Rhan, speaking in a sombre tone with brow furrowed, continued the conversation as she and William left the room.
‘You have confirmed much of what I expected about warming, but I have no clear understanding of how we reached this dreadful situation. I just cannot understand how we can be almost irreversibly set on the way to 2°C of warming and several metres of sea-level rise, with all that entails for nearly everyone. Yet I have heard or seen so little discussion, and the subject is effectively taboo. How is this possible?’
‘Yea!’ Grace unexpectedly joined in the conversation as they entered the kitchen. ‘Even in New Scientist there’ve been months with hardly any articles on climate.’
Rhan glanced at her, trying to check whether she was being serious or was mocking her. Grace was leaning against the range, behind a place on the long oak kitchen table which was all set for the meal. Learning nothing from Grace, Rhan was pleased to exchange subtle smiles with George, whom she had missed over the past hour.
‘Well, perhaps we should settle before discussing that,’ her father responded, now also distracted by other things.
‘Oh no,’ moaned George. ‘Don’t tell me you still haven’t put the world to rights?’
Once everyone was seated around the table and tucking into the meal, June allowed the conversation to drift back to the climate.
‘Rhan, it’s a shame you’re spending your last evening with us discussing such depressing subjects,’ she said. ‘We’re having another round of cards after supper, but in the meantime, did you find out all you need to know?’
‘Oh, I am sorry,’ Rhan replied, embarrassed. ‘I didn’t mean to dominate the conversation.’
‘Don’t be silly, this is obviously important, especially for you,’ said June. ‘George has explained what happened to your parents. I’m so sorry. I can understand your anxiety over changes in our society and how that could get worse once hard times set in. I think you’re right to be concerned.’
‘Yes my parents were early victims of the conflict. A shell hit our family home. My sister and I thought our parents had been cruel sending us here to Britain for school. But looking back, I can see how they viewed the dangers of civil war. Their action meant that my sister and I were actually the luckiest from our school in Aleppo. I am sorry to be a bore.’ She apologised again, feeling guilty for introducing such a controversial topic, but was pleased with herself for being able to talk about her parents’ death.
‘Well you needn’t try to solve everything on your last evening here. I hope this is only your first visit,’ June continued, glancing at her son. ‘Please come at least every holiday and treat this place as another home.’
‘Great idea!’ Grace exclaimed.
‘Well, I would love to try my skills at that card game we played last night. I will enjoy playing it with my cousins.’ Rhan couldn’t help smiling. ‘I have had kind offers to visit friends from other colleges – Claire, Esther and Chandra – but you have all made me feel very at home here and I would love to return. Perhaps I should plan ahead, and write all the engineering practicals in Arabic so George has to get me here to translate.’
‘You make me sound shallow!’ George protested. ‘I think you should take a full-time job sorting out stuff for next term.’
‘There is always something more immediately urgent than climate change.’ Rhan forced herself to bring the conversation back to the issue that was worrying her. ‘It’s usually something like writing up an overdue practical or packing to go away. Petty things get in the way so we simply ignore the big picture, even when we know it will effectively kill us. The strange thing is – those on the receiving end, those affected by drought and flooding – I bet they see even less of the underlying problems of climate and population.’
‘You know how it works,’ George reminded her. ‘It’s worse than that – the subject is taboo! No one wants to know.’ Then, glancing at his sister, he added, ‘Even Grace is pointing out the lack of media attention, as soon as moorland and forest fires are no longer headlines. We’re happy surviving one day at a time.’
‘It involves a “metaphysical disregard for reality”, or something like that,’ George’s father argued emphatically but with a self-critical laugh. ‘That was the phrase used in the book Wild Swans to describe how the Chinese followed Chairman Mao in the Cultural Revolution, regardless of logic and the laws of nature, with the result that millions quietly starved to death.’
‘Yup,’ George said, engaging with his specialist subject. ‘When I was in China, I saw the modern equivalent: miles upon miles of smoking blast furnaces that have now flooded the world with excess, high-carbon steel. But I think other countries, like Australia, are even more reckless by providing coal. They’ve sold their soul in a crazy dash to ruin both their country and the planet for short-term gains; same with the US and Canada and their dash for tar sands and shale gas. So, I’m sorry Rhan, but democracies are happy to elect leaders like Donald Trump just so they don’t have to listen to the likes of my old man.’
‘Rhan and I were just discussing this madness,’ his father carried on. ‘Despite warnings, we continue to stoke up global warming, which will now almost certainly create the perfect storm of misery and destruction on a scale that has hardly been seen since the K-T asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs.’
‘Oh come on, Will! You don’t believe that’s inevitable?’ June argued. ‘How come it’s only you who sees the danger? We’re slowly moving in the right direction, aren’t we? And the Paris Agreement targets will kick in at some point, perhaps only as the global warming target of 1.5°C flies past, but still. Did William tell you, Rhan, that he was there, in Paris, speaking for the World Federation of Engineers? It was December…was it 2015? Anyway there were no Christmas lights in Paris after dreadful terrorist massacres.’
‘Unfortunately, those climate targets from Paris were for the medium or long-term politics, but avoided any necessity for action in the here and now,’ William explained critically. ‘Long-term targets will not help Rhan and her generation, especially if those targets are being allowed to lapse.’
‘That’s my generation too!’ Grace chipped in. ‘Oh and George’s I suppose…’
‘The key problem,’ George went on with a resigned sigh, ‘is that no one intends to cut emissions, so policies are only agreed on that basis. The whole population would vote against any future, especially if a single ignorant voice or newspaper suggested there was the smallest chance that it would be our children rather than us that’ll pay the price.’
‘That’s what Rhan and I have been discussing, along with the power of greenhush,’ his father agreed. ‘We have no other viable plans, but we continue to reject the obvious advice. Option A is to hope it’ll all be fine. Option B is to find an excuse and let others bear the brunt. No one considers Option C, to stop making things worse.’
‘You’re being alarmist again!’ It was Grace this time telling her father off. He shook his head, rejecting her accusation.
‘You should have sat with Rhan when we were discussing the alarmist stuff,’ he replied.
‘Oh, poor Rhan!’ June interceded again. ‘Don’t let William dump responsibility for the whole world on your shoulders. We’re meant to be a scientifically aware nation with a questioning media, yet there is widespread apathy, as George points out. You can’t blame yourself. There’s no government, professional body or world religion that thinks they need to act, except William.’ At this, June smiled wryly. ‘So you need to keep a sceptical hat on too, Rhan.’
‘You mention failure of a questioning media,’ her husband added, either ignoring or failing to notice the mild dig. ‘I would go further and suggest that the media was, and still is, largely responsible for the news blackout.’
‘But why? Scare stories sell newspapers and grab listeners, don’t they?’ Grace couldn’t help querying, saving Rhan from asking a similar question. There were shrugs and exhalations around the table until, after finishing the last food on his plate, William related the story.
‘Well, once upon a time, following the 2007 IPCC report, there was widespread shock at what was in store for the planet. Climate scientists had, since the late eighties, been warning that we needed to cut carbon emissions straight away and drastically. Dreadful consequences were threatened, such as one degree of warming by 2035!’ he laughed. ‘We’ve had that rise, but in half that time – yet no one has blinked!
‘Anyway, as I remember it, there was much research and growing momentum for action on many fronts. It was generally accepted that new industries needed to be set up with grants. High-carbon producers would be made to pay. Nearly all the top politicians of every description acknowledged the danger, even if many of the voters were unconvinced; it was all just an Inconvenient Truth, as that film was called.’
He stopped and looked around the table, surprised by the lack of interruption, so he continued.
‘As I mentioned to you earlier Rhan, the 2007 UN report was pathetically weak in my opinion. It left out the big tipping point or cascade risks and painted a very rosy picture. I expected the media to condemn the publication as dangerous. But I keep overestimating society’s common sense when it comes to climate change.
‘Anyway, a few weeks later, as I recall it, a Channel 4 programme called The Great Green…no, The Great Global Warming Swindle, or something like that, suggested that reducing carbon emissions could be expensive. They claimed that the concerns were not absolutely proven. They blatantly extracted edited sentences from longer statements by climate scientists, so their overall meaning was reversed. There were cries of annoyance over the next few days by their unwilling interviewees – but too late. The TV programme initiated a well-orchestrated and well-funded sceptical backlash, and a vehement campaign of widespread climate denial was unleashed.
‘This quickly began to stymie purposeful action. Greenhush was in full bloom. The barrage of criticism against green schemes struck the chord that the public wanted to hear – it suddenly became acceptable to deny the whole concept of global warming. Colleagues, family and friends – even those with scientific training – rejected the whole science. Complete victory to the sceptics. They won. Any meaningful discussion of global warming was effectively silenced in every sphere.’
‘But it’s mentioned quite often now,’ June protested. ‘OK, not as often as William wants, and they don’t go round telling everyone they’re doomed, but it’s in the media every week or so. What annoys you most is any suggestion that we have plenty of time, isn’t it William? But there used to be complete silence or denial!’
There was an immediate response from her husband.
‘God yes, most key presenters on the BBC and especially Radio 4 were influential in the denial of global warming,’ William responded, becoming more animated. ‘The BBC admitted that the subject of climate change was just too hot to handle, so they peddled the denial message along with everyone else. Even now, there are no real discussions or programmes on it, are there? Some years it has just been nature programmes occasionally mentioning it in passing, but I think even David Attenborough had problems.’
‘William, tell Rhan about the Today programme on Radio 4,’ June explained, although Rhan nodded, indicating her knowledge of it. William grinned before obliging.
‘Well they once pulled the plug on a scientist who tried to warn people about the melting of the Arctic ice. They somehow thought that the scientist was going to say the sea ice was growing, and panicked when he said the opposite. I started taking notes whenever I heard global warming discussed, but it was only a few times a year.’
Rhan turned in her seat, her interest piqued. Grace, who was about to say something, decided better of it.
‘When forced to discuss climate news, the more usual approach involved the interviewer getting the scientist to admit there was some scope for error in the science,’ William continued, pausing to concentrate on passing the vegetarian lasagne around for second helpings. ‘The interviewer would then introduce a climate denier with no relevant credentials – often Nigel Lawson, the ex-chancellor, who was prepared to state emphatically that there was absolutely no risk or danger, that the Arctic sea ice would recover, that the IPCC was stupid, and that everyone could ignore the problem. Lawson’s book, An Appeal to Reason, took the more logical yet terrifying approach. It acknowledged that climate change must be taking place, if that’s what the scientists said. But he suggested that the next generation were just not worth any effort by our generation! In other words, the next generation could sort out our mess.’
There was a series of non-appreciative comments from around the table.
‘Yet there were no complaints?’ asked Rhan, cutting through the noise.
‘Well, Nigel Lawson didn’t actually say that on the radio, did he?’ June explained. ‘The usual approach was for presenters to use a special, bored and resentful manner when speaking about climate change, but they have just ignored the subject whenever possible, just to wind William up! Items of news were read without comment. It was all very effective at maintaining the virtual news blackout.’
‘Well I have also noticed that the subject is never really covered,’ Rhan replied. ‘I have never once heard any climate sceptic being questioned about the reliability of their previous predictions.’
‘You’re right! Isn’t that strange?’ June agreed. ‘No programme has ever considered the former assurances – the sceptics have never had to answer for their brash, negligent statements.’
‘There’ll be a day when they face the music,’ Grace said aggressively. ‘No one can make reckless statements, resulting in disaster and get away, scot-free.’
‘Well, it would be reassuring to know that every statement that is proved to be inaccurate, and every advocate of inaction that proves to be dangerous, will be called to account one day,’ Rhan said emphatically, supporting Grace.
‘Any bold idiot betting with lives and misery should pay the cost if they are wrong,’ Grace went on. ‘I bet the future won’t be kind to them. Anyone siding with mass death for future generations will pay, one way or the other.’
‘Yes, all rules of current justice might change, once things get nasty,’ her father concurred. ‘With properties uninsurable, useless twenty-five-year mortgages and maps needing to be redrawn every ten years for the new coastline, yesterday’s sceptics won’t be able to pretend they knew better. I’ve read some of their books; they have much to answer for.’
‘Well.’ William’s daughter was now giving vent to the injustice to her generation. ‘Just for good measure, both the sceptics and those who listened to them will all be conveniently dumped on an oil baron’s low-lying island, without any means of contributing more greenhouse gas emissions, to wait for the tide to rise…or not if they’re so confident of their assumptions about sea levels.’
‘Bit late by then,’ George responded in a fatalistic voice. ‘It would be great if climate deniers were declared outcasts, but I don’t suppose people can be prosecuted for condemning their grandchildren. Yet how could they claim the next generation can tackle something in a way and on a scale that’s currently inconceivable? To stop the disaster, we should’ve started capturing carbon back in the 1990s, when I was in my cot!’
‘You are right!’ Rhan stated crossly, putting down both her knife and fork more forcefully than she intended. ‘As if we will have the luxury to somehow recapture the huge amounts of carbon released by the previous generation. We will be busy with all hands to the pumps, dealing with droughts, rising seas, mass migration, loss of the best agricultural land, and Mediterranean temperatures – even here. That carbon was stored in fossil fuels over millions of years – does anyone think it can be plucked out of the air and re-stored within a few years?’ Rhan stopped, suddenly realising she needed more information. ‘Has there been any carbon capture and storage?’ she asked, turning to William, who had an answer to hand while Rhan continued to eat.
‘I have read the odd article,’ he reported. ‘I hear that some carbon dioxide captured from a few chemical processes has been pumped into an old saline cavern or an old oil well – I forget the details. There was some good news as the CO2 was quickly absorbed by the rock. So carbon storage works on a limited scale, but it certainly cannot be plucked out of the air. So the easy answer is no – we have no idea how your generation is expected to capture all that carbon in the atmosphere and store it at a rate faster than it took to release! But as pointed out by sceptics, carbon dioxide is still not even classified as a pollutant. So if there’s little or no compunction or incentive, why bother?’
‘Daft isn’t it!’ June added. Grace just tutted.
Seeing that Rhan had now finished, George got up to finish making the custard while his father started collecting the dirty plates. His mother remained seated, keeping their guest company, but Rhan noted that she supervised from a distance.
‘I read the other month,’ George said over his shoulder, while he stirred the pan, ‘that to store carbon, nature utilises quantum physics in the photosynthesis process. The leaves do something that prevents electrons simply reverting to where they came from. Even then, it would take nature thousands of years. We can’t do that with our current technology.’
‘The more we learn, the more complex we find even the simplest aspects of life on this planet,’ his father re-joined. ‘We cannot challenge God yet.’
‘So you are all confirming what I feared,’ Rhan stated in a tone that was both triumphant at the acknowledgment, and exasperated at the injustice. ‘We are being given an impossible task, which gets harder every year.’
‘Crazy!’ exclaimed Grace, which made Rhan wonder how much even George’s family had discussed the issues previously.
‘It’s a ridiculously optimistic pretence,’ George complained, once he had dumped a hot dish on the mats in the middle of the table with a heavy thud, anxious to withdraw his hands from the inadequate oven gloves. ‘There is no real interest anywhere in controlling temperatures on this planet, so it’s just a useful fabrication that the next generation can put things right. Promises, such as Paris 2015, are based on doing nothing when it would have some effect, yet agreeing that someone, sometime, should take action in a few years’ time, when it’s all too late.’ He returned to the custard and muttered something to his mother about a suitable serving jug. William smiled and nodded.
‘We are giving our children and grandchildren limited choices,’ Rhan said bleakly after a short pause, ticking off the options on her fingers. ‘A sentence of an early death; a life of killing; or a life of fleeing and running away, hoping for mercy from others. Just because London feels safe behind the Barrier…’ She stopped, suddenly realising that she had no need to talk and because George was now serving up what he called an apple charlotte and custard.
‘My, that’s magnificent, George!’ his father enthused, suggesting that George might be showing off his domestic skills.
Rhan eyed the sugared bread and jug of custard in front of her with interest. However, once the practical details of serving had been resolved, she returned to the serious issue.
‘We were talking earlier about how the sceptics managed to win the technical arguments on climate change, without any science basis. Is that still the case? Are all arguments for inaction on a non-technical basis?’
‘Yeah, what happened?’ Grace was showing interest, despite her previous objections.
There were a few seconds of surprise at the sudden change in direction of the conversation, before William responded thoughtfully.
‘Well, I suppose that the next aspect of the battle involved the sceptics moving on to the attack. It’s now beginning to look like they had large, secret financial backing. They targeted and ruined the credibility of a few leading climate scientists in cleverly publicised campaigns.’
‘Oh yes. It was the University of East Anglia, wasn’t it?’ June filled in more detail to William’s recollections. ‘An academic was accused of not keeping adequate records, yet his predictions proved correct within months.’
‘The attacks were so successful that they resulted in scientists quickly learning to keep their heads down.’
‘All the publicity was one-way, which suited the media,’ June added.
‘Would you believe that even the Church of England, back in 2012, asked me not to rock the boat?’ William said. ‘I was collecting data for that Christian Census on Climate Change event – Rhan and I discussed it earlier.’
‘Oh, was that when George and I distributed service sheets in York Minster?’ Grace enquired. ‘That was fun.’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ her father replied. ‘A quarter of responses wanted all-out action by Christian churches, a quarter were sceptical and wanted half measures, and the rest fell between. Anyway, one of the Church’s top climate change advisors was so scared that sceptics would make use of any publicity or data we produced, he actually asked me to stop the ecumenical initiative!’ William shook his head and opened his hands in frustration. ‘So the person responsible for publicising the evils of global warming was actively suppressing discussion of the moral issues. That is probably the best example of definite greenhush – the Church’s guardian angels turned to stone.’
‘Or evil?’ Grace suggested. William nodded and laughed.
‘Didn’t the archbishop then give a sermon that attacked your efforts?’ June asked, recklessly priming her husband.
‘Yes, it was shocking,’ William replied, smiling ruefully. ‘He said that as Christians we shouldn’t look ahead, or measure the height of the mountain until we reach its summit. It might not be as high as we thought. It was God’s problem, not ours!’
‘Oh yes, that was it. Awful!’ June was now more cross than her husband.
George joined in the attack. ‘I know it was a Catholic-led event, but don’t many of the top bishops, and other denominations or religions, effectively have the same utterly destructive approach? As long as we stick to policies such as no birth control, it’s no great sin to ruin the planet and cause the death of billions of poor people and species that we are meant to look after. Overpopulation is a complete no-go area for discussion, yet goes hand-in-glove with climate change to ruin creation.’
‘I have friends who have extreme Christian faiths – and they refuse to worry about climate change,’ Grace confirmed. ‘It’s all “God’s will”.’
‘I have come across that approach at Oxford,’ Rhan agreed. ‘They seem to like the idea that everyone will suffer. However, I joined a very sympathetic Methodist church in Sunderland, which actively campaigns for climate justice.’
‘Oh yes, the Methodists, and the Quakers, seem very progressive, along with some of the Baptists,’ June added.
‘Absolutely!’ her husband endorsed her opinion. ‘I attended a brilliant conference put on by the Quakers up here. ‘I can claim that I have actually seen a Quaker quake! She was a scientist from Somerset or somewhere in the south and had travelled all this way for the day-long conference in York. She broke into tears as she told our group about the life and choices she foresaw for her young grandchildren growing up in a heated world.
‘We Catholics have the Justice and Peace movement, which used to be very focused,’ he continued. ‘I’ve lectured on the Pope’s 2015 encyclical, which repeated a key question from New Zealand bishops over whether it is a mortal sin to contribute emissions that we know will kill people. I’m afraid the encyclical hardly gave an emphatic answer.’
‘Stupid, isn’t it,’ June sighed. ‘If we don’t care about how many die from our indifference, is that better or worse than direct murder?’
‘Very few individuals are aware or have calculated how many deaths their personal or professional carbon emissions are likely to cause,’ William declared. Rhan sat up and looked at him intently, obviously interested in this new line.
‘Oh come on,’ George complained. ‘Don’t start telling us more bad news!’
‘I estimated, back in 2010,’ William persevered, ‘that emissions of twelve tonnes of carbon dioxide per year would kill one other person. The answer felt about right at the time, but that figure will be much worse now, because the timescales for action are so much shorter and carbon concentrations so much worse.’
‘Twelve tonnes per death?’ Rhan repeated.
‘Well if I recalculated it now, few of us would be innocent of murder or manslaughter. Catching an aeroplane, using coal, or – if you’re an engineer, architect or developer – by choosing to use concrete or steel instead of a low-carbon timber alternative. It would all be considered criminal in a just world. I have heard that structural engineers have a carbon footprint of around a thousand tonnes each per year, which could easily be the case. I can save tens of thousands of tonnes if I can prove and persuade a client that a building doesn’t need to be knocked down and reconstructed, but can just be altered instead.’
‘Maybe, but it’s just too socially unacceptable to even notice,’ George suggested. ‘As I keep saying, it’s impossible to think that anyone but a complete nutter would stop flying, no matter what the cost to others.’
‘Yes – I am starting to see that!’ Rhan murmured. ‘I had already heard that it would need five hundred dedicated vegans to offset each structural engineer! It’s so wrong.’
‘Of course it is.’ George hammered home his point. ‘We will convince ourselves that it’s inevitable and normal for the climate to get worse and worse, but that it’s nothing to do with us. Just look at the way we destroy other bits of the environment such as the fish stocks. I mean, did anyone take the blame when overfishing wrecked the nineteenth-century annual North Sea herring run, with its whole industry and way of life for families around the British Isles? I presume it was just regarded as a temporary poor harvest that never recovered – just one of those things. Dealing with changing weather and stopping refugees from fleeing are becoming everyday parts of life. People will never admit that we have a problem because that would involve admission of guilt. It’s just not going to happen.’
‘No way!’ Grace was horror-struck. ‘Sooner or later it will be taken seriously! Then the sceptics will be in trouble.’
‘I wonder if we can only start to address issues when we have someone else that we can personally blame,’ her father suggested. ‘So far it has worked the wrong way round; we blame the Australians, the Chinese and the Americans, but they refuse to even acknowledge the problem. We can’t punish them, so the process doesn’t work.’
‘And they presumably blame Britain for starting and enforcing the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century.’ Rhan finished off the sentence, recalling several conversations with her friends. ‘We discussed this at college, didn’t we George?’
George nodded, playing with the spoon in his empty bowl.
‘This is a scandal that will have a major effect on everyone,’ June pointed out. ‘It’s not going to be just superficial to the majority, is it?’
‘Yeah well, child abuse, phone-hacking and such scandals, all took time to “blow up” as the scale of the problem was gradually exposed,’ George acknowledged. ‘Maybe it would help if the media had someone definite to blame so they can then see the problem!’
‘Then it’ll be far more vicious than anything previously seen,’ Grace suggested. When no one else spoke, she continued. ‘It’s science-fiction stuff! I wonder if our civilisation will survive. A disaster like this and the scale of the scandal should send ripples forward and backward in time.’ She smiled and added, ‘I’m joking!’
Rhan looked at the girl and nodded, appreciating Grace’s point.
‘Well, I think you’re right,’ William said, also taking it seriously. ‘It should be possible to see this looming in the future from our past stupidity.’
‘Well the blame will be easy,’ Grace blurted out more confidently. ‘The records will all be there! Articles by bullying and uncaring journalists, high spenders on fuels and designers of Dad’s hated high-carbon buildings…whatever. The culprits can’t escape the jaws of time.’
‘Each flight ticket,’ George suggested, ‘should have a warning: “This flight may be used in evidence against you.” It’ll be impossible for anyone, or any company, to claim “not guilty”, won’t it?’
‘A vengeful generation!’ June said, surprised. ‘I suppose it makes a change from apathetic social media watchers,’ she added, smiling. ‘The legal issues could involve things like, “Who should have known what and when?” I suppose that no one capable of booking a flight could claim they knew nothing about climate change, just because they chose to ignore the warnings.’
‘Yeh, they’ll pay for it!’ Grace was now very gung-ho.
George could not resist joining his sister. ‘Agree. The crime could easily be considered too awful to be allowed to go unpunished. There’ve been plenty of examples of retrospective laws in the international courts. Today’s respected leaders of society will be in real trouble.’
‘Well you two have changed your mocking tune!’ June accused her children as she thrust some of the pudding bowls at George to load into the dishwasher.
‘No. Just because we think it right that polluters pay, it doesn’t mean we have to listen to Pa going on about it all the time,’ Grace responded drily.
‘Hang on!’ her father retaliated. ‘I detect some major hypocrisy here. Your generation is much more interested in adding to carbon levels than cutting them. I give annual lectures to undergraduates and each year I’m amazed at the apathy. I just wish your generation would learn to engage effectively! You need to sort them out Rhan!’
‘Well, sorry Dad, but your generation is going to get all the blame,’ Grace argued with new vitriol.
‘Well, I concede that there are few in my generation who are blameless,’ William continued as he went to fill the kettle. ‘Even the most ardent advocates for action to save the world pull their punches when it matters to avoid being considered alarmist.’
You can’t blame scientists for being sensitive to attacks by sceptics,’ June intervened.
‘But many are now stupidly optimistic!’ There was much clattering as William stopped talking while he loaded a cafetiere with coffee. ‘Grace, can you pass the coffee cups?’
‘The most surprising aspect to me,’ Rhan said, pausing while a cup was placed in front of her, ‘has been how many individual scientists, engineers and academics deny the issue. In a lecture attended by many from all four year groups of our Engineering course, only George had the courage to stand up and point out the obvious. Did you hear that he got into trouble with the Engineering Department, who had brought in a concrete expert to tell us about sustainability?’
Rhan looked around the table and saw blank looks and shaking heads, so continued with her acclaim.
‘He pointed out that the use of concrete could not be sustainable and was only going to make the problem of global warming worse. It was clear that he was the only one in the whole department, including the staff and fourth-year students, who knew what he was talking about.’
‘Good for you, George!’ his mother praised.
‘My God, George – you stood up against climate change!’ his sister was shocked.
‘Well I never!’ George’s father rubbed his hands. ‘After all your abuse about me being a foolish crank!’
‘Yeah well, it was a big mistake,’ George said, deflating his built-up status. ‘It was just the blatant lies and hypocrisy that wound me up.’
‘Looking back, I can see why you thought, or still think, that our generation are quite happy to be witless, ignorant victims,’ Rhan mused.
‘I suppose the fantasy computer games generation would hardly be the obvious candidates to think that the environment beyond the window has any relevance,’ June joined the sad considerations. ‘But George, you clearly influenced at least one person!’ She glanced at Rhan, who blushed and took the opportunity to stand up to help clear the table.
As she helped load the dishwasher, Rhan asked something she had not entirely understood.
‘Our tutor told George off, because the university was following approaches at the professional intuitions. So what did that mean, do you think?’
Rhan realised that a new dispute about taking out the dustbin and fetching logs for the fire was occupying George, Grace and June, which meant that little attention was now being given to their conversation.
‘Cards in five minutes!’ Grace called out over the clatter of cutlery and crockery as she left the kitchen to prepare the game.
‘Oxford engineers probably just follow the take-no-action stance of the main institutions,’ William suggested, ignoring the summons.
‘So it has nothing to do with George’s explanation, that Oxford is stuck in the past?’
‘Not in that instance,’ he replied with a hollow laugh. ‘Oxford has many leading climate departments and institutions, as it happens. I’m afraid that engineers also convince themselves that global warming isn’t real and is no threat to the way they operate.’
‘Could engineers be persuaded to save the world?’ Rhan asked, quickly receiving a hearty laugh in response from the old engineer, who was struggling to clean a large baking tray.
‘No. It would only happen if there was genuine money to pay them, together with threats of harsh lawsuits for any emissions that will kill people in the future. On the Thames Barrier project to stop London flooding, we were paid three times the going rate as an incentive to get it finished before the water arrived!’
‘Oh, he’s not telling you about his time working from boats and tower cranes on the Thames, is he Rhan?’ George was back in disruptive mode. ‘Dad saved London, don’t you know?’
‘But only just in time, I was trying to say,’ William retorted from his station at the sink. Then, ignoring his son, he added, ‘Would you mind passing that last pan Rhan?
‘I’ve had no doubts about climate change after first seeing glacier melt in New Zealand in 1985. Yet, after more than thirty years of clear evidence, I’m afraid that engineers show absolutely no signs of even slowing down contributions to greenhouse gases. We use ever-increasing carbon emissions, in bigger, more imposing buildings, construction of airports for more aircraft, and rail tracks for trains to travel faster. The glass-fronted building designs will be unsuitable in the expected heatwaves, and recent new flood defences will be far too low within a couple of decades.
‘As I said earlier, I’m afraid there’ll be an infinite amount of work for you to save the planet if you go into civil engineering, Rhan!’
The door flew open; Grace was standing there, obviously no longer prepared to join the conversation.
‘Come on, time for cards! You must’ve worked out how the whole world will be ruined by now.’
‘Good timing!’ her father responded. ‘We clearly live in interesting times, so let’s finish on that.’
‘Come on Rhan.’ George grabbed Rhan round the waist and lifted her away from the drying up. ‘Grace is right,’ he proclaimed. ‘If you can’t fix the world in two hours of conversation, it’s not worth saving.’
Rhan glanced at the worried face of June, and decided not to struggle. Laughing, she passed the damp tea towel to the now smiling June as she was carried from the room.
‘Well that was a lovely and most interesting meal.’ Rhan thanked her hosts as she pushed her hair back into place under her headscarf as soon she was dropped outside the kitchen. ‘It is disappointing to have it confirmed that nowhere is going to be safe, but it puts my anger at universities into perspective.’
‘Well, I think we need more anger if we are to save anything and anyone!’ William suggested.
‘Rubbish!’ Grace responded emphatically, suddenly thrusting a box of chocolates into Rhan’s arms. ‘Anger’s an emotion caused by lack of chocolate. Luckily, Mum told me to bring these to have with the cards.’
Rhan, speaking in a sombre tone with brow furrowed, continued the conversation as she and William left the room.