‘So why do you have this interest in climate change?’ June asked in the kitchen after Rhan had offered to help prepare a salad. George had been dispatched to the shed to see if any of the stored cooking apples were still usable.
‘It is like an unwanted religious vocation,’ Rhan answered in her usual formal English. ‘I cannot ignore the way we hardly dare even discuss global warming. The less we acknowledge the problem, the worse it will be. It was George who pointed this out to me, but he is dreadfully fatalistic. He was suggesting this morning that the moors would burn away soon, now that they are no longer cold and wet. That would release huge quantities of carbon dioxide with dreadful consequences to the planet and the lives of many. I find it hard to accept that we should do nothing.’
‘Yes, I can see that,’ June acknowledged.
Rhan concentrated on cutting lettuce leaves into the sink but then continued talking to June, much to her own surprise.
‘I suppose I also feel as if I owe it to my parents. For the sake of our safety they sent my sister and me away, sacrificing our last months together. I suppose I feel that God must have saved me from a life in a refugee tent for a purpose. Through some miracle, I am at one of the world’s most prestigious universities at the heart of the Western establishment…Do you have a drainer? Oh…I mean a colander.’ She paused while June handed her one, and they exchanged smiles. ‘I feel that I have a calling – and it will not involve being a merchant banker, or getting married like my younger sister. Still, working for the environment will be a much less drastic vocation than becoming a nun, or working in a refugee camp like my grandmother.’
‘Well that’s a tragic and dramatic answer!’ June responded. ‘How do you get on with your uncle and aunt in Sunderland?’
‘They are great, and so kind. It’s very good of them to look after us – but both my sister and I realise that we need to be moving on so they can have their house back.’
‘I’m pleased they let you visit us,’ June said uncertainly, obviously wondering how Rhan could be allowed to stay with a male friend.
‘Mmm,’ Rhan mumbled while she decided what to say. ‘I have not let them know how short our university terms are. They don’t know about the rowing camp, never mind my visit here. I hope you are not too shocked? I tell myself that my parents would take a very different line from my uncle and aunt.’
‘Well, I can see your logic, but please consider this as another home. It’s been very reassuring having you look after George. We started to hear about you from George’s first call home, so we feel we know you pretty well.’
Well that’s strange, thought Rhan, furrowing her brow as she considered this silently. It was almost a week before he spoke to me! Then she said aloud, ‘I think he mostly looks after me rather than the other way around; he introduced me to friends, he looked after me when I was ill, and he…’ Rhan faltered, deciding not to mention that George did most of their washing. ‘He is so much more domesticated than me, as you are probably noticing.’
June smiled, looking at the lettuce Rhan had dumped into a wooden bowl. ‘You could slice up some of the eating apples to decorate the top. There are some walnuts from our tree in that bowl if you’d like to crack a few and add them.
‘Anyway, we’re pleased he’s found someone to care about, but I get the impression that he leans on you to get him through the workload. After his initial excitement, he was pretty depressed by the work until you helped him out. We’re not sure that he’s a natural engineer, but it’s a good degree as far as I can make out. So are you are looking for an engineering career that relates to climate change?’
‘Probably, but my graduation is still more than three years away. I worry that each year is critical with climate change; Syria had its first drought from 2008, so things will be desperate by the time I graduate, even without wars to make things so much worse. Our friends in Oxford are getting fed up with me always talking about global warming, but I believe that I will need to do something sooner rather than later. I fear that George is hardly going to be enthusiastic if I become a green campaigner, yet he knows more than me about the subject.’
‘Well George likes to absorb information. But would you be the sort of campaigner who chains themselves to an oil rig or would you join a university climate group? You seem to have had something to do with George going vegetarian, although he claims it’s just incidental. There are plenty of other green things you could do too.’
‘I am not that brave! Deceiving my aunt, uncle and sister and coming here to find out more was a big step for me. The carbon footprint of an engineer will be vast compared with any domestic saving I could make, so I hope to save the planet by working from within my profession, rather than through major demonstrations.’
‘Oh yeh?’ Grace stood in the doorway. ‘Joining a major demo sounds more fun – it’d be cool to know an eco-criminal. Ma, have you seen my phone?’
While the lost mobile was tracked down, Rhan hurried upstairs to fetch a few printouts from her bag. Guessing their content, George and Grace teased Rhan for still wanting to talk to their father about climate change.
‘Look, rather her than us, Gracie,’ George took Rhan’s side, if somewhat lamely. ‘All we ask, Rhan, is that you try not to encourage him!’
Leaving the banter in the kitchen, a gentle reminder from June alerted William that he needed to help Rhan with her questions.
‘I presume George told you that I wanted to ask you more about global warming?’ Rhan asked as she gingerly entered the living room. The moors outside were now a black silhouette against a darkening sky. ‘Would you mind?’
‘Ah yes, carry on. Take a seat,’ he beckoned. ‘It’s not often – no in fact, after twenty-five or so years, you are probably the first person I’ve come across who has actually volunteered to discuss climate change. It’s even rarer to find a young person with interest!’
‘Yes, I am afraid I need to realise that few wish to discuss the climate,’ Rhan responded, smiling. ‘George tries to tell me that global warming is a taboo subject that is only suitable for discussion between consenting adults.’
George’s father chuckled, laid his laptop down and pressed the remote, which silenced the early evening weather forecast. There was the sound of wheezing from logs on the fire and the soft murmur of voices from George, Grace and their mother next door. Rhan sat on a well-worn leather sofa, leaning forward and studying the patterns on the Turkish carpet. The older man sat in an armchair, resting his feet on a footstool, which was also covered in part of an old Persian carpet.
It feels like Bag End, and the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo, Rhan thought. Yet there is no magic power here to set evil to right.
‘Oh, congratulations!’ her host said, making Rhan wonder what was coming next. ‘I gather you and Grace bagged three new roundhouses on your visit to the moors today. That’s impressive – I’m looking forward to seeing them. There’s certainly plenty to discover about the ancient civilisations up there.’
‘It was absolutely fascinating.’ Rhan smiled as she recalled the morning’s walk, which still seemed unreal. ‘George said the Bronze Age people came off the moors when the temperatures dropped. Yet we are now soaring past those high temperatures again. It was fascinating to imagine how their landscape might have looked, through George and Grace’s eyes.’
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘It hasn’t taken us long to move into uncharted history up there. You will have noticed that the oldest civilisation – the Neolithic – appears to have the architectural and civil engineering attributes most similar to our own period.’ Rhan nodded slowly while he continued.
‘Time clearly does not offer a progression of improvement, so it is easy to imagine someone, in another five thousand years, looking at one of our towns or villages and wondering what happened to cause massive and drastic regression in our civilisation.’
He looked around the room at the walls, imagining what the house would look like as an ancient ruin.
‘I understand you think it will get much hotter – and that you believe we will have a tipping point upon us – in the next few years?’ Rhan asked uncertainly, hoping to get away from the archaeology.
‘Well, tipping points appear to be really unfashionable at present,’ William started in a light-hearted manner. ‘We are told we need to take the fear out of climate change, which I think means ignoring the risks. Yet that’s against a backdrop where global warming, as we know it, tends to be either simply denied, or set aside to be dealt with by negotiation at some future point, currently set at 2030 or 2050.’ Before continuing, he smiled briefly at his own joke – the concept of negotiating with the climate.
‘Tipping points have been considered to be an unknown and unacceptable hypothesis that need only concern troublemakers. Those troublemakers, on the other hand, have started to talk of “cascades” of tipping points, now that CO2 levels and temperatures are already going up by leaps and bounds.’ He stroked his chin, contemplating the future. ‘I suppose tipping points were more of a worry when it was hoped that we had a chance to keep warming to a reasonable level. Cascades suggest the prospect of jumping from crisis to crisis without any ability for mankind to regain control.’
‘Is it that bad?’ Rhan murmured, shocked – despite her expectations – by the implication of what he was saying.
‘It’s not good,’ he responded. ‘I think we are standing on a cliff edge. From all the various scenarios produced by the IPCC, ranging from what – 0.5° to 5°C of warming or more?’ He glanced at Rhan, who made no response, so he went on. ‘I collected opinions from world experts, who have written briefing papers for my civil engineering journal. They seemed to confirm that there are just so many dangers. It means we have little chance of achieving anything but the worst possible outcomes rather than the official predictions that have been hopelessly optimistic and never stood a realistic chance of coming true. Dangers that were not well defined have been simply ignored.’ He sighed and leaned back, raising his eyes and shaking his head.
‘I suspected the news was not going to be good,’ Rhan acknowledged, adjusting her headscarf as though she could protect herself from their discussion. ‘I printed these out and wondered if I could discuss them with you.’ She held up the papers. ‘I looked at the PIOMAS graphs for the Arctic ice, following a tip from George.’
She smoothed out two sheets before passing them to William.
‘There’s my version of a simple graph showing two downward curves: the percentage volume and the percentage area of summer Arctic ice against time. It uses the 1980 figure as 100%.’
‘Ah yes, interesting,’ he responded. ‘These cover the timeframe of my working life since starting on the Thames Barrier in 1980. It’s probably coincidental that changes in the ice are assumed to have started around then, as sea levels were already rising. The plunge in the volume curve is most alarming isn’t it?’
‘Yes!’ Rhan agreed emphatically. ‘It appears to me very unlikely that the downward dive towards zero could ever recover. I find it hard to believe that the summer ice can survive for more than a decade.’
‘Quite! And once the ice goes, we will then see the irrefutable evidence that we have irreversibly changed the planet. But what amazes and frightens me is that even the committees at the IPCC prepared the ground in 2014 for failure, suggesting that loss of the Arctic ice over a few months of the year will not be too significant. For a few years many scientists believed and assured us that the IPCC warnings were too pessimistic and alarmist. They suggested that as the planet was heating only slowly, the earth could shrug off the laws of thermodynamics. Once again everyone could believe there was no problem, the ice would not melt, the depths of the oceans would postpone the need for action. Now recent temperatures are shooting up again, so….’
He leaned forward, rubbing his forehead with one hand, before continuing.
‘I’m afraid that both your generation, and even mine, are likely to see amazing and dreadful things. As you are no doubt aware, almost everyone, including scientists and engineers, have convinced themselves that there is no immediate danger. Nothing is meant to happen for decades, but the majority are wrong – we have woken the giant. Every land between the Arctic and the Antarctic have all the signs of climate change, so the whole world population is being stupidly suicidal.’
‘You don’t have hope for the Paris Accord then?’ Rhan asked, pulling back into the recess of the sofa.
‘Reluctant proposals from Paris to cut carbon emissions by 2030 or 2050 will seem almost irrelevant by the time the deadlines arrive. All current talk of having ten years to start going in the correct direction has no basis. We needed to have started ten or twenty years ago, not in a few years’ or decades’ time when my generation have all retired. We are the feckless post-war generation who only look after ourselves. As George pointed out, my hopes for action soon are pure folly. To use another saying, here we are, not even aware that the horse essential for the next generation has bolted, and we have absolutely no intention of closing the stable door.’
William turned his palms upwards. ‘The laws of physics will drag us down. We think mankind does not need nature. We think we can put everything right again, given enough money. But that’s just not going to be possible. The science just isn’t there, never mind the engineering to change the planet back to previous normality. We can only save pockets like London for a few decades.’
He stopped, looking at Rhan and waiting to see if he had said enough or too much. After a few seconds of silence, she took the initiative again.
‘A real question that I am trying to answer is what might happen in the next decade, at the start of my working life. For example, what do you think will happen once the Arctic sea ice goes? We – George and I, when I could get him in a serious mood – talked about it being like losing an efficient cooling sunhat. I could find no real predictions of what is in store for us on the other side of that tipping point, other than more tipping points. How did we get here?’
‘Your working life will be different from mine,’ he acknowledged, contemplating what she had asked. ‘It’s going to be a shock once people realise that we are now on a constant slide to disaster.
‘As an engineer I see big differences between the risks…I mean probabilities, stated in the IPCC reports and the probabilities that engineers routinely address when trying to avoid dangers. The IPCC scientists assume that probabilities of less than 1 percent for dangers to the planet are deemed unworthy of worrying about. Engineers go to great lengths to avoid risks such as 0.01 percent if several lives are at stake. Where major loss of life is possible, engineers aim for probabilities of less than one in a million. The trouble is that the IPCC are only criticised by the media when they overestimate the dangers, yet nothing is mentioned when their “worst credible” predictions are exceeded within weeks of publication. It should have been alarming.’
‘But surely the scientists carried out the research on what will happen?’ Rhan persisted. ‘The technical papers must be out there?’
William considered the issues for a few moments. ‘Well, in the early years I believe that climate models tended to avoid the incredible scenarios and had the excuse not to spend time analysing conditions that were considered just too dangerous and stupid to contemplate. Then I suppose they avoided items with too many parameters that would be difficult to justify against attacks from sceptics. Greenland and the Arctic just felt too big to melt except over thousands of years, even though there were clear signs in the rocks that they were wrong. We keep seeing the mechanisms for change only when they are upon us: we know sea levels can rise quickly, yet we have done nothing when it would cost little.
‘I’m afraid, Rhan, that the future will be a very frightening and depressing place. Our civilisation and society will alter with remarkable speed. There are too many calamities waiting to pile in and make global heating worse, as nature starts to add to our greenhouse gases. Once we have totally lost control, we’ll have the obvious excuse to stop even trying to cut the emissions we can control.’
Rhan nodded, her chin on her hand, recalling what she knew of the impacts of removing the reflective ice sun hat that would no longer cool the Arctic; the decaying permafrost in the surrounding tundra; and the unstable clathrate compounds lying frozen on seabeds. She said nothing and let him continue.
‘So returning to your question about conditions beyond the summer Arctic tipping point once we first have zero ice – I think that the loss of reflective surface will affect us all in the northern hemisphere much, much more than current models predict. With so much summer ice being lost each year and no effective buffer of latent cooling, the autumn, spring and winter ice will then be on a downward plummet too. My guess is that by around 2035, the Arctic Ocean will be almost ice-free throughout the year; I could be very wrong but the risk is far from negligible. Yet I have no proof – it’s just my opinion.
‘There are, of course, plenty of experts who also believe that current predictions appear farcically optimistic. Then beyond that, there’s no way the Greenland ice sheet will take hundreds or thousands of years to melt once it’s surrounded by an almost tropical sea.’
‘So the current predictions of just a few hundred millimetres of sea rise within my lifetime are also likely to be just stupidly dangerous?’ Rhan suggested.
‘Absolutely! Sea-level rises and land sink at those rates were predicted for the Thames Barrier four decades ago. By the time you’re my age, you could be looking at sea level rises of a metre every twenty years, like in previous geological periods when climatic conditions flipped around.’
‘I hope you are wrong. Articles that I have read still talk in terms of a fraction of a metre this century. But if you are right, then what? Will people take it all in their stride? How will they react?’ She tried to keep him on the track she wanted. ‘What will it feel like, or what will we see as the Arctic ice is replaced by water?’
‘I’m not sure that I’m the person to ask about people’s reactions,’ he replied, smiling and shaking his head. ‘I’ve been alarmingly correct at predicting the physical realities of global warming over the past twenty years, but I warn you that my predictions of society’s reactions have been utterly incorrect at every turn so far.’
‘I appreciate that the issue will continue to be waved aside as someone else’s problem,’ Rhan said. ‘Yet without an ice cap on the world, as you say, everything could start to feel different very quickly. I suppose I am worried that attitudes to death and immigration will harden even faster.’
William nodded and carried on. ‘Without the cooling ice, the deep oceans and shallow seas will start to act very strangely. I’m pretty confident that no one knows with any certainty at all what will actually happen to the weather once the ice is gone – we will clearly face a completely new set of rules. Our weather and farming patterns will be in a real dither within a rapidly heating process overall.
‘I mean, we’ve only just started to understand how the high-level jet streams in the skies above are behaving in the new warm-Arctic conditions. The oceanic drifts are just as complicated so I doubt we have any idea what will happen to world weather. I mean, who would’ve predicted a few years ago that the British Isles could be affected by something as unlikely as low pressure in the sea off the Russian north coast? I don’t think there was even much of a coastline just a few years ago. The science and predictions are all too recent. I have a feeling that the weather here in Britain will change as drastically as elsewhere in the world.’
Rhan nodded. ‘Yes, isn’t it the case that temperature differences between the equator and the North Poles tend to power the south-to-north wind in our hemisphere? With gravitational acceleration, that creates the jet stream with the Coriolis Effect.’ She held out her thumb and first two fingers at right angles to work out the directions, amazed to find that she had learnt something relevant in her unfathomable theoretical maths that year. ‘Rapid warming at the North Pole means that the jet stream is now sluggish and lackadaisical – more like a lowland river, prone to big meanders and oxbow lakes that leave stranded pockets of hot or cold air in strange places.’
He laughed admiringly at her knowledge and enthusiasm, just as there was a fumble at the door, which opened to Grace’s call of ‘Gin and tonic!’ She entered, bearing two glass tumblers with fizzing ice. She handed them to her father and their visitor.
‘Brilliant! Thank you,’ William enthused.
‘Having fun?’ Grace asked Rhan.
‘Yes, thank you,’ Rhan replied rather stiffly, then chuckled as she realised that she had continued to hold her hand with fingers and thumb extended at right angles.
‘Well, I’ll leave you to it then.’
There was a pause as Grace left before Rhan started up again.
‘A balmy north Arctic Ocean is still difficult to imagine,’ she said. ‘I can see how a lack of mixing air and water will create massive hotspots that will bring the threatened hurricanes to Europe and surges of water levels up or down the North Sea. But what will happen when the north Atlantic drift hits the Pacific equivalent coming up from the other side of the Arctic Ocean, when there is no ice barrier?’
‘I have no idea!’ William admitted straight away. ‘Good question. All I know is that there will be plenty of work for engineers fighting the new weather conditions and sea levels.’
‘So what about countries without resources to construct barriers for rising sea levels?’ Rhan asked in a forced neutral tone.
‘I suppose that flooded cities and water taxis will become much more common,’ he suggested, sipping from his drink. ‘Some of the best land will be lost, so farming will have a dreadful time, resulting in food being a major issue again.’
‘You mentioned 5° or more. Just how hot do you think it will get, and what will that mean? You think our whole society is at risk? She glanced doubtfully at the dark, cold evening through a gap in the curtains. ‘Actually, I suppose I also want to know what it will mean to us, to Syria…and what we need to do to survive here in the UK?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here,’ was his immediate, flippant answer. ‘Your generation have been very unlucky to follow my generation.’
After a couple of seconds’ contemplation, William got up, threw a couple of logs on the fire and then grabbed the discarded computer again, searching as he spoke.
‘Comparing relative temperatures in one region for a given mean temperature rise is well illustrated and readily available from the IPCC; I presume you’ve seen those coloured graphs of the world? Gaining understandings of just how hot, or when the heat will reach those temperatures and the resulting dangers, are difficult subjects to grasp. A few good books try to fill in the gaps, such as Six Degrees and The Last Generation. However, I have a different slant here that may interest you. There it is!’
After a bit of tinkering with his laptop and pleased with his find, he showed a table to Rhan on the screen.
‘This will not answer your questions directly, but it gives an engineer’s perspective on what we face. These are sets of opinions, mostly from engineers, that I’ve collected in surveys. You’ll see that they date from…ah yes, 2008 up to 2015. It may seem strange, but I think that the responses from these very small samples might be as close as you will get to answers for your questions.’
Rhan sat on the edge of her seat again, looking at a column of questions on one side of the table, with columns of percentage values next to the questions. The headers at the top of the table indicated different types of average and quartiles. It dawned on her that William had actually asked engineers to provide percentages as answers for around twenty different questions. She decided to concentrate on the most frequent responses while William started to explain what she was looking at.
‘The first questions just cover general issues, effectively asking whether they believe in global warming – around a third considered it a serious issue. That’s much higher than a random sample, but still lower than might be expected at a special lecture on the subject.’
Rhan grinned, wondering over the implications, but not interrupting.
‘The last set of questions deal with professional approaches on what engineers should do about it. It’s the middle subjects that cover aspects of your areas of interest: temperature rise and the impact. For example, on migration…Question 4 covered displacement for a two-degree rise in temperature…the averaged answers indicate that between 10 and 20 percent of the world population will have to move – that’s around eight hundred million to one, and a half billion people. Does that sound plausible to you? I gather it’s a similar percentage to the migration from the Irish famine in the nineteenth century, when around 10 percent of the population moved, and just as many died.’
‘Ah yes, George sent me that figure last holiday,’ she replied. ‘The results seemed reasonable, even just considering the populations that will be affected by inundation from rising sea levels. Yet the numbers were provided by engineers who know nothing special?’
‘Absolutely, but engineers are used to assessing risks by plucking data from the air. The inundation of coastal areas will certainly be significant. Just look at the vulnerability of East Yorkshire and York itself once we have a few metres of rise. Yet even with such relatively obvious risks, there are again no moves to prepare slowly at negligible cost. Anyway engineers aren’t alone in having such concerns. I’ve done larger surveys among non-engineers – school kids and adults – and they produced similar results. The strange thing is that where we’ve been able to benchmark the engineers’ predictions – well, on ice melt – they turned out to be more accurate than the IPCC official consensus of expert advice!’
‘Really?’ Rhan asked, still not giving the results much credence. ‘Ah, these subjects cover engineers’ expected outcomes from temperature rises.’ She pointed at rows on the table.
‘You’ve got it! That question indicates that around a third of the world’s population would be at risk from 3° rise – that’s around three billion deaths!’
‘The same fraction as from the Black Death?’ Rhan suggested quickly. He nodded before continuing, pointing to the next relevant question.
‘But if you look at that question, once we get to 3°C, there is almost an even chance that temperatures will shoot up further to a 5° rise.’ He looked up to conclude. ‘Some scientists are only now, a decade or so later, starting to acknowledge that 4°C or more is now a very real possibility by 2100. Yet I sat on an engineering task force that recommended engineers should at least assess risks for 4° by 2040! As you point out, these are just engineering opinions, with or without positive feedback and tipping points, but…’ He paused, shrugging. ‘I’ve no data above 5°C, but the engineers thought that once we reach that temperature, less than half the population would survive.’
He pointed to the last outstanding question. Rhan responded immediately, as she had already been staring at that result on the screen.
‘These are not good odds!’ she declared, as she moved her drink to one side to focus on the future prospects. ‘We are already set for rises of 2° or 3°C unless we find a magical cure for the atmosphere.’ Rhan sat forward, studying the data on the screen. ‘Once there, we could expect one in three people to die? Yet these survey results suggest there are groups of engineers who would give no better odds than the toss of a coin that we can stop global warming at 3°C of warming before we reach 5°. Then half of everyone will die.’
‘That’s what the opinions showed,’ William confirmed. ‘On the projections that I’ve read for 3° of warming, you wouldn’t want to see how much worse everything will get. The Amazon rainforest would be doomed, so further disaster there. The rains would move northward into Canada and that would be repeated all over the world. The productive land would be too hot to grow wheat, and the new moderate zones wouldn’t have adequate soils! Starvation would haunt most lands. Huge populations would be looking for food. Technology would have no chance against such changes in both nature and society. I think that things will be at least as bad as those opinions.’
‘My God!’ she muttered, going through the table slowly. ‘I suppose, if I was asked…I would suggest even worse figures! Many people, if not most, probably live in coastal cities around the world, or in regions that will be hit by severe drought, so I can see how most of the world would need to move. A death rate of half the world for 5° seems possible then, or perhaps probable. That leaves the question of when? When will this happen?’
She looked up, hoping for a simple answer. William answered indirectly.
‘Well, all I know is that 5° is now likely by 2100, and with the tipping points we discussed earlier, I think it’ll be sooner than that.’ He looked up, ready to answer Rhan’s next question.
‘So what did the engineers want to do?’ Rhan asked, looking expectantly at the laptop.
‘Well from my surveys – everything and nothing!’ He laughed suddenly and hollowly. ‘On the face of it they wanted engineers to be fully engaged and taking a lead, yet only a small percentage were prepared to take any meaningful measures!
‘As I mentioned, the earlier results suggested that around a third of respondents could actually be considered sceptics, as they denied that mankind was responsible for global warming! In the more recent surveys, the predicted timescales for the first Arctic ice melt moved into the distant future, even though they had almost the same evidence as you; so a significant portion was convinced that it wasn’t their problem and that we’ll have plenty of time to act, despite the evidence.’ He pointed at the screen. ‘That larger group of opinions was from a wider group of 650 non-engineers, with a high percentage of under-eighteens, and they gave similar results. The results weren’t that different – few actually advocated taking any action! Most climate events I’ve attended say the same – we just need to improve efficiency! Otherwise just carry on as before!’
There was a pause in the discussions while Rhan chewed her lip before continuing on a different tack.
‘So your data shows that half the world will kill the other half off, unless something extraordinary happens?’ she demanded bluntly. ‘Genocide, on an unprecedented scale!’
‘Well I think of it as progenicide,’ he suggested quietly, looking at her askance.
‘What?’ she asked, looking at him with a furrowed brow.
‘Progenicide. I am afraid I decided we needed a new word. My generation, and yours to a lesser extent, inherited a wonderful, vibrant planet, yet we are quite prepared to pass on a doomed world to our children and grandchildren – our progeny. The gist of all these excuses is that our progeny is not deemed worth any effort by our generation. It is perhaps the first case of genocide against our own progeny. Progenicide is what I call it.’
‘Does that have any meaning?’ She smiled weakly, unsure of the direction of the conversation.
‘I suggest progenicide involves…’ He had to stop and think before continuing. ‘Acceptance or active, complicit participation in a lifestyle that will mean the death of our progeny. Even when either poor or rich people are aware of the implications of both overpopulation and global warming, or both, they are prepared to contribute to carbon emissions and add extra mouths to feed and let others in poor countries die for their short-term benefit. We know the lifespan of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so we know that, in the longer term, it will of course result in the death of our own children and grandchildren. Overwhelmingly throughout the world, we have chosen to carry on, regardless of the relatively modest changes that we need to adopt.’
Rhan nodded her recollection of William’s main suggestion of rationing on the previous day, while he continued in a slightly aggrieved voice.
‘Progenicide means that we’ve lost every shred of decency and morality, which used to be taken for granted in most societies. I think it’s the ultimate sin. We would happily kill others and let our own family suffer, just to avoid walking to work, catching a public bus or missing out on a flight to a different part of the world.’
‘Yes,’ she spoke slowly in her old-fashioned and slightly dramatic accent. ‘We discussed the possibility of an intergenerational conflict last term. It may be related to your idea of progenicide. Our friend, David, thought there would need to be wars to prevent people continuing to pump out greenhouse gases, regardless of the impact.’
‘Well I hadn’t conceived of anything quite as drastic as that,’ he conceded. ‘But I have no idea what stopping progenicide would involve. Bombing oil wells and pipelines might come eventually, but too late.’
‘Well in science-fiction worlds, like Alien or Avatar, there are always baddies,’ she responded semi-seriously. ‘They tend to place profit before the future of civilisation. George told me this morning of two scientists who wrecked a school initiative, but are there many engineers who would actively stand against action to reduce global warming?’
‘Oh yes – there are plenty of those in my industry!’ William asserted. ‘After all, we think we have a vested interest in using concrete and steel and very few want to change back to low-carbon techniques and architecture from a hundred years ago, no matter what danger we bring to the next generation.
‘Every other year I stand for election to my engineering committee to act for the climate – I generally get less than 5 percent of votes and come almost last. Yet when I joined, civil engineers claimed to control the natural environment!’ He grimaced.
‘I was told there were massive procedures on sustainability,’ the student suggested.
‘Sorry,’ William responded sadly. ‘The idea of making structures low carbon in the critical short term never caught on! Instead, codes have been developed to allow projects to have big carbon footprints, yet gain sustainability awards based on future promised efficiencies and sustainable demolition in a century or so. As I said, even on projects such as the restoration of ancient buildings, no one wants to put back the low-carbon timber beams in the original sockets in case it could be mistaken for pastiche. They prefer to rip out the foundations and install brand-new concrete piles, pile caps, slabs and steel columns. On every project I have ever worked on there’s always someone to insist on steel or concrete. After decades of trying, I’ve still to construct a negative-carbon structure.’
‘I had wanted to ask about that,’ Rhan said. ‘Our lecturers continue to teach the old steel-and-concrete approaches. Only George notices.’
He nodded curtly. ‘I’m afraid that in recent years I have also been really disappointed by the way young engineers, just a few years older than you, vote against their own future.’
Rhan glanced at William, before confirming his fears.
‘I have had real trouble trying to find young people who would accept the concept of warming, never mind accept that they needed to take action. I suppose we are still strongly grounded in greenhush.’
William grunted his agreement just as George’s voice called out for supper.
‘Greenhush allows us to pretend that everything is fine,’ he continued. ‘People’s actions suggest that progenicide is a price worth paying if it allows everyone to just carry on as before, even if it’s just for just a few more years.’
He called to George through the closed door as he started to rise. ‘OK, we’re on our way!’
As he bent down to tend the fire, Rhan quietly brought up the critical question.
‘What about my family here in the UK?’ she asked. ‘Will there be war here, and if so, when? Do you think Britain will become somewhere that everyone will fight in and over, if we are going to be less affected than most? Or can we just sit back and watch the rest of the world suffer?’
He looked up, only slightly surprised before answering after a short delay. He was leaning on the mantelpiece, enjoying the heat from the fire whose flames he had just dampened. ‘Well, in both the First and Second World Wars, the UK was said to be on the edge of starvation as supply ships had trouble getting through the submarine blockade. Since then, farmers produce more per hectare, but have then lost good land to developers, and the population has increased of course. I believe we produce around 60 percent of our food, so shortages could be expected within a few years, as previously productive regions such as California and South Australia have started to suffer already – more quickly than the UK.
‘It’s easy to imagine that even Britain would face hunger as soon as there’s a breakdown in the shipping-in of spare food from other countries, unless we start to prepare in the available time. Much of the best land in East Anglia and East Yorkshire are very vulnerable to sea-level rises, yet vast tracts of land that would enjoy a warmer climate, like on the moors here, are still stuck by feudal systems and the enclosures from two or three hundred years ago. There is no investment in land or in low-carbon food or products in the remaining proverbial “seven years of plenty”, so we will go hungry when the seven hundred years of famine hit us.’ He started putting his laptop away.
‘So!’ Rhan concluded, biting the inside of her cheek. ‘My sister and young cousins are almost certainly going to witness this turmoil.’
‘Well, four by 40 is possible – that is, 4°C by 2040 – it would mean things could get very unpleasant soon, but it could be slightly later. All discussions like this tend to end on a high note. It’s so much easier and nicer. But it’s also wrong to just hope for the best. It would be sensible to at least acknowledge that the worst could happen.’
‘At least I know,’ she added with a faint smile. ‘My parents would have been grateful to you for warning me. Thank you.’
‘Yes, I’m afraid that compassion and humanitarian help will fade quickly once the scale of the problem sinks in.’
‘And the danger looks like half the world population for 5° of warming?’ She tried to nail down their conservation as she grabbed her neglected glass and took a sip.
‘Yes but the danger is that 5° is still just a figure. Temperatures appear more likely to rise further and quicker if we repeatedly underestimate the problem.’
‘And 4° by 40! That is the scary possibility,’ Rhan declared, finally standing up.
‘Yup, we could save a lot of lives if we started to get ready for that,’ William responded positively. ‘And on that note,’ he turned and opened the door, ‘time for supper, don’t you think?’ He smiled as he let Rhan pass.