Forty years ago I was studying for a Physics degree at Edinburgh University. I chose Edinburgh because it offered a course which included Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics, interests which have stayed with me since.
When I came across articles about the Greenhouse Effect, this intrigued me as a scientist, but also worried me as a human being, and although it was only a theory at the time, I felt the implications if true were so severe that at the very least, we should adopt the precautionary principle and take immediate action to prevent it.
It was this that led me to join the Ecology Party in 1979 and since then, politics for me has always been about climate change and the need to address it before it became unstoppable. In the seventies and eighties, the threat of an impending nuclear war was on everyone's minds, but here was another existential threat to humanity that although distant, required no less attention to defuse or at least to quantify.
Then it was a theory and if proven, we still had time to do something about it. Forty years on and the Greenhouse Effect is now known as Global Warming or Climate Change. The effects predicted are not only happening, but they are happening much faster than predicted and events over the last three years have led me to believe that this is not only irreversible, but we are now entering a period of what is known as 'abrupt climate change', which will lead to the breakdown of society within 30 years and near human extinction by the end of the century.
To understand how this will happen so quickly, we need to appreciate that climate change is not linear. We are on an exponential curve. The three warmest years on record globally have been 2014, 2015 and 2016 (with 2017 set to join them). Floods, droughts, wildfires and storms are this year setting records and records are not only being broken, but they are starting to be broken by some margin. We're on an curve where not only will events happen more often and be more severe, but the rate at which they increase will itself be increasing. That's what exponential means.
We also need to appreciate some of the deficiencies in climate modelling. Specifically, climate scientists (in common with nearly all scientists) are experts in their own fields only. Looking at a specific aspect of science in isolation is fine if nothing else is changing, but if everything else is changing, you need to take that into account if you're predicting what will happen in the future.
There are around 70 feedback effects now kicking in, and few if any models are taking these into account. For example, scientists studying the Arctic sea ice may take into account higher sea surface temperatures, but not the incursion of water vapour (a greenhouse gas) into the Arctic resulting from a distorted jet stream, or the impact of soot on ice albedo from increased wildfires thousands of miles away.
A recent example is the speed with which this year's Atlantic hurricanes strengthened from tropical storms to Category 5 hurricanes due to higher sea surface temperatures. This surprised meteorologists as the computer models were only forecasting Cat 2 or 3 at most. Only now are they recognising that the models are underestimating the effect of warmer sea surfaces and the additional energy and water vapour they provide.
As Peter Wadhams writes in his recent book 'A farewell to ice', to reverse the effects of man made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would demand a switch in global focus on the scale of the post war Marshall plan. We would need not only to stop producing CO2 but also turn over many of our factories to producing carbon capture and storage machines, and we would need to start right now. The cost to the world economies would be huge, possibly running to over $100 Trillion.
If, and it's still an if, we are capable of reversing the trajectory we're on, there are no signs of a willingness to do so - neither from politicians nor people in general. CO2 takes over a decade to become fully effective as a greenhouse gas, and lingers in the atmosphere for decades. Methane (CH4) is 130 times as effective as a greenhouse gas in the first 3 years after release and due largely to melting permafrost is starting to rise rapidly in global concentration (another feedback).
So what are we actually doing about it? 'Emissions' as measured by countries themselves levelled out over the past three years - but are now rising once again. Leaving aside allegations that the figures have been doctored anyway, the extra CO2 from increasing wildfires is not included (as an example, the CO2 from those in British Columbia, just one Canadian province, this year equated to the annual emissions from 40 million cars on the road). The litmus test is the actual measure of CO2 in the atmosphere - now reaching a peak of around 410 ppm and rising at a record annual rate of around 2.5 ppm per year.
In 1989, the UN issued a warning that we had only ten years to address global warming before irreversible tipping points start kicking in. That was 30 years ago. Similar warnings have appeared since, none of them heeded. Instead of issuing warnings, more and more scientists are now coming round to the view that it really is too late. What I have witnessed over the last three years has led me to believe the same. We really are too late and are now entering the sixth mass extinction.
Too many articles on climate change contain the phrase "By 2100..." or "By the end of the century...". That really is too far away for most people to treat as urgent. While it's difficult to make predictions, it should be made clear that the catastrophic impacts of climate change will affect us well before then.
Within five to ten years I expect to see food prices rising well above inflation - perhaps by as much as 50% to 100% with some empty shelves appearing in supermarkets as specific crops are devastated (we already had a 'taste' of this earlier this year with courgettes and lettuce crops hit by unusual weather in Spain; world wine production is now at a 50 year low due to extreme weather events).
Wildfires are already becoming uncontrollable. Portugal has seen six times its average this year. There have been fires in Greenland and in Australia during its winter, not to mention the devastation in California, Canada and Siberia. Hurricanes are becoming stronger and appearing in unusual places (Ophelia was the strongest on record in the east Atlantic and Greece is currently being hit by what is called a 'Medicane'). Sea surface temperatures need to be over 28.5 C for a hurricane to strengthen. The Mediterranean off Italy's coast reached 30 degrees this year. With the right conditions, it would only take one stray east Atlantic hurricane to head into the Med to cause widespread devastation. I can easily see this happening within ten years. Elsewhere we will see hurricanes and typhoons strong enough to flatten cities within the next decade.
The economic implications will be immense. The impact of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in the US is expected to be around $400 Billion this year, not counting the wildfires in California and drought in Montana. Over the next decade, super hurricanes, flooding and drought will cause insurance companies to collapse. Banks will follow and pension funds will start to come under pressure. With food prices increasing way ahead of wages, disposable incomes will be hit hard, leading to worldwide economic depression.
And that's not taking into account the hundreds of millions of climate refugees (already begun in the Caribbean). With the jet stream already getting seriously messed up, or if the Hadley cells become severely disrupted, it's not out of the question that the Indian monsoon could fail permanently and within a year we have a billion people starving.
There's a saying that if something is unsustainable it will not be sustained. Obvious, perhaps, but we have been living well beyond the sustainability of the planet for decades and continue to believe that somehow we can do so increasingly and indefinitely. That will not be sustained.
So for forty years I tried to warn people. Now I tell them it's too late and we're f***ed, they say I'm being too negative need to give people a positive message. OK then, will "We're positively f***ed" do?, because when we could save ourselves nobody listened, and even now when they think we still can, there is absolutely no will to do so.
For a long time, we have needed to change our lifestyles and that, for most people, is a red line area. There are no quick fixes. We cannot continue with mass air transport - the only non polluting alternative to fossil fuels requires huge areas of land to be removed from food production, which is already coming under pressure due to climate change and increasing population. We need to stop owning cars (not just leaving them in the driveways) - the resource requirements and human rights implications of even switching to electric cars present largely insurmountable problems. And even if these problems can be fixed, the solution needs to come first, rather than assuming as always that the next generation will somehow pick up the bill and sort out the mess we are creating by our profligate lifestyles.
And so we continue to build more runways and roads, drill for more oil, burn more forests for palm oil plantations and clear the rainforests for agriculture and logging, despite the fact that these massive environmental problems are no longer a theory but are staring us in the face. But we keep on driving and keep on flying and keep on buying things we don't need from halfway across the globe without the slightest thought that all this will kill our children.
I was perhaps naive to believe that politics would solve the problem. If the bottom line is that people will not change their lifestyles, then they will not vote for politicians who say we need to. So politicians will not tell people the truth and tell them instead that we can get by with replacing petrol cars with electric ones by some decade well in the future and convince people we're all 'doing our bit' for the planet by planting a few wind turbines. They talk vaguely about carbon capture and how air transport is important for economic growth and without that we cannot tackle climate change. As a councillor I was the only one even vaguely interested in the council's climate change plan (including both councillors and officers).
And people believe them because they want to. I've long maintained that people get the politicians they deserve (good and bad) and they certainly don't want politicians to tell them they can't have their cheap holidays in Spain. I joined the Ecology Party (which became the Green Party) because it was, and still is, the only party to come anywhere close to telling people the truth on climate change. That people are generally not in the least interested in the environment that keeps them alive is borne out by the derisory vote Greens get - around 2% support except where they campaign strongly on non-environmental issues.
And Green Party activists have also realised this. So they focus on being more user friendly and campaigning on issues that 'matter to people' like independence or austerity, rather than lose votes by telling people it's about time they faced the harsh truth.
I've been accused of being too Utopian, that before we address climate change we need an independent Scotland, or a Socialist Republic, or something else. And those arguments were rational thirty years ago - after all, it's the free market Capitalist system that brought us to this position. However, thirty years ago is not now - when your house is on fire, you don't try and get ownership of the keys, you reach for the hose. When I attend a climate rally and see it attracts less than a tenth of the numbers at a Scottish independence rally, it brings home how insane our politics has become. What planet do these people expect an independent Scotland to exist on? Venus by the look of it.
So we might be f***ed, but should we give up? No, I don't think so. We may not be able to stop the process, but we can slow it down and offer the next generation at least some kind of palliative care. I have not flown or owned a car for around 20 years and will continue that way. Because very soon my children's generation will become angry with mine, and will ask why, in the face of so many warnings from scientists for decades, we did nothing about it.
It will be little consolation, but at least I will be able to say I tried.