I spent part of the morning wandering the gorgeous Victorian courtyards of the University of Glasgow (they would seem familiar to you—it’s where they shot the exteriors for the Harry Potter films), trying to find the university chapel where I was supposed to give a lecture. Instead of that august sanctuary, I stumbled across the James Watt building—and with it a poignant set of reminders about just how quickly we’ve managed to bring the world to the edge of ruin.
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James Watt was a “mathematical instrument maker” at the University in the 1750s anbd 1760s—not a professor, but a guy who fixed stuff in a workshop. First he spent some years fixing up some astronomical equipment, and then he worked on some instruments for Joseph Black, the man who literally discovered carbon dioxide. And then a professor of natural philosophy handed him a model of the Newcomen steam engine “in need of repair.” That first engine, invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen, burned coal in order to pump water from coal mines so more coal could in fact be mined. But it didn’t work very well at all—certainly not well enough to spark an industrial revolution. In the process of repairing it, Watt figured out how to radically improve it (supposedly the thought came to him as he wandered over Glasgow Green). The details—essentially, a separate condenser—hardly matter; it worked incredibly well, and the rest is history.
Neither Watt nor Joseph Black, of course, had any idea that carbon dioxide would be a problem. (It was Eunice Foote, working almost a hundred years later, who first found that carbon dioxide trapped heat efficiently, and presciently noted “an atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature.” And since she was a woman, a man had to read her paper to the American scientific conference where it was presented). We can’t blame them for the climate crisis.
But we can note how very very quickly we’ve undermined the physical stability of the earth. It took almost no time—barely ten human generations—to burn enough fossil fuel in variants of Watt’s machine to melt the Arctic, to slow the Gulf Stream, to perturb the jet stream. In fact, the first century didn’t do much damage, nor perhaps the first half of the second—in 1988, when James Hansen issued the first public warnings about the climate crisis, the atmosphere was still about 350 parts per million co2, which is about where scientists draw the danger line. We’ve produced more co2 in the 33 years since than in all of human history before. Even the “abrupt” climate changes that have marked the five previous mass extinctions played out over much longer time periods—it took many thousands of years for volcanic eruptions and underground coal fires to burn off the massive quantities of hydrocarbons necessary to trigger those changes. Watt’s invention was more efficient by far; V8 engines, in sufficient quantity, far outperformed volcanoes.
We need to equal—to exceed—that efficiency now, just working in reverse. Because we’ve waited so long, we have precious little time to build out the solar panels and wind turbines that are the replacement for (and elegant successor to) Watt’s engine. This first week of the climate summit has given precious little sign that we’re going to move at anything like the necessary speed. Today a group of financial institutions announced plans to go net zero by 2050; they did not, however, announce plans to stop funding fossil fuel expansion, and since the stuff we build today will still be burning coal and oil and gas in 2050, that’s a fairly significant omission—it’s like announcing your intention to quit smoking soon, even as you stockpile a warehouse full of cigarettes and buy yourself a machine for making more.
So it was a pleasure to turn a corner in downtown Glasgow and come across Rev Lennox Yearwood, the indefatigable climate warrior and head of the Hip Hop Caucus. He is famous for always being on the front lines of climate action, and for his collection of baseball caps, each bearing the message of the moment: today’s read “9 Years.” Because that’s how long we have to cut emissions in half if we want to meet the Paris climate targets. Actually, that’s generous: 2030 is now eight years and loose change away.
Rev Yearwood spoke first at a spirited street demonstration demanding the local pension fund divest from fossil fuel. (It was exuberantly disco-themed, with a team of dancers working hard to Staying Alive: ‘It’s not alright, it’s not ok/We can’t look the other way/We’ve all got to understand/The need for a bold climate plan.’) And then we rounded a corner and found that the police had penned a bunch of Extinction Rebellion protesters on the block in front of the Lloyds Insurance building. Yearwood climbed a phone box, and in his booming voice urged them on. “All power to the people,” he was yelling—which was James Watt’s message too, I guess, though in a different key.