Climate change may represent the greatest challenge faced by humanity since the Black Death. That is an emotive way of putting it, but the consequences of global warming, as set out by the International Panel on Climate Change, suggest nothing less. If there are to be heat waves, hurricanes , droughts and deserts, then people will die, and populations will fall.
However, as Al Gore says, catastrophism helps no one. The technological means to combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions are already largely to hand – it is largely a question of political will. And by a quirk of fate, Scotland has a number of resources which make us peculiarly well placed to weather the storms ahead. Storms for a start.
Scotland’s wet weather suggest that we will never be short of a reservoir or two of what is likely to become one of the world’s most precious resources; water. Nor will we have to look hard to find wind to power electricity generators, or waves to turn turbines.
There are already serious questions being raised about the viability of urban populations in some parts of the Mediterranean sun belt, if climate change projections are correct. Water is becoming extremely scarce in parts of Provence, in the south of France, and people are already leaving remoter habitations.
Some forecasters think that even the South of England could turn into a very dry place – though with Britain’s annual rainfall being what it is, it should be a technically straight forward exercise to stop London dying of thirst. However, people might not be so keen to live there.
The metropolis is hot and sticky at the best of times, but imagine if the freak weather of the last few years were to become the norm, with temperatures in the the high nineties fahrenheit? Large parts of the centre of London may anyway be under water within a couple of decades
Cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow may become warmer and probably wetter, but they will be more manageable, even if the atlantic conveyor is switched off and Scotland ceases to be warmed by the Gulf Stream. The fear that this could plunge Scotland into a mini ice age seems to have subsided, because scientists now think global warming is happening faster than expected.
How best to make use of Scotland’s natural advantages? Well, the country could become a world centre for renewable energy. We have 25% of Europe’s wind and wave energy, and the Pentland Firth has been described as the Saudi Arabia of world tidal energy with the capacity to produce 10 of the UK’s electricity.
There will have to be a means of transmitting this energy south, and if that means pylons, I’m afraid the Highlands may have to put up with them. Pylons at least have the virtue of being relatively light, removable structures, which don’t actually churn up much of the land itself. When a new way is found to transport, they can be dismantled without any environmental impact at all.
And there are other technologies waiting to be developed. The first commercially viable carbon capture hydrogen gas power station is nearing completion in Peterhead. The idea of capturing C02 emissions and then pumping it back into depleted oil fields is no longer science fiction.
People have often criticised Scotland for being over-reliant on hydrocarbons, and there is certainly a limited future for North Sea Oil. But it remains a significant resource and if the spent fields can be reused as carbon sinks, then there is potential here for serious business.
Our relative remoteness would also make Scotland less vulnerable to large population movements and the spread of diseases like malaria. As temperatures rise, it is expected that there will be a mass migration of tens of millions of people to the northern climes. Parched north Africans will start displacing exhausted southern Europeans. This could lead to civil disturbances on an epic scale.
Fortunately, the English Channel provides a physical barrier to population movement and they’d have to get past England first. There could be a significant increase in Scotland’s population arising from English incomers, but the likelihood is that the country could cope. Scotland has a third of the land mass of Britain with only a twelfth of the population and could absorb a few millions.
So, house prices in Edinburgh could on keep rising, forever. It’s all beginning to look rather attractive: a warmer, richer and more populous Scotland which will be able to look regard with pity the plight of the millions in the hot world.
Except, of course, that it isn’t really like that. Scientists can make their best projections, and politicians and civil servants can try to formulate policies that fit, but no one really knows what the future is going to be like – except that it is going to be hotter and more dangerous. There are probably a whole range of unexpected consequences of global warming which we haven’t seen yet.
The most immediately damaging would be a global economic collapse of the kind feared by the Stern Report last year. Scotland is a post industrial economy, based on services, finance, tourism and higher education. We don’t make things any more, which could mean life becoming very awkward indeed if there were a world crash.
The inconvenient truth is that we are all in this together. The politics of competitive advantage will have to give way to the politics of strategic co-operation. We are perhaps privileged that Scotland can contribute more than most to the solemn task ahead. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we can somehow beat the planet.