Let’s keep our cool in the battle over global warming

A WHACKING 15,000 delegates descended on Cancun at the weekend. Expectations were not high. The problem for those seeking the Holy Grail of a deal to “save the planet” was that the climate change debate has changed.

The meeting in Copenhagen last year was a disaster. It was billed as a two-week jamboree where politicians, surrounded by activists, would hammer out the details of a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Many hoped really strong targets would be set on reducing carbon emissions that tied both developed and developing countries into the long-term process of decarbonising society.

Instead, the leak of thousands of emails and other files from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia revealed embarrassing discussions between high-profile researchers about tweaking data and excluding critics from peer-reviewed journals. The lesson of “Climategate” was that this climate change business is all just a lot more complicated than many were prepared to admit. Pressing the panic button would have been a very stupid idea.

The Climategate emails showed that scientists are as human as the rest of us. And just to prove it, the UN climate change panel’s chair Rajendra Pachauri branded as “voodoo science” any criticism of the mainstream view of climate change and its consequences. But the criticisms turned out to be valid. More troubling still for the alarmists, the rate at which the world is warming seems to have slowed considerably. Unsurprisingly, Copenhagen demonstrated that the ostensible desire to save the planet barely conceals the same ruthless agendas which have always dominated global politics.

The conventional wisdom has long been that “the science” will — or should — obliterate all debate. That it hasn’t should not surprise anyone. Science is not a discipline in which we should expect to find final truths. On the contrary, the principles upon which science is built are doubt and constant inquiry.

Time and again one we were told there is a broad consensus on climate change: what it means, what is causing it and what has to be done about it. But consensus is a term which is alien to science. In science, such a process could never be understood as a means of establishing “truth”, for it would require individual scientists to submit themselves to a majority view.

The talk about a “climate change consensus” never was a scientific consensus about climate change but at most as a political agreement to act and speak as if the major questions surrounding climate change had already been answered.

In reality, however, there are very few things on which the majority of climate scientists would readily agree apart from the fact that the world is warmer than it was 150 years ago — about 0.7 degrees Celsius warmer; that we humans have released a lot of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the world population has grown; and that we are (to some debatable extent) responsible for global warming through increased energy and land use.

Everything else in the climate change debate is highly controversial. Has the climate of the past millennium always been colder than today or not? How much of an effect on the climate does atmospheric carbon dioxide have? Do rising carbon dioxide concentrations lead us to a point of no return? Or are there self-regulating mechanisms which will slow, halt, or even reverse the process? For each question one finds much disagreement among climatologists.

Such disagreement should be welcomed, for it is what science is all about.

“What to do about climate change” cannot be simply read off from clear scientific evidence, therefore. The evidence isn’t clear. It is contradictory. It changes. Science is confused by the political demand for certainty, for the true story. Thus, any new study or review of the science creates a narrative about the future which is either worse than previously thought or lends credibility to the sceptics’ arguments.

The entire process is not unlike 24-hour live rolling coverage of a natural disaster. The same scenarios are endlessly repeated while news anchors and pundits speculate wildly about the significance of the latest images drip-fed into lifeless depictions of carnage. There have been so many apparent turning points in this debate that we were in danger of going full circle. But Cancun perhaps really did mark the beginning of a new chapter.

The doctrine of a “climate change consensus” had narrowed down the political debate. The focus was almost exclusively on the question of carbon emissions rationing. Interesting as this issue may be, it is only one aspect of the climate change challenge. Climategate appears to have opened up that debate. There is little prospect of a global, Kyoto-style deal on emissions targets now that the UN panel — the body supposedly providing unbiased assessments of the world’s climate future — has been fully exposed for the political operation it always was.

Yes, the majority of scientists in this area do think that humans are influencing our climate in potentially negative ways, even if most of them would distance themselves from the hysterical claims about “eco-geddon” that were made in the past. But post-Copenhagen, the question is much more about what is the best mix of adaptation and mitigation.

With the supposed consensus exposed as a fraud, it is politically highly unlikely that far-reaching emissions reductions will take place in the near future when most of us already think we pay too much for our electricity and fuel. No sensible politician was really going to commit to the policies that might produce rapid decarbonisation of the economy, least of all leaders of rapidly developing countries who need all the energy they can get.

(I exempt from that Ciaran Cuffe who told the Cancun gathering that “There is a moment in time when we must look beyond the relentless pursuit of economic growth.” It is precisely because most people wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more economic growth that the Green Party looks set to lose its seats at the election.)

What seems to have slowly dawned on most of those banging the drum for radical action on climate change, therefore, is that the attempt to panic the population into accepting drastic cuts in living standards to counter rising temperatures has failed.

So, given climate change is happening and it is improbable that it can be stopped in the short or medium term, the most pressing question then becomes: how to deal with its effects? The pact in Mexico to set up a new fund — with a goal of $100 billion in a year from 2020 — for measures to protect forests, share clean technologies and help the global south adapt is a step in the right direction. It’s certainly a better way forward than endless talk — for that’s what it really amounts to – about curbing greenhouse gases from factories, power plants and vehicles.

Instead of talking up an existential crisis that demands the wholesale impoverishment of society in the name of “the planet”, let’s keep working on the science and on new energy technologies. Let’s see what rising temperatures might mean and how we can best adapt to them, or even use them to our advantage. Above all, let’s cut out the breast-beating and fight the battles which are worth fighting.


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