A lot of people, me included, have spent the past few days, weeks and months worrying about the impact of our Government’s approach to leaving the European Union on the future of our country and of those we love. We’ve recently been presented with a whole load more to worry about with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. And to cap it all, the lovely (if presumably somewhat gloomy) people at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, with their Doomsday Clock, have decided that we are now one step closer to global catastrophe.
These are serious issues. But they are not the only issues facing us. And they are, with the possible exception of the whole global annihilation thing, perhaps not even the most serious of the issues that demand our attention in these fraught times.
The biggie, as far as I’m concerned, is climate change. Our climate is changing and we’re causing it through our continued emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In short, our addiction to fossil fuels is killing us. That’s a fact. Not an alternative fact. Just a fact. And anyone who claims otherwise is either an idiot or on someone’s payroll.* We know what the problem is, we know that we’re causing it and we know that we’re running rapidly out of time. But do we pull up our socks and sort out the whole damn mess? No, we do not.
To stick with the theme of pumping things into the atmosphere, we’re also facing a massive pollution problem. We’ve long been tipping raw sewage, plastic waste and toxic sludge into our seas. And that’s pretty shameful. But we’re now doing the same thing to the air that we breathe. We’re used to the smog of the megacities of Asia, but console ourselves with the thought that it won’t happen here. But it’s happening right now. Air quality across the UK regularly breaches legal limits and it has been estimated (by the UN) that toxic air causes 30,000 to 40,000 early deaths each year in this country alone.
All of which is placing additional strain on an already overburdened National Health Service. Now, our NHS provides world-class healthcare. And it is staffed by wonderful, dedicated professionals in whose hands I would happily leave my life. But the thing is coming apart at the seams. People are getting older and are getting sicker in new ways. And we’re finding new and better ways to treat them. So things that would previously have killed people quickly are now becoming chronic, rather than terminal. That’s all great news. But it costs money. And that’s money the NHS doesn’t have. Yet rather than trumpeting our success and funding our health service properly, the Government prefers to berate doctors for spending too much on aspirin.
And I’m not even going to get started on the crisis in social care, the parlous state of our public transport systems, the many communities around the UK that have been abandoned by progress, the complete lack of trust that we place in our teachers, the ridiculous over-centralisation of our Government and our antiquated electoral system.
These are all complex issues. But that’s no excuse for not doing anything about them. And the more time we spend dealing with the impact of Brexit and Trump, the more complicated (and more difficult to resolve) these issues will become**. My concern is that we’re going to spend the next ten years or more disentangling ourselves from the European Union and negotiating trade deals with tin-pot, tango-toned dictators.
And doing nothing at all about everything else.
* Though as a scientist, if anyone can come to me with actual proof that climate change (a) isn’t happening or (b) isn’t related to greenhouse gas emissions, then I will be more than happy (and rather relieved) to change my mind. A bit like when someone asked J. B. S. Haldane what would make him reject the theory of evolution and he responded ‘fossilised rabbits in the precambrian’. That’s how science works.
** The irony, of course, is that the best way to address climate change and pollution, among other issues, is to work more closely with our international neighbours, not to distance ourselves from them.