooner we exchange our persecution of developing countries and the younger generation for a war against climate change, the better. We’ll be fighting for land and food soon enough.’
Rhan was gazing at George, recalling their previous extraordinary conversation in the pub with David so many weeks before, and wondering just how bad the future was going to get. However, William was suggesting a much more palatable line.
‘I personally would much prefer to see the beginning of defined rationing than the main alternative approach, which involves taxing carbon at its sale, at the border or within the companies that supply it. I just never thought it would work…and it hasn’t. Any government that imposes high tax on fuels tends to meet opposition soon enough. And besides, I’m not sure that meddling with the costs will be at all effective at cutting the quantity of fossil fuel extracted to zero. As the infrastructure is in place, there will still be suppliers who can pump oil, bleed off gas or dig up coal for next to nothing.’ William shrugged with a wan smile. Rhan had not fully understood the taxation approach but she let it pass, allowing him to continue.
‘We need a bold fix rather than a minor short-term adjustment, so I don’t see any option that leaves out rationing. As George inadvertently implies, it will engender a war spirit.’
George snorted.
‘I am glad you’re here, Rhan, as it’s forcing George, for the first time, to listen.’
Rhan adjusted the coat around her shoulders and sat down on the low bench opposite, which she guessed was a chunky beam that had been set aside to dry. It had a smooth, rich grain with a deep honey colour. She glanced at the still-standing George, who stifled his arguments so that his father could continue.
‘That’s one of the sycamore beams. It’s a real surprise – strong and beautiful, yet normally chopped down as a weed and burnt. It’s similar to beech but slightly richer in colour in my opinion.
‘Anyway, as George points out, no one is prepared to vote to save the planet. I kept thinking that voters would care,’ he sighed, ‘but I agree I was wrong! Even the most religious or caring people have other causes to fight. Safeguarding the future of the earth can always be postponed to another day!’
Rhan nodded, encouraging William to continue.
‘Political leaders realise that people may be prepared to vote for self-sacrificing financial restraint or even war, but won’t vote at all for carbon restraint or climate balance. The reasons are extraordinary, but not really understood.’
‘So you agree that nothing will happen?’ George pounced.
‘I’m afraid that I have recently come round to that possibility, George. But for myself, I’ll never accept the “do nothing” approach. We must keep fighting. I can’t accept that turkeys would actually vote for Christmas – that our generation would prefer to destroy the future for both our children and ourselves, just so we can enjoy the pampering for a few more years. Is our whole morality so superficial that we are happy to kill people indirectly? Any good we do now will reduce the severity of what is to come.’
‘Yet you think people would accept carbon rationing?’ Rhan asked, trying hard to concentrate on the positive aspects. ‘Is this worldwide or just in Britain? I thought it had been tried but it failed?’
‘Well I can’t speak for anyone, never mind other countries,’ George’s father said emphatically, ‘but I think a system that is just and relatively equitable for all would go down very well, and it could and should start here in the UK.’ He pointed down at the ground with a short stab.
‘At present, it is difficult to ask anyone to give up on, say, a flight to the Caribbean or Turkey on moral grounds, when colleagues or neighbours will burn that saved carbon. We all think “we’re worth it”. If there was moral stigma, supported by knowledge that such a flight would involve subsequent cutting of car mileage or reducing central heating to avoid paying through the nose for the extra carbon credits, then there would be every reason for people to cut carbon emissions.’
‘Rationing has been tried. It failed.’ George sighed in a derisory manner. He moved across and sat down next to Rhan on the sycamore beam.
‘You’re dead right about the European business rationing system,’ his father persisted, talking enthusiastically to Rhan. ‘It was set up for businesses within the EU to trade companies’ carbon emissions. Unfortunately, it was initially sabotaged at the outset by politicians and technocrats who had no interest in penalising their leading companies for a greater good that few believed in. Anyway, that top-down system only affected the senior management of the largest companies and was of no interest to their shareholders or customers.’ William waved his hands in exasperation before expressing his new hope. ‘Actually I hear it’s starting to work, so it might be useful for the major producers, but it’s of no interest to most mortals.
‘I want to see a bottom-up approach, with each and every individual having a personal interest, and rationing would create that. If the UK, the country that started the industrial revolution, led the way on this, others would follow.’ William looked up at Rhan to see what impression he was making. It was his son however, who responded.
‘Just think how much legislation would be needed, Dad,’ George pointed out, shaking his head.
‘Well we introduced many laws and convoluted incentives and tax measures around the millennium for business to cut carbon. We then subsequently just changed our minds to please politicians, voters, consumers or industries, yet there was a will and some action for a short while.’
‘But since then, this country voted to leave Europe to avoid such a direction. It’s just not going to happen!’ George said exasperatedly. ‘The people who voted for Brexit to recreate an island state – they won’t be bothered about the rest of the world, will they?’
There was a sudden silence while they considered this and its implication.
‘There will be opposition, I agree,’ William conceded at last. ‘But there needs to be something to ration the number of fellow human beings we will each indirectly kill, just because we can afford the petrol or whatever.’
Rhan examined the sycamore grain in the beam beneath her, while George held his tongue so she could hear the arguments.
‘The main problem is that capitalism has broken down. It costs so little to dig up coal or release gas or oil from the ground where the carbon has been trapped for hundreds of millions of years. We are happy to pay for extraction but no one ever pays for clearing up the problem by re-storing the carbon for even the short or medium term.
The value of carbon emissions needs to swing up from 30 pence per tonne or whatever meaningless value it currently has, towards the true cost of recapturing a tonne of carbon – probably around £300 per tonne or perhaps £1,000?’
William raised his eyebrows to invite bids on a more realistic value.
‘Well there is no price,’ George affirmed. ‘It’s currently an infinite sum because there is no real market. No one’s putting carbon back after burning oil, gas or whatever.’
‘A bit like the waste from nuclear fuels,’ Rhan added.
‘Hopefully a price to store spent nuclear products and contaminated material would follow suit. We could then compare the whole-life processes of burning and subsequent storage of both nuclear fission, and the burning and capture of fossil fuels. The economic data would appear very different from our current defective system.’
‘Sounds expensive for both,’ George retorted.
‘Rationing would provide an incentive to develop capturing and storing carbon. The government could ease off its half-hearted attempts to plan and subsidise the green economy and let new developments take over to avoid the greenhouse gas ration. Rationing would ease the shock to individuals and their suppliers in the transitional period to a no-emission economy.’
‘How would it work?’ Rhan asked politely.
‘Well, let’s just think what would happen if any government announced that it wanted to act on global warming by rationing carbon emissions,’ William said eagerly. ‘It could start at say five tonnes of CO2 per adult for the first year, which I think is around the average current emission level that people can individually control, excluding several tonnes of CO2 emissions outside their immediate control. A fraction of that would be allocated for children.’
‘Sounds reasonable,’ Rhan said, glancing at George.
‘There would a warning of subsequent annual cuts in the ration, so people could prepare. Such cuts could be, say, as much as a tonne per year, given the precarious condition of the world. Alternatively, other aspects of our total carbon footprint could also be added to bring down other high-carbon elements. Meat for example could be added to reduce agricultural greenhouse emissions, along with other products containing plastics, cement or metals.’
‘There would need to be a referendum or an election,’ George got in. ‘And who would vote for rationing?’
‘It’s too cold in here to debate that,’ William suggested, rubbing his hands together. ‘Let’s just imagine that people realised they were voting for or against the younger generation, or that it followed the lines of the argument for and against slavery and was eventually passed. But, once rationing was foreseeable, then there would be a sudden economic rush.’
‘From the rush to spend?’ asked Rhan.
‘Well a bit of that,’ William agreed. ‘Mostly it would be preparations. The point is that each person, each voter, will immediately demand that their politicians should supply low-carbon electricity, buses, trains and insulation to keep their constituents’ carbon expenditure down in both winter and summer heatwaves.
‘They’ll demand that their heating and other power is low carbon, not just low cost. Investment capital will flood into the low-carbon economy. The power of the grid will be loosened so it will be delivery of low-carbon power that is important. You young engineers will be rushing round installing pumped storage schemes to regulate the peaks and troughs of electricity supply and to save wasted overproduction. Each community will want their local wind turbines and solar panels on their roof to be able to operate off-grid so life can continue in a sustainable manner.’
Both youngsters were now listening intently at the new ideas, which continued to flow as William expounded his solution for the planet.
‘Once rationing starts, those with a prolific lifestyle will see that they are fighting public opinion and are letting down their neighbourhood. They’ll feel the cost and the shame of driving past the queue for the bus. People will be ashamed to admit they’re jetting off on holiday. Carbon credits, just like cigarettes, will need to carry a death warning.
‘The poorest in society would benefit enormously from rationing as they’d be most likely to have unused emission allowances to sell, especially if they had no car and tended not to fly. The richest would like it because with land they could make use of their capacity to produce green energy and to produce low-carbon products. I still don’t think the rich should be allowed to use negative-carbon products to offset their private jets, however. That would give a very bad impression.’
William patted the beam he was sitting on to indicate the new currency and looked up from delivering his message, clearly expecting a hail of abuse from George.
Taking advantage of the silence, he continued in a slightly rushed manner as he collected stuff to take back to the house.
‘If we adopted a ration system, then everyone would have a vested interest, and it would become self-policing in a manner surpassing smoking bans and recycling of waste. As happened in the war years, money would become almost secondary to the carbon rations. Employment would be good, as projects would employ people, rather than carbon-consuming machines – a bit of a step backwards in industrial terms. Everything would slow down because, while time currently means money, time would then be allocated for the most low-carbon approach. As long as the speed of the dentists’ drill was not restricted, then life could improve – well, in my opinion anyway.’
‘Mmm,’ Rhan sounded thoughtfully.
George was less reserved. ‘Well I can see it might be fun to try, but it won’t happen, will it?’
‘Probably not. My hope rested on the saying, “cometh the hour, cometh the man”…oh, or woman…but no one stepped forward. Climate deleted from every agenda! All we needed was one politician in this country, one Churchillian leader, or one William Wilberforce with the backing of a few moral assistants and we might’ve had a tiny chance to save our society. It might have been possible to change the future of the world. The key aspect is that a fair rationing system would allow us to enter the new era in a positive manner.’
‘You totally ignore the selfish nature of humans,’ George argued, raising his voice slightly.
‘Yes, but you don’t appreciate how the mood of society can suddenly change, if the need arises, and I think this is relevant both worldwide and in the UK. Going back to what you know – just look at how the most selfish individuals have become fastidious with sorting their rubbish and recycling. And no one thought that smokers would be prepared to simply stop smoking in pubs and public places. Yet those major changes to lifestyles were adopted with little compunction for marginal gains. Imagine what we would do if we knew that giving up hydrocarbons might just save our nephews, nieces, children and grandchildren.’
‘But how long would it take to set up such a system for rationing if a government wanted to act?’ Rhan asked doubtfully, in an effort to keep George out of the argument.
‘I think that the fossil fuel retailers and airline ticket sales operators could set something up very easily, in just a few weeks if there was no choice. Collecting carbon credits would be just like collecting Tesco vouchers or whatever, and would be hardly different from managing and transferring VAT.’ William was grinning now, enjoying the conversation. ‘It could start simply with government stamps, as in the last war, but records of allocation would be easy in the digital age.’
With the conversation in a more relaxed mode, Rhan returned to absentmindedly tracing the grain on the honey-coloured sycamore beam, glancing sporadically at George and William as he developed his concept.
‘There would be a real buzz that would shrug off all thought of negative inflation and recession. There would be a boom in construction and the housing market as people prepared and swapped properties so they could work from home or be near the office or a bus route. There would be real demand for solar panels, electric cars and the like. Town property would need to be adapted back to residences to cut commuting. But in London there would be demand for the release of all those empty properties, owned by the rich of the world as a one-way bet in the only capital city with a climate change flood barrier. Squatters’ rights could be thrust into the spotlight!’
‘So you think the selfish attitude would just melt away?’ George asked, eventually exasperated into breaking his silence. ‘You think we could or would want to just take such unilateral action regardless of trade arrangements? You think that the oil industry would just accept a curtailment of their trade?’
‘Nothing is as fixed as you think,’ replied William, apparently unsurprised by George’s harsh questions. ‘Ask Rhan whether such issues were considered in Syria once the crisis came. Under the right conditions, and with the right leadership, the selfish spirit would disappear and be replaced by a national sense of purpose. You’d be amazed. The invasion of the Falkland Islands and the death of Princess Di both illustrated just an inkling of what could be possible. Even the most self-centred climate sceptic wouldn’t dare step out of line or be caught cheating on their carbon credits once they were seen to be harming the next generation, and once “greenhush” was denounced.’
Rhan smiled and nodded at the obvious point. She was now gazing at the various bikes scattered around the shed while William continued.
‘The essential ingredient would be fairness,’ William explained. ‘It would be very different from previous initiatives – knowing that equitable measures were being taken by all, for the good of all. Rationing could be a great leveller. Of course, the landed rich would have more room for wind turbines or whatever, but just look at who benefits from solar panels now – it’s not the poor.’
The older man was enjoying the chance to preach his message.
‘With the first post-industrial economy, the UK would have the opportunity to build a whole new series of industries. Of course, there would be big losers: the airlines would mourn the loss of jobs as Britain gave up the race to remain a hub airport for Europe and the southern holiday destinations would miss our trade. Coal is dead and buried but the chemical industries and almost every business I can think of could adapt to new approaches and still make money. Scrap metal merchants would continue to flourish with the new demand for reuse rather than recycled materials.’
George winked at Rhan to indicate he could see the conjuror’s trick, but that he was still enjoying the show.
‘My industry, construction, has done next to nothing to reduce the carbon footprint of structures. Yet we would face boom times. There is so much to do to prepare for a new hot planet and to cut carbon. We would be constructing pumped air or water power plants to store offshore energy, opening new railway lines remote from rising seas, creating new flood bunds with tax-free inert dumping to protect huge tracts of the country from those rising seas, setting up new industries and housing in places that would minimise emissions of works and industry.’
Rhan was nodding now as he spoke, hearing what she expected.
‘The northern powerhouse would revert to its roots. If the northern streams once powered manufacturing with dozens of mills and then hydroelectric turbines, then all we need is engineers with the correct skills to reinstate the power source that every village and every valley once provided. We can’t perhaps match the generation of the power we currently have, but we can use technology to fit the solution to the problem.
‘Once materials are required to be low carbon…well, human input becomes a secondary rather than a prime consideration.’ William pointed dramatically to the beams they were sitting on. ‘No one wants my air-dried beech, sycamore and ash beams, simply because we are accustomed to steel beams and have misguided views on risks. We need to make the risk or certainty of killing someone far away in place and time simply unacceptable. We also need to change the architectural fashion to fit resources.’ He sighed, aware that George was dying to vent his opposing views. ‘In my office we could design buildings around the available timber or whatever second-hand steel beams the client can salvage. It’s essential that we stop using high-carbon newly-made steel throughout, just because our economy is set up that way. Carbon-free would mean jobs for all and horror at the current CO2 throw-away society.’ He slapped the chunky timber beam he was sitting on.
‘You’re so deluded Dad,’ George blurted at last. ‘You’ve been proved wrong for decades now – no one’s going to even start giving up carbon. There are too many vested interests and far too much apathy. Cutting high-carbon industry wouldn’t seem viable. Just look at the steel industry. Would any government allow all high-carbon industry to simply flow to China or wherever?’
‘No, that’s just my point. We could find a way if we wanted! Steel works are usually near hills and above deep mines, so local supplies of tidal or wind power could be stored and regulated by the pumped storage, in a simple, proven approach to provide peak power to regulate supplies while we wait for the expected batteries to be developed. With power from the Dogger Bank wind farm out in the North Sea, we’ll need clever solutions to regulate the power.’
Rhan saw the conversation starting to veer off, and wanted to prevent the father-son dispute she felt she was creating.
‘I can see that, as George points out, politicians have no mandate to introduce green measures. If rationing was introduced…there would be an incentive to catch up on the ingenuity from a century ago, before the apparent ease and simplicity of fossil fuels removed incentives. Shall we go in?’ she added unexpectedly.
With nods all round, they shut out the lights and headed into the dark garden, where George, bringing up the rear, grabbed Rhan’s hand. She was pleased by the gesture and glad of a guiding arm. She wanted reassurance and affection from George and the sudden transition into the dark had left her bewildered.
‘George may scoff,’ William persisted in the darkness. ‘And it may already be too late, but I’m convinced that rationing’s the only way to control carbon emissions in an equitable manner. Another key benefit, though, is that it will help society get ready and prepare for the shock and stress once things get awkward.’
‘Well that was really interesting.’ Rhan expressed her thanks while squeezing George’s hand as he steered her around the apple trees towards the lights of the house.
‘I’m afraid that you two are almost the first to listen to my cranky ideas!’ William said, a faint silhouette ahead of them. ‘Others have advocated the rationing of course…but not many. It’s one of around a hundred measures I would introduce to soften the impact of what lies ahead.’
‘Well that’s fine then,’ George’s sarcasm cut in. ‘No one is going to accept even step one, never mind the rest!’
‘What are the other measures?’ asked Rhan, releasing George’s hand in both annoyance and because their way was now lit from the house windows.
‘Well most are relatively minor, but we may have just seven good years left to get ready for seventy years of absolute hell. Almost any preparations might have a big impact and would cost little if started early. For example, I would ensure that every property with a garden and any village green or park or highway verge had to have a fixed number of productive fruit or nut trees depending on its size, unless the owner gets planning consent to avoid the regulation. Bigger gardens will need more on a ratio basis. The point is that the resilience of the country needs to be enhanced, and the sooner that process starts, the better. My walnut trees take fifteen years to produce, so laws are needed urgently if we can just get past sceptics like George.’
‘Hang on! I believe in global warming!’ George exclaimed as he followed Rhan through the garden door. ‘It’s people I don’t believe in. I actually think it would be fun to start getting ready.’