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The UK Media's Climate Optimism Clouds Our Vision

The UK Media's Climate Optimism Clouds Our Vision

Last week, you might have seen a viral Sky News story about how the U.K. is among the “five nations most likely to survive a collapse of global civilization” – at least according to researchers from the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University. While the climate crisis makes civilizational collapse “very likely,” at least according to these researchers, the U.K. – along with Ireland, Iceland, Australia, and New Zealand – is fortunate to enjoy conditions that make “relative stability” in the future much more likely.

To which the most obvious response seems to be: what, the UK? You mean the country which has just spent the COVID-19 pandemic doing seemingly everything as badly as it possibly can, whose uncanny ability to breed and spread variants of the novel coronavirus has earned it the moniker ‘plague island’? The country which seems to be determined to use the state exclusively as a vehicle for transferring resources from the general population to its ruling party’s mates? Where inequality across the country is so severe that it balances having the single most affluent region in northern Europe (west London) with the five most deprived ones? The country which has largely replaced civil society with the sort of low-level perks you might expect to accrue at a freshers’ fair? That U.K.? 

When it comes to articles like this, one extremely effective ‘anti-misinformation technique’ is to actually read the study to which it is referring.

We’ve been here before. Seeing this news article, one was immediately reminded of that old study from the pre-COVID days, which determined that the U.S. and the U.K. were the top 2 countries somehow ‘best determined’ to cope with a pandemic – with the likes of New Zealand, South Korea, and China all ranked much lower. One might say: Haven’t these people learned anything? No wonder everyone hates experts. What the fuck are they even playing at? It just looks like, yet again, they’re providing spurious academic justifications for our incompetent leaders’ laziness and complacency.

To which I should say: Well. When it comes to articles like this, one extremely effective ‘anti-misinformation technique’ is to actually read the study to which it is referring.

So: this is the study, published last month in a journal called Sustainability. It’s titled "An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of Nodes of Persisting Complexity,"’ and was written by two researchers at Anglia Ruskin: Nick King and Aled Jones. The paper is open access, so you can read it yourself for free (leaving aside the wider question of why all government-funded research isn't freely available without resorting to illegal venues like Sci-Hub). And would you believe: it gives us almost no reason to believe that the U.K. will ride out the climate change-induced collapse of civilization unscathed.

The way that news articles covering the study would have it, you’d think the point of King and Jones’s research was to somehow prove that the U.K. (along with a handful of other nations) was the best – that these are the nations who, when it comes to the near-total collapse of human civilization, have come at least the closest to having it all figured out. In fact, this kind of reporting falls into a wider pattern within U.K. media of reporting on climate change in a way that essentially amounts to misinformation. BBC Bitesize was heavily criticized for including a list of “positive impacts of climate change” in a learning resource for children. In fact, the BBC’s approach to climate reporting has often fallen foul of its own codes on impartiality, leading to situations where climate deniers are platformed in the name of “balance.”

But even if it sometimes feels like the aim of U.K. media institutions is to make everyone feel better about the impending climate collapse, this is not what’s going on in this particular paper at all. Rather, as the name of the paper would suggest, what King and Jones are really interested in, is this concept of ‘nodes of persisting complexity’ – which they use it both to analyze, and to introduce.

The idea here is as follows: 

History, to date, has been characterized by human life getting ever more and more ‘complex’: with more people, living in larger societies, consuming more energy, eating more food, and building more things. Indeed, since the Industrial Revolution – and, in particular, since the middle of the 20th century – this process of complexification has accelerated exponentially. But climate change places an absolute limit on this direction of social change: at some point, through some mechanism – whether suddenly or slowly; consciously or unplanned – human society is going to end up getting "de-complexified." If humanity is going to continue to exist, we are going to have to resort to something much closer to the subsistence lifestyle of our ancestors. This, really, is what the authors of the study mean by "civilizational collapse."

In the existing literature on civilizational collapse, an important paradigm is the concept of the "armed lifeboat." Such lifeboats are areas of the globe that even in extreme warming scenarios (think 5 degrees) will continue to be habitable. Potential lifeboats cited by the study’s authors include: “The British Isles, Scandinavia, Patagonia, Tasmania, and the South Island of New Zealand,” as well as northern Canada and parts of Russia. But the concept of the lifeboat is extremely politically charged: it conjures up images of the film version of Children of Men, where ‘Only Britain Soldiers On’, and climate refugees shelter in vast refugee camps, which our government has zoned out of abandoned seaside towns. Climate lifeboats are only able to exist as a result of extreme controls on immigration – one sign that the climate crisis is already with us is that politicians in Europe, Australia, and North America are already beginning to introduce such policies today.

King and Jones’ paper aims to introduce the notion of ‘nodes of persisting complexity’, as an alternative to this outlook; an alternative future to climate ‘lifeboats

In this sense, the literature on future civilizational collapse is characterized by an extremely pessimistic and authoritarian outlook. King and Jones’ paper aims to introduce the notion of "nodes of persisting complexity," as an alternative to this outlook; an alternative future to climate "lifeboats." The idea is that such nodes might emerge much more spontaneously – that climatic conditions in certain developed countries might well be such, that even without draconian immigration policies, life in the age of climate change-induced civilizational collapse could be carried on close enough to how it was before. The point of the study is to elaborate and vindicate that concept.

It is in this context that King and Jones discuss the U.K., as one of five candidates "nodes." This – to be fair – could sound as if the authors are claiming that the U.K. is somehow uniquely equipped to ride out climate collapse. But that’s not really the case at all.

Nodes of persisting complexity, King and Jones reason, would have a lot of available agricultural land, would be relatively isolated from those major population centers which are likely to see a lot of climate change-induced displacement, and would be able to manufacture things and produce renewable energy for themselves. In short: they would be self-sufficient. They would also have to be less likely to have to absorb a vast number of climate refugees (this is why they can be spontaneous ‘nodes’ instead of totalitarian armed ‘lifeboats’ – beyond guilty liberal consciences, the end result is likely to remain the same: whichever paradigm materializes, vast numbers of people from poorer and hotter areas of the world are going to die).

The authors thus took these criteria, devised a crude number ranking based on their own subjective judgment, and used it to supplement the results of an earlier study by the University of Notre Dame, which devised a ‘Global Adaptation Index’ based on “a range of factors relating to the potential for climate change to disrupt different nations around the world” (Norway topped that index, incidentally; the U.K. came 11th). It was with this method that King and Jones determined that the U.K. might be a decent candidate node.

But this does not yet amount to the positive claim that the U.K. is well-equipped to ride out global civilizational collapse. All it means is that the authors think that the U.K. sort of looks like the sort of place they would expect might be able to do it. 

And indeed: in the bit of a study where the authors take a sort-of detailed look at the U.K., they determine that the U.K. is in fact much worse equipped to deal with global collapse when compared with its fellow possible nodes. New Zealand, they find, is very well-equipped (although who knows how its politics might be distorted by tech billionaires buying up parts of the country to take shelter in it – that’s the sort of question the study really fails to address). Iceland and Ireland both have excellent overall conditions, despite the fact that they’re tiny. Australia might not initially sound like a good place to ride out climate change, given that so much of it already has a pronounced inclination towards going on fire, but it is – in fairness – continent-sized, and climactic conditions are much more favorable in the area of the country the authors are particularly interested in: Tasmania.

Even leaving aside specifically political questions to do with the nature of Britain’s government and the shape of its collective brain, the authors conclude that the UK “presents a more complex picture.”

But in the U.K., the authors find, the picture is really not so good at all. The U.K.’s energy infrastructure, King and Jones note, is still overly reliant on fossil fuels – though getting less so. The climate is temperate and the soil is generally fertile – but agricultural land is at a premium, especially relative to the density of the U.K.’s population. Extreme weather conditions could affect agricultural output – consider the U.K.’s woefully poor flood defenses. Even leaving aside specific political questions to do with the nature of Britain’s government and the shape of its collective brain, the authors conclude that the U.K. “presents a more complex picture” than its other candidate nodes and that it ultimately “potentially has less favorable characteristics overall.”

In conclusion then: the experts are vindicated (even if I’m not sure, in the end, that the notion of ‘nodes of persistent complexity’ is really all that sufficiently differentiated from the armed lifeboat). They haven’t really claimed that the U.K. is unusually well-equipped to ride out the climate change-induced collapse of civilization; probably no one really seriously thinks that it would be; if you are British then the last thing you ought to be right now is complacent. Technically the U.K.’s climate means that it could be well-placed to deal with climate change, but as it is, we’re hurtling towards somewhere between a bad scenario and a much, much worse one.

Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer. His regular column for Logically addresses the news and how to live with it. His book, Infinitely Full of Hope, is out now.

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