A Word on Climate Change

by Patrick Foster

Patrick first posted this on the Climate Change Facebook Group, from which I then reposted it and asked him for permission to publish it here, too. As I pointed out in our Facebook exchanges, the only one of the proposals listed in his essay I disagree with is the establishment of a world policing authority as I believe that, at present, such a body could all too easily be manipulated and used to set up the most thorough-going of (perhaps “soft” looking) dictatorships, one that would become irreversible and most likely impossible to overthrow because it would operate on a global scale. This is something we cannot risk happening. Instead, my view is that we must work – and tirelessly now – to establish an international ethos of care, of mutual respect among the countries of the world for their legitimate existential needs and aspirations – all of which must become not only entrenched in international law but also enforced, together with all the new ecology-related and other international laws we must first draft in the spirit of mutual respect and consideration, deliberate on as a genuinely international community, and then enact without further delay.

A word on climate change…..our most lethal problem above all others.

Climatic change is the most formidable scientific problem facing humanity. This hastily written essay attempts to put into words my thoughts that have whirled around in my head for over a decade and put my perspective upon what is happening and what may happen in the near future. I don’t expect many will bother to read this… bad news is never welcome and reality is often avoided in this day and age.

In 1989, I began work as an archaeological field director of the Sheffield University project in the southern islands of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, work which included landscape survey, site excavation and coastal erosion documentation (Branigan and Foster 1995). During this period of coastal erosion, I became aware that the destruction of many archaeological sites was not due to the normal, relatively slow, often intermittent, erosion at the edge of the sea, but showed a new aggressive quality that was attacking sites as never before. Coastlines were negatively changing shape, sometimes rapidly and sometimes in long stretches. Linking this with the growing media reportage of rising sea levels and polar ice sheet deflation was not difficult. I met a Czech family of father and brothers who spent every year camped beside a glacial river running under a glacier near Spitzbergan. I saw their records, and the it was clear and alarming that the glacier was rapidly melting. I had no doubts about what was happening.

In 2000, I began the Shiant Islands Archaeological Project (Annual reports at http://www.shiantisles) and made an annual coastal erosion survey a significant element within the project. In over a decade of observation and recording, we have noted a significant increased rate of erosion and the destructive power of the higher sea levels during winter gales on the west coastal. There have been sudden inroads into undercutting any softer sedimentary deposits that exist at the coasts edge. In addition, higher sea levels add greatly to the power of storms to dash waves on close inshore reefs, throwing masses of seawater into the air to be whipped deep inland. The resulting flow back sucks any marginally loose soil out of place and deposits it into the sea. Lengths of coastline which have previously been stable have become erosion prone.
I have written this introduction at length to illustrate that I am not just jumping on the band-waggon. I have worked in the field and observed personally for some time. Although I am not trained in environmental science, I am capable observing and recording.

Some governments are finally becoming alarmed at the scientific evidence that has been accumulating for decades. While politicians are not capable of dealing with the complexities of environmental problems, they do have the power to co-opt qualified people to advise them. Unfortunately, according to the long term cycle of glacial episodes, the planet should be entering a period of glaciation. This has thrown some doubt on the claims for global warming despite the clear evidence for it. Nature can often behave like a clock with fine accuracy, but in the case of environmental change, so many factors can be involved that the rate of change may be erratic and difficult to estimate with accuracy. At present, the weather often appears to be in conflict with itself, and this may actually be the case. If the beginnings of an Ice Age phase is making the first steps to cool the earth, while human activity has been stoking up the atmosphere to induce global warming , then there may well be strange weather now and in the future.

What we do not know with any accuracy is how far we have gone towards the edge of the precipice before we go over it and cannot reverse the changes. For all we know, and it now appears very likely, we have already gone over the edge and are hurtling down the slope to semi- or complete extinction. If we pull out all the stops and act on a global scale, we may still be able to either slow the process down or at least lessen the impact it will have on us and all the rest of the living earth.

Whatever we do it is already to late for some things. This means that there will be changes regardless. Some people like to soften the problem by suggesting that some areas of the globe will actually benefit while others suffer. This would mean that with demographic adjustments humanity could survive unscathed. This is an over optimistic assessment. Demographic adjustment means the mass movement of populations from one area to another. Unless it is undertaken with the utmost care and discipline, it will result in the breakdown of public order, possibly open warfare and worse. Knowing how humanity behaves, I predict the worst. Think of the killings which stemmed from the attempt to rearrange the population for the formation of the state of Pakistan. Many countries will be extremely hard hit. Holland is to a large extent already below sea level. The Dutch will have to eventually start to move and they already live in one of the most densely populated regions in Europe. Who decided to rebuild New Orleans in the same place after its floods??? Much of England will be flooded. Will its Celtic neighbours welcome the millions of displaced English?

All this may be unimportant against possible changes in the gas composition of the atmosphere, which are now predicted.

  1. To make a start, no more trees should be destroyed and no more green fields built upon except in exceptional circumstances, by enforced law.
  2. Some communities rely on wood for their survival and, for them, alternative energy sources must be developed such as simple, cheap solar ovens.
  3. Tree planting on a global scale should start now and be aggressively maintained.
  4. All petro-chemical vehicles should be taken out of service.
  5. All factories and power stations emitting fumes of any kind should be closed down now.
  6. A world policing authority will have to be established, to maintain law and order, to supervise the destruction of all national arms and the dissolution of all national armed forces.
  7. War and conflict must be outlawed immediately.
  8. The burning of polluting elements, tyres, plastics, etc. must be punishable by law.
  9. All non-essential aircraft should be grounded…the list is long and goes on…

Refugees, population displacement, migration, starvation, plague, access to water, terrorism, genocide…. This list also goes on and on, and, worst of all, if we let the armed conflicts, which are raging now, continue – then we stand no hope at all. These problems are coming, some have already arrived, and the sooner we react the better our chances are of ameliorating the pain and hardship.

We are all involved, no one is exempt, however much money they have, for this is the greatest problem humanity has ever faced.  An Ice Age would have been a better option, perhaps.

Branigan and Foster 1995. Barra: Archaeological research on Ben Tangerval. Sheffield University Press.
See also:
Branigan, K. and Foster, P. J. 1991. Coastal Erosion Survey, Barra and Settlement on the Tangaval Peninsula. Western Isles Project: 4th Interim Report. Sheffield University. pp 17-18.
Branigan, K., Gilbertson, D. and Foster, P. J. 1992. Coastal Erosion and Archaeological Monuments in the Southern Isles, Outer Hebrides: Survey Report 1992. Sheffield University
Foster, P. J. 1993. Coastal Erosion Survey of the Southern Outer Hebridean Islands: Mingulay 1993. The Western Isles Project; 6th Interin Report. Sheffield University. pp 11-13.
Gilbertson et al eds. 1996. The Outer Hebrides: The Last 14000 Years. Sheffield University Press.
Foster, P. 2007. Climatic Change: A threat to the Historic Environment. The Archaeologist. No 63. Institute of Field Archaeologists Quarterly Magazine.

I want to append this mini-essay of mine to what Patrick has just outlined above.  I think it is important that we really begin to pay attention also to the attitudes that underlie the problems our ancestors and we have created for ourselves and the future generations because unless we correct such “ways of seeing,” we won’t be able to accomplish most of what certainly does need to get done to ensure the continuation and, over time, the flourishing of the human civilization.

Film/video of the largest glacier calving ever witnessed to date:


My comment:

The video offers great footage of a stupendous natural phenomenon never before recorded for examination and thorough analysis, giving us a glimpse of what will one day be the inevitable end of some parts of our, human-inhabited world. We need to grow up as a species, and we need to start planning soberly and seriously decades (and, for some things, centuries and perhaps even millenia) ahead, so by the time it happens, the cities and other areas in question will long have been evacuated and the people who’d lived in them re-settled in other parts of the world.

The scientist who appears in the last part of the video talks about the phenomenon of glacier calving just caught on film as “a miracle and horror”, as though we’d just witnessed something sublime.

It’s not a miracle at all, though it’s frightening and/or exhilarating to behold.  It’s just inexorable, natural forces at work.   And, as we know, one day, that’s exactly what will happen so some of our coastal cities, too.

I’m paying this much attention to the language the scientist used because he’s projecting onto nature a typically primate (predominantly but not only male) sense of exhilaration at spectacles of power exactly in the same way Christian fundamentalists do (it’s the same emotional and psychological phenomenon), he calling it a miracle and exulting in its power, they calling it an act of God, and moralizing it as a punishment visited on humankind.  It’s the primitive simian aspect of ourselves that generates and gets caught up in such nonsense — and one of those phylogenetic habits of the mind and heart we must drop if we as a species are to survive and flourish. This will entail significant and voluntary changes on the part of the world’s major faith traditions and communities, something that requires a great deal of cultural work: our task now is to evolve culturally since we are perfectly capable of inventing the technologies to help us cope with the forthcoming and even most of the other future environmental challenges our species will face.  We must become equally capable of conceiving and relating to the Real Sublime, the true sublime, in a significantly different, much more fully humanized way.  I believe that the seeds of such an ability are within us and that they only require careful and loving cultivation, something that is the work of culture and our own self-cultivation as human beings rather than as mere homo economicus or homo scientificus, etc.


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