Being carefully turned in the candlelight, crystalline reflections were cast across the scroll strewn desk. Angular yet polished, shining yet black as the unlit night, the previously worthless anthracite was becoming the focus of one of the world’s greatest minds. A pair of well worn hands lightly followed the cleaved boundaries as the rock’s discovery was told by an immaculately turned out senator, his tunic golden in the dim illumination, aptly matching the fossilised amber hanging from the Emperor’s neck. Under the all too common canvas, the politician could feel the tangible weight of his superior’s intellect as the details of extraction and combustion were divulged, almost seeing the birth of industry dancing in those deep eyes; the visions of fully mechanised campaigns that would succeed success in Gaul, life for the populous of the Empire incomparably bettered through plenty and luxury, the spread of civilisation into the wild lands.
Had Marcus Aurelius discovered fossil fuels and thus stimulated an industrial revolution akin to ours, population numbers and moderation notwithstanding, the Earth would now be a very different place. A summer’s afternoon picnic would not blossom amongst the delicate flowers of an alpine meadow, but instead be hosted by a swathe of coarse hardy grass adjacent to some hulking shadow of former industrialised glory. Manufactured fungal protein would replace the sumptuous steak sandwiches, and there would be no orange, chocolate or coffee to amuse the palette. Satiated sunbathing wouldn’t be a temptation, the sky having been scorched by some overzealous geo-engineers a number of centuries ago; fruitless attempts to mitigate rising temperatures. Finally the children, instead of running barefoot through the woodland and gleefully shouting after the wildlife that issued from nearby hollows and boughs, would chatter quietly on the verge of the concreted vehicle bays, each with their virtual reality glasses on, taking the ‘Rainforest Experience’. On returning they ask their equally perplexed parents if they remembered what the forest smelt like.
In this parallel history, the short term decisions the Romans took to revel in a few hundred years of hard earned, high carbon opulence led to the eventual climatic collapse of various natural systems, bequeathing a forced synthetic future, characterised by grey squalor, to almost a millennia of their earthly descendents. If this parallel story was indeed ours, it is curious to think how history would remember the Romans.
If the international climate accord, activities and attitudes remain unchanged, the current cohort of powerful political leaders and subservient civilian voters may become bitterly viewed by the coming generations. The final outcome of the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen was a relatively inert agreement that was a last minute product of two weeks of negotiation; a fortnight dominated by self-service, short-sightedness and confusion. Although it was the first time that developing countries had found such a strong voice in the global arena, the resulting ‘Copenhagen Accord’ lacks any principled substance (such as global emissions targets and related timeframes) that could ensure an ambitious, fair and legally binding climate deal. It also is only “noted” by the UN, not actually adopted, so its function currently remains unclear. The USA, China, and Saudi Arabia are specific parties who have attracted significant criticism in the Copenhagen fallout, commonly being recognised for respectively ignoring their historic responsibilities, blocking the legal aspects of the negotiations, and making all possible moves to disrupt consensus amongst the parties. Rays of light in comparison to these inhibitory fossils were the nation of Tuvalu for strongly voicing the need for a comprehensive agreement, Brazil for volunteering significant finance when not obliged to, and (once again) the UN Secretary General for some remarkable diplomacy.
As a process, these are mere tips of the beautifully proverbial iceberg. There were many more relationships built and lost, hidden discussions, leaked documents and impasses than can possibly be described in a coherent text, and this complexity and inherent dysfunction is causing a number of parties to lose confidence in this entire practice, the faith ironically melting away with the diagnostic icebergs.
So what becomes of the world, particularly those whose ancestors have laboured to create the now drying Sub-Saharan Africa and the now sinking small ocean states, while all the talk continues? Given man’s significant exacerbation of the natural cosmic cycles that have dictated the Earth’s meteorology for billions of years, changes in our activities can genuinely change the climatic path of the world. We have two clear options. We can continue with business as usual, feeding insatiable consumer lifestyles, shying from political boldness and so condemning future humanity to a narrative of struggle in the spluttering world alluded to earlier. Alternatively the existing suite of world leaders, arguably the most powerful people who have ever lived, can use the insubstantial but not meaningless ‘accord’ as a basis for building a strong international treaty during the course of this year, swiftly incentivising all sectors to pursue holistic sustainability. Only with clear guidance within an accepted paradigm will developed society then consider forgoing their ‘rights’ to unlimited electricity, second cars, new shoes and beef Wellington, in so not jeopardising the longevity of folk capriciously born into less fortunate communities.
If we are able to transform our language from the dominating but narrow, short term economics to one that genuinely values natural and human assets, there is yet hope. This very possible alternative unfortunately won’t ensure the perpetual existence of the human race, though it would give foreseeable generations licence to exist more harmoniously amongst both natural and philosophically bright greenery.