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Interview with Mark Lynas, author of High Tide

Mark Lynas spent three years travelling round the globe in search of one of the greatest untold tales of our time. Convinced that climate change was no longer a concern just for the future, Lynas set off to find that global warming is already having a tangible effect on people's lives. His wry observations and suggestions for change are brought together in High Tide: News from a Warming World, published this March. Melanie Jarman found out what he had to say for himself.

April 1, 2004
4 min read

What were your motivations for writing High Tide?

I had been involved in environmental campaigning for several years, when I realised that climate change was going to become a much wider and more destructive force unless something was done about it fast. It was almost as if by focusing on the local level I felt I was missing the bigger picture. I also felt that there was this huge untold story of people and places being affected by global warming, but no-one had joined up the dots. Also, I wanted to try and get climate change put firmly on the political agenda. It’s so often something that politicians mention in passing before going back to business as usual. And this “denial” of the problem doesn’t just operate at the political level, it’s there throughout society: everyone who takes a cheap flight to Barcelona or commutes by car to London is to some extent denying the effects of their behaviour on the global climate.

Does climate change mean that we are doomed?

Nearly. Even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped tomorrow, we’d still get twice the magnitude of global warming that was experienced during the twentieth century. This may be something that the biosphere can cope with, or it may not – no-one knows for sure. But what is certain is that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow, the twenty-first century will see a climate quite unlike any that humanity has experienced before during its entire evolutionary history, and it’s very unlikely that “civilisation” as we know it will be able to survive unscathed. And just as worrying, so far as I’m concerned, is the effect on wider biodiversity: a recent study suggested that a third of species alive today may be wiped out by global warming by 2050.

In a recent New Statesman article you described yourself as a “former” left-winger. Why “former”?

I think inter-human squabbles about wealth distribution are now taking place within the context of a major destruction of the ecosystems which all of us depend on: rich, poor, black, white, homo sapiens or any other species. Therefore my argument is that the left-right political divide should no longer be the defining key priority. The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere. This doesn’t mean giving up the fight on behalf of the poor, but it does mean that one’s position on the environment is going to be the crucial political divide of the next century. And many left-wingers are very anti-environment. Some socialists retain the old technocratic mindset where they think everything can be engineered and humans are all-powerful. Many more leftish people are also too polite to mention over-population, which along with climate is probably the key environmental issue. I think that we should give just as much thought to other species of life, who will presumably continue to suffer even if human society eventually gets more egalitarian.

How do you see campaigns developing around this issue?

In the book I suggest some ways that people can reduce their personal emissions – for example by having proper insulation in their houses or taking trains instead of planes. But there’s a problem here: even if the entire country makes big sacrifices in terms of people reducing their personal energy consumption, it will have no effect whatsoever if Americans continue driving around in gas-guzzling SUVs. So that’s why action has to be simultaneous and international. I support the equity-based “contraction and convergence” proposal from the Global Commons Institute as the best way forward. It’s the only thing which the global South is likely to sign up to, and this is a key issue given the rate that India and China are industrialising. But it also involves deciding a target for the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This element of certainty is its strongest suit – all the other political solutions, Kyoto included, involve guesswork rather than this “framework”.High Tide: News from a Warming World, Mark Lynas, Flamingo, March 2004.

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