The new Met Office report
, saying that the effects of climate change are now “unmistakable”, is interesting. It seems to be the most comprehensive measure of global change yet, taking into account atmospheric temperature changes at sea level and in the upper atmosphere, ocean temperatures, and sea level rises. We are told “unequivocally that the world is warming and has been for more than three decades”.
What to make of this?
Well, it depends. If you’re a reader on these blogs, almost certainly you’ll say that this is yet another example of the conspiracy by various shadowy forces – the government, grant-hunting climatologists, the Met Office, Al Gore, Big Windfarm – to enforce ineffectual yet economy-crippling measures on the public in an attempt to stop an imaginary threat. You may use the phrase “ManBearPig” at some point.
Conversely, if you work in the press office of an environmental charity, you may see this as an opportunity to push the fear of global warming a bit harder: it’s definitely happening, you could say, and we all know global warming is going to be a catastrophe, so quick, let’s throw a few more billions at it, eh?
In my boring way, I’m going to say that, as ever, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Point one: the world is definitely warming. Luckily, most people – even the largely warming-sceptical crowd who read these blogs – have accepted that. We know this, because of the number of times we read things like the following: “Of course the climate is changing. It’s obvious. This does not mean that we’ve done something to cause it.” (Thanks to reader “insensitive_clod
” underneath Louise Gray’s story
for that wonderfully representative example.) Which leads me to…
Point two: mankind (almost) definitely is causing it. I know I might as well quote Goebbels around these parts, but the IPCC – which, I must wearily say while donning protective clothing, is still the greatest climate science authority in the world – says it is “very likely”, giving a 95 per cent confidence level, that “most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations”.
As Dan Gardner says in his wonderful book Risk: the science and politics of fear
, to which I will be returning, the phrase “very likely” is about as strong as scientific language gets, and a 95 per cent confidence level is by common convention taken to mean established fact. Obviously, if you’re of the opinion that the IPCC is actually run by the Illuminati or something, then its findings will be of little interest to you, but if you’re willing to put aside the conspiracy theories for a moment we will move on.
So there are the two facts: the world is warming; mankind’s action is almost certainly causing that warming. What’s actually interesting, of course, is where we can go from there. Warming in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. We want to know how it will affect our lives. Here the evidence is more equivocal: the IPCC reckons it is “likely” (66 per cent chance) that it will lead to sea level rises and increased droughts, for instance. But the dire warnings of some activists are far from certain; the acknowledged imperfections of computer modelling, especially when it comes to feedback systems (both positive and negative), make it very hard to predict the extent of those two problems.
Gardner uses in his book as an example of the more alarmist tendencies an ad for the World Wildlife Fund, showing a boy playing baseball in water up to his shoulders. The IPCC actually warns of sea level rises between seven and 23 inches. “That is serious”, says Gardner, “but it doesn’t lend itself to public campaigning, because a picture of someone shin-deep in water isn’t going to catch the attention”.
Scientists aren’t immune – as Gardner recounts, the late Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University, was wonderfully honest about the difficulties of combining dispassionate science with climate activism: “As scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts.
“On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change.
“To do that, we need to… capture the public’s imagination. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have.” He describes this as a “double ethical bind”, and the worry is that it is counterproductive; if scientists make statements that out-run the facts, it becomes easier to ignore the rest of the stuff they say.
Because the thing is, of course, that it is broadly likely that climate change will have some horrible effects, even if it won’t be the cataclysm that many people fear. If millions of people are displaced because a river dries up, they will have to move; there will be refugee camps on borders and all the misery and disease that entails. If sea levels rise, whole cities could suffer or even disappear (there’s no reason to think that that seven-to-23 inch rise will be uniform), especially in poorer countries that cannot afford proper sea defences – and again, that will cause death and displacement. So it is absolutely right that we should keep attempts both to limit and to mitigate the effects of climate change in the public eye.
That said, sceptics – the sensible ones, not the conspiracy theorists
– do make some valid points. Bjorn Lomborg is not a man I would normally quote approvingly, but in 2004, he organised a meeting in Copenhagen to assess what would be the most cost-effective measures to tackle the world’s problems. One of the suggestions was malaria. The disease kills a million people a year and is easily treatable. Jeffrey Sachs, the economist, estimates (and I have no idea whether he’s right) that malaria could be controlled at a cost of $3 billion a year – peanuts, really, by the standards of the world economy. But that constant, silent killer rarely makes the news, because it doesn’t make for good pictures or easy headlines, so it doesn’t get even that minimal level of spending.
Mind you, neither does climate change, really. The US spent $7.4 billion to combat it in 2008. That year it also spent $650 billion on defence, including £212 million every day in Iraq. I don’t want to get into a debate over whether that is money well spent, but I think we can agree that it puts climate change spending into perspective. We just shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is not the only problem the world faces.