Climate conversation in Cornwall – if only Rishi Sunak had been listening

All photos copyright Ilya Fisher

The day before Rishi Sunak’s outstandingly dishonest Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, at which the Prime Minister announced his decision to junk key parts of the UK’s emission reduction efforts, a meeting of a very different kind took place in Cornwall Council’s main chamber in Truro.

Convened by Climate & Ecological Emergency Cornwall, a group that brings together a wide range of activists and concerned Cornwall residents, the meeting was planned as a ‘Community Conversation’ with councillors.

Disappointingly, not many councillors showed up, though this was partly because many of them – including the leader of the Conservative-controlled council, Linda Taylor – had succumbed to Covid, which is currently very prevalent in this part of the world.

But over 100 people were in the chamber, their number reflecting widespread feeling – which polls suggest is shared among the wider UK public – that national and local government need to be doing more to address the climate and ecological crisis.

The meeting was opened by its main organiser, Myghal Ryual, with an invitation for people to share their feelings. Myghal described his own:

“I’m here right now because I have an 18-year-old daughter. I’m really worried about my daughter’s future because of the climate crisis – and I know that many people in this room share that feeling, about the severity and acceleration of the crisis.

“This event is not about naming or shaming. It’s about cooperation and collaboration, about finding ways forward to work together.”

Referring to the motto on Cornwall’s heraldic shield – One And All / Onen Hag Oll – Myghal said: “That’s very apt not only for Cornwall but for the world, because if we don’t come together one and all, we really do risk losing everything.”

Myghal recalled that the scientist and polymath James Lovelock (famous for articulating the Gaia hypothesis) had addressed Cornwall Council three decades earlier.

One member of the public at the meeting, Dave, had been there all those years ago, and he remembered councillors snoozing as Lovelock described the coming crisis. Dave was horrified by how little had changed since then:

“That was 33 years ago, and I’m just wondering where the hell we’re going…. It’s just scandalous what we’re doing to Cornwall at the moment. At the back of St Austell they’ve destroyed four of five miles of hedgerows, which also goes towards climate change. It’s going on as we sit here now, and it’s so sad.”

Others, old and young, shared their feelings. One woman in her 80s said she had lived through the Blitz and was appalled by the lack of leadership shown by today’s crop of politicians in the face of a crisis even graver than the Second World War.

I recalled my own first realisation of the potential severity of climate impacts, when I was caught on the edge of the biblical downpour that devastated the village of Boscastle in 2004. I’d been reminded of this by what happened to Derna in Libya a few days ago, when an entire city and many thousands of its inhabitants were wiped out by flooding in the space of a few hours. 

Photo copyright Ilya Fisher

The next part of the meeting was a presentation by one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Stephan Harrison, Professor of Climate and Environmental Change at Exeter University’s Cornwall campus.

Professor Harrison was responsible for setting up an expert committee that helps the government assess the climate change risks for nuclear sites, and heads up the United Nations’ Global Environment Outlook (GEO-7) programme. His presentation outlined scientific understanding of our current situation graphically and without pulling any punches.

One of the main points he wished to stress was that cataclysmic changes in climate can – and sometimes have – happened very quickly, even without the vast quantities of greenhouse gases that have been poured into the atmosphere over the last 150 years – and that this should serve as a warning: “We should be very wary of grabbing the tail of this tiger.”

Professor Harrison also emphasised that focusing only on the amount of warming in the atmosphere is to ignore a huge part of the problem:

“The atmosphere is a tiny, tiny part of the Earth system. Most of the warming is going into the oceans – well over 90 per cent.

“We’re now at 424 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere – I checked that last night – and we’ve now got about 1.2C of warming over the pre-industrial period. But look at how much energy has been accumulated in the ocean – the equivalent of five Hiroshima-size atom bombs every second in the ocean for the last 25 years.”

Photo copyright Ilya Fisher

After neatly demonstrating how easily climate ‘sceptics’ can manipulate data by cherry-picking, to give a falsely reassuring picture of what’s happening, Professor Harrison talked about some of the consequences of ocean warming. One of these is that the El Niño period we’re now entering looks set to dwarf any previous El Niño, and could even become permanent, with massive impacts on our weather.

It’s long been known that the Arctic is warming much faster than other areas, but the latest data, Professor Harrison said, shows that Antarctica is also warming extremely rapidly – “twice as fast as the rest of the world”. This has very big implications for sea level rise.

Professor Harrison was upfront about the prospect of limiting global temperature rise to the 1.5C aimed at in the Paris Agreement. Discussing different emissions scenarios, he said:

“If we keep to relatively low levels of radiative forcing we could get away with probably 1.5C to 2C. Nobody believes any more, by the way, that we can keep to 1.5C.”

But upper-range scenarios – the trajectory on which we’re currently heading – would mean the Arctic heating by probably between 10C and 11C.

What would a much hotter world look like? Professor Harrison stressed that there were many possible impacts, and that these are hard to predict with certainty:

“There are extraordinarily large ways in which the world could evolve with a 2C, 3C, or 4C rise”, he said, and at present we’re on course for even more extreme heating: “six, seven or eight degrees of heating in most of the northern hemisphere by the end of the century”.

“We have seen with just 1.2C of warming what’s happened around the Earth – what’s happened in Greece, what’s happened in much of Europe and much of North America. So think about 3C might look like.”

Professor Harrison highlighted the fact that heating and its impacts are unlikely to be linear, and that we are reaching tipping points that could trigger much more sudden and dramatic changes than anything seen yet.

“There are lots of places around the world where we think that climate change might jump from one state to another. These include the Greenland ice sheet, forests in North America, changes in the jet stream, Arctic winter sea ice… We knew that the West Antarctic ice sheet was vulnerable to global warming. It’s now suggested that the East Antarctic ice sheet is also – and that’s a much larger lump of ice. If you melt all of Antarctica you eventually get to 70 or 75 metres of sea level rise.”

These tipping points could trigger extremely rapid shifts in the climate system – not over a time span of decades but in as little as a year or two, and set off a cascade of other dramatic changes:

“You don’t need to think about climate change by the end of the century – these things are going to occur, or probably going to occur, quite early on, or many of them will. And what we don’t know is how they’re going to cascade – they’re not in isolation, they’re all coupled. So a tipping point in the Arctic is bound to impact a tipping point somewhere else, at which point we then get into a cascade – and these are incredibly difficult to model.

“And we know that the models are underperforming – none of the models have predicted the huge climate events we’ve seen this year, not one of them. The models are very conservative in that sense – they’re very good at some things but they’re very poor at some of the dynamics of how climate change drives the meteorology.”

He also stressed that, whatever we do now, the Arctic is already undergoing a tipping point: “We’re already there, essentially. We’re just waiting to see how this all plays out.”

Moving from global to local impacts, he asked: “What are you going to do as councillors, and local regional bodies, when climate change really kicks in, really quickly?” Stressing that modelling sea level rise is profoundly difficult, he showed a graphic indicating that a two-metre sea level rise around UK coasts by 2100 was a plausible scenario:

“That doesn’t sound a lot. But when the effects of waves and storm surges are added in, suddenly your two-metre sea level rise turns into a six or seven-metre sea level rise. There are lots of places around the Cornish coast that are extremely nice places to live at present but probably not such nice places to live in the future.”

On flooding, he observed:

“We’ve just seen what’s happened in Greece and in Libya – in Libya it wasn’t just climate, it was climate plus poor infrastructure and political instability – but states in the global south will suffer these sorts of event, and that then impacts politics and global migration, which we – you – need to think seriously about. But this has happened at 1.2C.”

Professor Harrison explained that the past was no good guide to the world we are now living in, and that it was not just one-off events that we should be worried about, but events that are likely to happen in rapid succession:

“We’re going to get proliferation of storms. One big storm coming across is quite damaging, but when you get a sequence of them, four or five in row over a couple of weeks, perhaps, you get big amounts of water in the soil and that increases your flood. It’s not one storm that does that – it’s the combination of storms.”

Professor Harrison concluded his talk by saying that if we continue on our current trajectory, there will come a point at which cascading tipping points mean we reach a point where we “fall over a cliff” – the point at which there is no possibility of stabilising the world’s climate system and the impacts of runaway global heating run completely out of control, with devastating consequences for human civilisation. He left listeners in no doubt that this point was – at best – not far off.

It was a deeply sobering talk, even for the seasoned climate activists in the room. Professor Harrison did not touch on what needed to be done in terms of trying to avoid the worst-case scenarios he outlined, nor did he attempt to put figures on the scale of mass death and extreme suffering that these would entail. But he left no doubt that avoiding the worst possible scenarios depends crucially on drastically curbing the emissions that are driving climate breakdown, not in five or ten years time, but now.

And – as the government’s own Climate Change Committee has said – the very last thing we should be doing is what Rishi Sunak did this week: row back on near-term action as a means of gaining short-term political advantage.

Photo copyright Ilya Fisher

After Professor Harrison’s talk, people formed break-out groups to discuss what people in Cornwall and their councillors should be doing in light of what we had just heard. In my own group and others, there was a strong feeling that we need to be building the resilience of local communities in the face of what’s coming, in areas from food production to disaster planning, and to try to link local action on the climate emergency with action that can help people survive the cost-of-living crisis.

For my own part, I would like to see Professor Harrison invited to speak to the nation from the same lectern that Rishi Sunak used to deliver one of the most disgraceful speeches ever to leave the lips of a British prime minister.

Sunak’s lectern was emblazoned with a slogan that matched, in its dishonesty, those issued by George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth: LONG-TERM DECISIONS FOR A BRIGHTER FUTURE.

What he delivered was the precise opposite: short-term decisions that will blight the future of everyone now alive and all future generations.

We deserve so much better than this. And the most basic thing we deserve from anyone purporting to give leadership in this truly existential crisis is what Rishi Sunak so dismally failed to provide this week: the truth.

Professor Harrison’s talk at Cornwall Council can be viewed in full here.