Let's trash the stage!

Let’s trash the stage!


I have just returned from a training course in Italy, where I learnt some analysis skills with about 20 other early career researchers from around Europe. I was the only health researcher, and all the rest were studying ecology or agriculture of some kind. I was expecting this, but I was really surprise to discover that almost everyone else at the course was doing research pretty much directly related to climate change. One person was studying a polar animal, and their research had perhaps become more productive through warming. The rest were studying either changes in animal behavior due to climate change, or – the majority – changes in crops due to climate change. These changes were universally deeply concerning.

For example, I met an Italian guy who studies wine grapes. Wine is great, obviously, but I know nothing about how it is made. It turns out that it’s a delicate process, and different wines are determined by detailed aspects of when and how they are harvested. Small changes in temperature change the growing period and the harvesting process radically, so that, for example – this man told me – now for certain grape types they have to irrigate the vineyard heavily for a few days before harvesting to reduce the sugar content of the grape. To his father’s generation this kind of practice was considered anathema, but it has become essential because the growing zone is warmer and drier, and the sugar content of grapes has to be carefully balanced to ensure the wine has the right flavour. Other people told me of similar problems with apples, for example, or broader problems in crop management. Aside from one person who was studying aspects of regeneration of natural areas damaged by human interference, everyone was studying something about the way the natural world is reacting to heat. These aren’t your infamous global warming heavyweights with their nose in the government-funded global warming funding trough, mind you: they’re ecologists or agricultural scientists turning their skills to solving the biggest problem of our time, which is how to cope with a warming world.

Many of these problems are ultimately intractable. Wine grapes grow in a narrow zone that combines weather, pre-existing industrial skill and fertile soils in particular locations. As the temperature rises the optimal location for temperature shifts but the soil doesn’t shift with it, and neither, necessarily, does the rainfall pattern. The town I studied in was a big wine-growing area but it was in the border of some mountains (pictured); heading up or north to retain the temperature profile might be possible, but means going into precarious mountain environments where yields will necessarily decline. For other regions – for example Champagne – this is going to be a big problem, because Champagne is dependent on a particular soil profile[1], which obviously won’t shift north as the temperature rises.

Wine has been with human society for a long time, but it is actually a pretty delicate thing, grown only in a relatively small part of the world and dependent on factors that must stay within a narrow range of values. Wine features in pre-christian Greek urns and has been a constant fixture on modern dining tables for 20 or 3000 years now (depending on where you live). If we lose the ability to make wine – or if it becomes a joke product because it can only be grown in areas that don’t suit it – then we will have lost something that is simultaneously trivial and vitally important. Obviously everyone can just drink whiskey, or we can dilute ethanol with grape juice, but everyone will know that we have lost something special. If we lose wine we will only have ourselves to blame – what a pack of dickheads, our children will say, who sat around drinking fine Shiraz and debating whether global warming was happening, and now look at us stuck here in our cyclone shelters with nothing to drink but fucking whiskey. Arseholes, they will say.

The UK Met Office is saying that this year is likely to be the first year that is 1C over pre-industrial temperatures. We took 150 years to get here, but it’s likely we’ll get to 2C in another 50 years, possible sooner if we don’t make efforts to control emissions. We’re already seeing serious effects of warming, and there’s no evidence that we’re going to make serious efforts from now. Worse still, I suspect a lot of the effects we’re already seing are actually lagged effects from earlier warming, not the direct result of the full 1C. Animals don’t change their range overnight, multi-year ice isn’t destroyed in the same year that temperatures hit some threshold, and sea level rise is known to occur year after its proximal causes are instigated. Whatever we’re seeing now is not the full complement of changes we can expect from a mere 1C warming, and there’s probably another 1C in the pipeline. This makes me think that scientists have undersold just how terrible it’s going to be, and even if we can stop all emissions tomorrow we’re going to be in for a rough ride before things get better. Bad times are coming, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.

I don’t have any confidence in the Conference of Parties meeting that’s due to happen in Paris this year. Our governments are not going to do what is necessary. I read an article recently that suggested sub-national strategies – by states, municipal authorities, and private corporations – may be sufficient to contain emissions, but I’m really doubtful that those efforts will produce the serious changes required, or be enough in and of themselves. Real change is going to require a global agreement, and sadly this is going to require developing nations to give up legitimate justice claims (about who has responsibility for reducing emissions the most), but I can’t see rich countries agreeing to make the cuts necessary, and given the rich nations’ past intransigence I can’t see poor nations accepting any agreement that doesn’t put the main burden on rich countries. Furthermore, a couple of rich countries still don’t believe this stuff is happening (i.e. they know it is happening but their base and/or their donors believe it is not).

As a result of this, I think soon we can expect to start losing precious things, and the end game is going to begin. If the Paris COP fails, the world shifts to a collapse mode. We have a short time to get a really complex series of reforms in place. If it doesn’t happen, unless local efforts turn out to be far more effective than anyone has given them credit for, we’re toast. Human civilization grew, and developed all its food and survival technology, in a temperature range that we’re about to leave. In 50 years, wine is going to be last on the list of lost things that we worry about. Our humanity will be at the top of that list.


fn1: or so we are led to believe by perfidious frenchies