December 10, 2023

In Cyprus, in a seemingly endless succession of days, the mercury hovers around 40° boiling away the little remaining inspiration in my brain. All about me the countryside is parched. Any little spark will set ablaze the fields of desiccated grass and the resinous fir trees will explode in flames. All around the rim of the Mediterranean, from Portugal to Turkey, wildfires are destroying an unimaginable number of millions of birds, animals, insects, reptiles, plants and trees. A handful of humans have also been killed, a clutch or two of buildings have been incinerated and a few plane loads of tourists have been inconvenienced by these fearsome spectacles of nature. No-one seems to care much for the wildlife.

Then comes the massive IPCC 6 reports which tell us, in a nutshell, that these are unnatural disasters, caused by humans and which will get worse in the future, whatever we do. If everyone on the planet “did their bit” the environmental and climatic damage could be manageable, at least for humans. If, as is most likely, most people shrug their shoulders in helplessness hoping someone else will solve the problems then the really big disasters will occur wiping out swathes of all types of living creatures in the seas, on land and in the air. Millions of humans will become homeless. Migration and wars an almost certainty. Millions may die.

Greenhouse gases, principally CO2 and CH4, form a cosy eiderdown duvet around the earth trapping some of the energy which would otherwise escape into space. As the concentration of these gases increases the duvet becomes thicker and more heat is trapped. Even if not a single molecule of CO2 was emitted through human causes after today it would take several hundred years for the concentration of these gases to fall to pre-industrial levels. The grand CO2 neutral targets, which governments are talking about, are really a lot of hot air. The concentration of greenhouse gases will continue to increase until all countries achieve CO2 neutrality then, and only then, would the level of the gases stabilise, but not diminish, but at a much higher level than today. Global warming in the range of 3 to 5° would then be the result. Result – disaster.

All this reminded me of my cat. I once lived in a stone house which had no heating save for an open fire for which the only available fuel was oak logs. Winters were cold and to say that the house was chilly is an understatement.

One evening, as I sat in front of the fire watching the logs rapidly disappear up the chimney as smoke taking most of the heat with it, my cat jumped onto my lap. Within moments I appreciated the warmth from this little furry creature curled upon me. It was sometime before my famously slow brain realised that I was not feeling the cats warmth at all but my own body heat which had been trapped against me by the cat’s fur, in the same way as it was retaining the cats own warmth.

The cat’s coat, which was just a few millimetres thick, was acting as the cat’s duvet. If I had had a similar covering I would not have needed to burn tree after tree (or gas or electricity) to heat the air in a large room to a sufficient temperature for me to feel comfortable.

Instead of using an energy guzzling external heat source to heat my 100 m³ room, my body would need to warm only about 0.01 m³ in a thin layer around me, consuming the energy of, say, a pea or grain of rice.

This amazing insight was, of course, made tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago as humans moved out of the comfort of Africa. Inuit clothing is an example of how to keep warm, without a fire, when living in a house made of ice. Paintings from mediaeval times show how people dressed to combat the cold in the absence of full gas-fired central heating.

Space heating and cooling customarily uses fuels such as gas, oil, coal, wood or electricity, which itself is generated by fossil fuels. It is therefore one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases. In theory, this could be reduced to zero if everyone wore a catsuit. Instead of people, such as Elon Musk, spending quadrillions attempting to make the planet Mars habitable for humans, scientists could, for just a trivial sum, create advanced materials and designers could create fashions that enabled humans to live without their central heating or air-conditioning. Then they would continue to enjoy a world which is unimaginably more beautiful and interesting than Mars.

We can take the “cat” out of “catastrophe”.

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