Act Now or Face Extinction: My Birthday Present From the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


A car driver in California watches a wildfire spread on December 6, 2017 (Photo: Noah Berger/AP).

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Today is my birthday.

59 years ago, in Salford Maternity Hospital, my mother brought me into this world during one of the coldest winters in modern history, believed to have been the coldest since the winter of 1739-40.

59 years on from my birth, as I reflect on all that has happened to me in the 21,550 days of my life — all my struggles, my achievements, my loves, my joys, my sorrows, and my persistent inability not to question what those in authority tell me — and as I also reflect on the political and cultural changes of these many decades, I am struck by how this is all in the past, and how the pulse of life itself, which inhabits a continuous present that so many of us struggle to accept, is now located in a world in which bleak winters, like that of 1962-63, will never happen again.

When we look at why that is, one abiding truth becomes clear. Life on earth is a chemical miracle, one that requires a fine balance between its various components to maintain an atmosphere in which life is abundant. We know of nowhere else in the universe where life teems as it does on earth, and yet, because of capitalist greed and hubris, and a dangerous disconnection from nature, we are undermining the miracle of life, changing the atmosphere, primarily through our use of fossil fuels, into one that that will make the world inhospitable.

Throughout my 59 years on earth, the atmosphere has been changing at an alarming rate. People first started sounding the alarm bells when I was a child, and as a teenager and a young man it became clear to me, as it did to all those capable of listening, that we were on a path that endangered our very existence.

But capitalism shouts loudest, and we humans are so easily distracted, that the slow creep of realisation never manifested itself as a mass movement demanding immediate change. Reassuringly, however, the inertia with which capitalism defends itself began to collapse in 2018, when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned us that we had just 12 years left to limit the rise in global temperature to just 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to prevent widespread and catastrophic climate change.

In the wake of that report, a Swedish teenage activist, Greta Thunberg, and political agitators in the UK, styling themselves as Extinction Rebellion, managed to go mainstream, persuading a majority of people that climate change was real, and that our days are numbered unless we act decisively to cut emissions. Politicians queued up to declare climate emergencies, but, typically, nothing substantial has changed. Even the arrival of Covid-19, whose lockdowns showed us a world in which our frenetic, suicidal activities could be curbed, did nothing to bring about the permanent system change that is required to save our future.

In November, world leaders gathered in Glasgow for COP26, the latest in a series of climate summits that began in 1992, and which, in 2015 in Paris, endorsed a commitment to cut emissions to keep the global temperature rise to below 1.5°C. Yet again, however, capitalism’s juggernaut of greed and exploitation failed to understand that we need to take immediate action to change our behaviour or we are doomed to a global rise in temperature that will make the planet inhospitable.

For the last two months I’ve been aware that, in the aftermath of the COP26 summit, what we should be seeing are policies that actively reduce our emissions by 7% a year for the rest of the decade. Instead, however, nothing has happened. No government has an immediate plan; all the summit’s conclusions involve targets — for 2030, 2050 or even 2070 — none of which require urgent and immediate action.

In London, the din of construction sites is once more relentless, and environmentally toxic lorries and tankers full of concrete fill the roads, jostling with the car drivers who, because of a failure of political leadership, remain oblivious to the necessary message that we should all be doing less to damage the planet.

Imagine politicians telling voters to — at the very minimum — cut their car journeys by 7% a year every year from now onwards. They know they would be voted out at the next opportunity, replaced by candidates who cynically appeal to people’s most selfish instincts. And yet, eventually, when the effects of catastrophic climate change are irreversible, this kind of political jockeying for power will be redundant. By then, we will have governments of national emergency, but by then, of course, it will also be too late.

Today, for my birthday, the IPCC delivered its latest report, although you need to be eagle-eyed to spot it in the tsunami of rolling news, because Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is dominating the news, to the exclusion of almost everything else. “IPCC issues ‘bleakest warning yet’ on impacts of climate breakdown”, the Guardian announced, warning that “[c]limate breakdown is accelerating rapidly, many of the impacts will be more severe than predicted and there is only a narrow chance left of avoiding its worst ravages.”

It should be no surprise that, as the Guardian describes it, the report “says droughts, floods, heatwaves and other extreme weather are accelerating and wreaking increasing damage.” This is now common knowledge, as the evidence of the last few years has shown, although the report also makes clear that every day we fail to take action is making matters worse.

As the Guardian describes it, “Allowing global temperatures to increase by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as looks likely on current trends in greenhouse gas emissions, would result in some ‘irreversible’ impacts. These include the melting of ice caps and glaciers, and a cascading effect whereby wildfires, the die-off of trees, the drying of peatlands and the thawing of permafrost release additional carbon emissions, amplifying the warming further.”

UN secretary general António Guterres responded to the publication of the report by stating, “I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this. Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

As the Guardian also explained, the report’s findings can be summarised as follows:

  • Everywhere is affected, with no inhabited region escaping dire impacts from rising temperatures and increasingly extreme weather.
  • About half the global population – between 3.3 billion and 3.6 billion people – live in areas “highly vulnerable” to climate change.
  • Millions of people face food and water shortages owing to climate change, even at current levels of heating.
  • Mass die-offs of species, from trees to corals, are already under way.
  • 1.5C above pre-industrial levels constitutes a “critical level” beyond which the impacts of the climate crisis accelerate strongly and some become irreversible.
  • Coastal areas around the globe, and small, low-lying islands, face inundation at temperature rises of more than 1.5C.
  • Key ecosystems are losing their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, turning them from carbon sinks to carbon sources.
  • Some countries have agreed to conserve 30% of the Earth’s land, but conserving half may be necessary to restore the ability of natural ecosystems to cope with the damage wreaked on them.

As the Guardian also explained:

This is the second part of the IPCC’s latest assessment report, an updated, comprehensive review of global knowledge of the climate, which has been seven years in the making and draws on the peer-reviewed work of thousands of scientists. The assessment report is the sixth since the IPCC was first convened by the UN in 1988, and may be the last to be published while there is still some chance of avoiding the worst.

A first instalment, by the IPCC’s working group 1, published last August, on the physical science of climate change, said the climate crisis was “unequivocally” caused by human actions, resulting in changes that were “unprecedented”, with some becoming “irreversible”.

This second part, by working group 2, deals with the impacts of climate breakdown, sets out areas where the world is most vulnerable, and details how we can try to adapt and protect against some of the impacts. A third section, due in April, will cover ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and the final part, in October, will summarise these lessons for governments meeting in Egypt for the UN Cop27 climate summit.

For my birthday, then, the IPCC has given me the most urgent and necessary present, and it’s my duty to share it with you, and to issue my own advice as I start my 60th year on this extraordinarily beautiful and beleaguered planet. 

It is time of us all to lay aside our personal nostalgia, to lay aside our selfish, delusional plans for our own secure futures, to live in the present in the fullness of wonder and sorrow, and to act together to save the future.

As it’s my birthday, I hope you don’t mind me posting below my musical contribution to the struggle, ‘This Time We Win’, recorded with my band The Four Fathers, and featuring the great Charlie Hart on keyboards, which we released in 2020. New ecological songs are forthcoming — one called ‘All About Love’, which we’ve played live on several occasions, and another, ’Stay Strong Young Rebels’, which we’re still arranging — but neither have been recorded yet, although we hope to record ‘All About Love’ in early April, just in time for the IPCC’s next report, and the start of Extinction Rebelllion’s actions for 2022.

See you on the streets! — and don’t let Priti Patel, and her efforts to ban protest, put you off. The right to protest is a vital human right, and in a time of unprecedented crisis, like now, it becomes, if anything, a moral imperative.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

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Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    For my birthday today, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just published what scientists are describing as the “bleakest warning yet” about the perils of catastrophic climate change, and the need for urgent action to try to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, in an effort to keep the world habitable.

    It’s not the birthday present I would have wanted in an ideal world, but we live in a world that is far from ideal, and as I was born in the winter of 1962-63, the coldest winder in the UK since 1739-40, I’ve been reflecting today about how the span of my life has demonstrated the unprecedented damage that our economic system, still unleashing greenhouse gases at a suicidal rate, has been causing throughout my entire life.

    A winter like the one I was born in is now unthinkable, as the atmosphere has been steadily heating up, and, without unprecedented action now, the future — alarmingly, close enough to imagine — is a planet that will become inhospitable.

    Two months into 2022, and with our governments still doing almost nothing to address the crisis, it seems to me that it’s up to us all to take collective action, but the question is: will we? Can we put aside our differences, and the maddening distractions with which we are all beset, to actually come together to try to save the future?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s the Guardian’s editorial about the IPCC’s report, which includes a quote form UN Secretary General António Guterres that I missed yesterday. He accused the world’s biggest polluters of being “guilty of arson on our only home.”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I wrote in detail about efforts to get banks to stop investing in oil and gas companies back in September, after Extinction Rebellion’s fortnight of actions targeting the City, which provides, I think, quite a good round-up of where concerted pressure needs to be directed.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, however, in the US, as the Guardian reported three weeks ago, the right-wing lobby group ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) “is driving a surge in new state laws to block boycotts of the oil industry”, with support, of course, from the monstrously wealthy Koch Industries, whose fortune is almost entirely derived from dirty industries. ALEC has been targeting BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, even though their divestment is only very partial.

    As they explained in a statement, “BlackRock does not boycott energy companies. We do not pursue divestment from oil and gas companies as a policy. We expect to continue to be invested in these companies and will work with them as they drive the energy transition to maximize long-term value for our clients. Our primary concern with the law is the potential negative consequences it could have on current and future Texas pensioners.”

    What we have then, is a war between right-wingers who want to preserve the status quo, and BlackRock, who are slightly shifting their focus to renewables, but whose only concern is to continue to provide ever-increasing profits for future pensioners (and themselves, of course), and while the right-wingers are clearly 100% delusional, BlackRock’s position – and that of other investors, presumably – is also untenable, as it is driven almost entirely by future profits, with no regard for the need for immediate action to ensure that that future actually exists.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Some good news today, as the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, featuring representatives of 173 countries, has “agreed to develop a legally binding treaty on plastics”, to be completed within a two-year period, and which will “cover the production and design of plastic, not just waste.”

    As the Guardian explained, “Approximately 7bn of the estimated 9.2bn tonnes of plastics produced between 1950 and 2017 are now waste”, and “about 75% of that waste is either deposited in landfills or accumulating in terrestrial and aquatic environments and ecosystems.”

  6. Anna says...

    A belated Happy Birthday Andy, you no doubt spent it in good company and may this coming year make your dreams come true – although your guardian angel might ask you to somewhat reduce their number …
    I of course am busy otherwise with my first evacuees from Kyiv just on their way to Belgium, a lovely young Camerunian couple. As most are either not or only partially vaccinated, the guest quarters (much better equipped than in your time 🙂 must be thoroughly ventilated before the next ones move in, this time an Ukrainian mother with two small kids.
    You can probably imagine my fury not just with Putin but the western hypocrisy and double standards, for the sanctimonious ‘high standards’ are only applied when it is against Putin and for white Europeans. When it was ‘us’ who invaded afghanistan or Iraq, there was no international outcry and one of the reasons is the ridiculous ‘Three Musqueteers’ NATO rule, which automatically implicates all NATO countries in any US aggression and makes it impossible for them to disagree. I’m incapable of listening to those smug hypocrites and in addition all they really do is talk and apply the usual sanctions – which will starve ordinary Russians not Putin and his cronies. That NATO moron Stoltenberg will be smugly jubilating : see, we are still needed !

    Anyway, here’s another piece of infuriating if not unexpected news:
    And the State dept once again falsely claiming that Abu Zubaydah was :
    “an associate and longtime terrorist ally of Osama bin Laden”. Sigh …

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the birthday wishes, Anna. I had a lovely evening with Dot and Tyler, who just had his first rehearsal after two years for ‘Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster’, prior to some imminent dates in the UK and Ireland.

    I’m so glad – but not surprised, of course – to hear of your support for refugees from Ukraine, and I share your anger at Putin – and, of course, NATO – but ultimately this is on Putin and his love of war, which, of course, is shared by so many world leaders, including those in the west who have rained similar death and destruction on so many countries over the last 20 years. How I wish we could get rid of all these – mainly – old white men and their love of slaughter and destruction.

    I haven’t had a chance yet to properly digest the Abu Zubaydah ruling, but I’ll be looking into it and writing about it soon, although it’s clearly infuriating that the State Department would trot out such a discredited allegation about him after all these years.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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