Guilt by emission

A new UK government book about climate change only sees humans as the problem, never the solution.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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A new book published by the UK government suggests that the world is close to a point of no return on global warming.

Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change brings together the material presented at a conference of the same name a year ago in Exeter. The argument put forward is that unless carbon emissions are tackled immediately, average global temperature is likely to rise by between 0.5 and 2.0 degrees Celsius by 2050 – with the potential for much bigger changes further down the line. Some of the possible consequences of this include the melting of vast swathes of ice in Greenland and Western Antarctica, the shutdown or shifting of the ocean currents that keep northern Europe warm, the inundation of many low-lying areas, and loss or damage to plant and aquatic life.

More alarming speculation suggests that positive feedbacks might occur, resulting in runaway temperature rises with much more dramatic effects. As UK prime minister Tony Blair states in his foreword to the book: ‘It is clear from the work presented that the risks of climate change may well be greater than we thought.’

This is essentially the same material that was so widely publicised in February 2005, but it is interesting how each new report about climate change turns up the volume of screeching fears about our future. For example, Dr Chris Rapley of the British Antarctic Survey suggests that sea levels could rise by 16 feet if the West Antarctic ice sheet were to melt (although this could take up to a thousand years).

The problem with the discussion about climate change is the way in which the politicisation of the scientific debate makes it increasingly difficult to come to a balanced view on what is really happening. We are presented with a message – ‘we must reduce carbon emissions drastically and quickly’ – without any sense of the caveats and uncertainties in the science. As one attendee at the Exeter conference put it, ‘such was the spectacle of pending disaster that anyone who dared – or was allowed – to question whether the sky is really about to fall on us… was branded a “usual suspect”‘ (1).

For example, the most important single factor in the regulation of Earth temperature is cloud, yet it is still unclear what overall effect cloud will have in the future. Cloud and water vapour may tend to damp down the effects of increased greenhouse gases, or they may act to magnify such effects. In fact, while the science is clearly developing, there are still genuine problems with the computer models, data, physics, even the economics, of climate change that mean that even the best guesses about our future still reveal widely divergent scenarios.

An influential group of climate scientists and environmental campaigners are clearly taking one particular view of the evidence – that we are heading for disaster. In this view, change will be traumatic and the benefits of warming limited and isolated. For this group climate change is not just a big problem, it is the problem. Other problems we face, such as disease and poverty, are seen as subordinate to the need to tackle carbon emissions.

But given the huge potential costs of rapidly shifting to a low-carbon society, the policy of ‘wait and see’ has a lot going for it. Before we devote so much of society’s energies and resources to solving a problem, let’s be absolutely sure that we have got one. Before we sign up to hugely expensive attempts to prevent climate change, we should try to work out whether adapting to change, aided by greater economic development, could be more fruitful.

Human adaptability seems to be the missing factor in the whole discussion. The notion that we could use climate change to our advantage is anathema to the doom merchants. Indeed, both sides of the debate are marked by conservatism. There is a tendency among some climate change sceptics to suggest that the current way of organising society’s energy supply and transport is the only sensible one, and that reducing carbon emissions will inevitably cause more problems than it solves.

What the debate about climate change desperately needs is a questioning approach that untangles science and politics; a sense of perspective about the scale of the problems; and a large dose of faith in the ability of society to adapt to change in a positive manner. This new book is unlikely to be much help.

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Topics Science & Tech


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