is that scientists consistently find themselves reminding the public that weather and climate are different things, but in the end, it is likely to be the weather which will make the most difference in the public perception of climate change and, arguably, in the political will to action.
That this should be obvious can be seen from the impact on public and political perception of Hurricane Katrina. Here was a real and visible manifestation of disaster, played out before our eyes, complete with the human tragedies and ineptitudes of response, which demonstrated without argument the power of the natural forces to overthrow the trappings of civilisation and human endeavour without rhyme or reason.
The fact that it was an event open to the media played a critical part in making it ‘real’; this was reality TV writ large. The fact that it seemed to touch an inclination amongst many of us to want to defer to the power of forces greater than us and impersonal to boot, the deus ex machina of apocalyptic imagination, helped fix it in our minds.
There is an interesting question to be asked whether we do in fact possess a sort of collective will to be punished – Benny Peiser might have something to say on this – and whether such events satisfy a deep psychological need deriving from contemporary social neuroses (I’m thinking of the ideas of Gilles Deleuze, here). It would be no surprise to find that such a phenomenon existed amongst the more religiously inclined of us, but there are other indicators that, in some elements of developed society, we share a collective awareness of the ‘justice’ of a collective ‘punishment’; whatever it is we have done, we want to feel ‘guilty’ about our very way of being. This is also manifested in certain types of environmentalism and ‘hard-green’ activism.
To the point: it seems that no amount of science, of advice from business or financial institutions, will serve to alert the public or policy makers to the current need for action to avoid future misery, in a way sufficient to guarantee real action. Some people have advocated ‘scientific alarmism’ as a mechanism of working on public perceptions, but this is too easily dismissed, and probably counter-productive, in that, the longer a warning of a future ‘disaster’ goes unrealised, the greater the cynicism about the probability of such an event (whether or not the cynicism is justified).
What is much more likely to have an impact on public perception and policy action is another ‘Katrina’; a present, physical and filmable manifestation of the power of natural forces to destroy human ‘civilisation’ indiscriminately and lead to costs, in life and property, and have enduring after-effects. That such events have happened in China, Australia, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere in the past year seems to have had little impact on the ‘big picture’ of our media-moderated imaginations; after all, many more people died last year in tropical cyclone events in the western Pacific region than were killed during Katrina; many more people were temporarily displaced in major storm events (up to a million at a time, on rare occasions) than those effected in the USA; weather-related disasters occur with reasonable frequency all around the world, leading to thousands of deaths and billions of dollars worth of damage and loss, and yet..we don’t respond, on an international level; these are too distant to be meaningful. Unable to truly take in the vastness of the real global system, we interpret local experience as characteristic of global phenomena. So, when the house floods, we understand the problems; when the birdsong in the back garden stops one day; when our garden plants die of water stress, or we are made to observe water usage restrictions, then we become aware of the consequences of global climate change.
The irony is that it is likely to be a weather event, or a series of events, which will finally lead to a ‘breakthrough’ in our collective appreciation of the warnings of possible (likely) future danger. Of course I don’t want to wish disaster on anyone, but a change in perception is likely to come only on the back of something really extreme happening in real-time. It must be present, imminent, observable, on TV, tragic, unstoppable, and definitively not fiction.
If, for example, 2007 sees a heat wave in Europe comparable with 2003 or worse; if at least one major hurricane system makes damaging landfall in the USA, probably around a major population area; if drought conditions persist or worsen in existing water-stressed regions, causing actual losses; if the Arctic sea ice minimum is lower than ever before, if the global land surface/ocean temperature is higher than ever before (definitively higher than 1998, for example); if at least one major species is demonstrably pushed to the edge of extinction; if corn prices double, commodities become much more expensive; if petrol (gasoline) tops $90 per barrel; if water shortages make rivers run dry and cause restictions on every continent… then we might see a change in perception.
Back to my old game: what are the chances of most or all of these events coming to pass this year? It is always dangerous to make clear ‘predictions’ of future events; the passage of time tends to make fools of those who try it. But nobody said I wasn’t a fool. I believe that there is a good probability that the above scenario will unfold in 2007. I believe that there is a much higher probability that the scenario will unfold in one of the next four years, 2007-2010; I’d say that is is more or less certain to happen in one of the next four years (if you want a number; >90%).
It is my hope that such a year will see a ‘step-change’ in public and political perception of the risks of future climate change. It is my concern that such a year might also mark a ‘step-change’ in the climate system (though I feel this is less likely; evidence suggests we still have a way to go yet before warming induces a rapid transformation of global climate patterns).
I’d like to invite anyone who thinks my belief on this is ill-founded, or unduly ‘alarmist’, to respond with arguments or evidence which contradicts or demonstrates the unlikelihood of such an event, though I’d ask you to remain polite. It’s just an opinion, after all: one of the next four years will be, in weather terms, the most damaging of all time (as far as can be measured). It may be this year. It may be, conceivably, that more than one, or even all of the next four years, sees such a scenario unfold. In the final case, I might decide to move away from the coast and buy a small house inland with its own water supply.