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Very many people now feel that climate change matters, and that action on climate change is both important and necessary; witness the protests this week at London’s Heathrow airport and numerous rallies and meetings all around the world.

There are still a significant minority, though, who challenge this idea, albeit for a large number of different reasons, some technical, most personal, and often point out that there are many other ‘problems’ we face in this world which are either more pressing or more credible, or both.

In another virtual life, as a poster on non-scientific blogs, I find myself  frustrated time and time again by what appears to be some fundamental misunderstandings on the part of both these parties, as well as by many people who remain ‘undecided’ on the issue of what, if anything, we should do about climate change.

There are a number of reasons for some of the more common misunderstandings, but here I am going to focus on one which I think is, if not the central hindrance to proper understanding, at least one of the key problems.

Many non-scientists do not properly understand the reasons why climate change matters. (Or perhaps I could specify here, global warming.)

Furthermore, I will add my belief that, in the UK at least, this ignorance is deliberately and systematically sustained by the government and other organisations, for two reasons; one is to ensure that a perception of urgency should exist among the population in general, the other is to shift responsibility for the causes of global warming away from the real perpetrators and place it firmly at our doors, and thereby shift the demand for action (and payment, via taxation)  onto our shoulders, too.

It is easy to see how we can be fooled into thinking that we understand why climate change matters. We have a natural tendency to personalise, to seek in our own experience the evidence for beliefs which we hold about the larger world. We also posses a natural tendency to extrapolate from our personal experience a perception of the realities of the world at large.  These tendencies are exacerbated by the media, whose job is, after all, to report ‘disaster’ and human tragedy, and for whom headlines such as ‘Floods caused by Global Warming threaten millions’ are an easy option; they sell the product.

These ways of understanding the world are not flaws or signs of ignorance, simply normal human inclinations. One of the reasons why science should be a central resource for people seeking truth is that, in proper scientific work, fact and observation are depersonalised and generalisations need to be supported by evidence, not hearsay, so this tendency is not (normally) present.

This is not to say that scientists don’t face a problem, though. Many of my co-bloggers have strong feelings about the urgency of the problems which climate change poses. This concern is based on an awareness of the real problems posed by climate change. But the significant consequences of this change are, by and large, relatively distant future risks, which the rest of us struggle to find urgent or even meaningful. But this does not mean that action is not needed. If we take the output of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report as an example of the kind of conclusions which might be reached from the evidence available (and I hedge the terms carefully here, as parts of the report are by no means scientifically ‘obvious’), we can read that urgent action is recommended now or in the next few years to help reduce the risk of changes in the more distant future which are uncertain, but serious – very serious – in their implications. And many scientists have such concerns.

So, in their awareness that the public needs to be alerted to the risks, but also aware that we aren’t likely to respond with great enthusiasm to a warning about what might plausibly occur in a hundred years’ time, scientists who wish us to have a sense of urgency  for important reasons need to generate headlines without, wherever possible, compromising the integrity of the science or their own reputations. Probably the prime example of this is James Hansen, who appears to have mastered the art of generating a sense of urgency without descending into hyperbole (which doesn’t necessarily mean that everything he says is right).

What are we, the public, getting wrong, then?

First and foremost, we believe that unusual weather events, or human tragedies caused by the weather, are evidence, or even proof, that global warming is real and its effects are visible now.  But there is no strong scientific analysis which supports this belief. Oh, apart from some recent, and hotly discussed, papers on the genesis of tropical cyclones, including a very recent one which once again attempts to establish that a pattern of climate change is historically measurable from TC indeces. I won’t express an opinion on this here, but will say that, to date, no strong agreement has been reached that this is the case.

Following on from this, we observe the large number of extreme weather events which have already occurred this year, and conclude that this, then, must be stronger evidence that there is a fundamental instability in our climate system, which did not previously exist, and which is a signal of present climate changes already ‘in the system’. But this, too, is not demonstrably the case.

What certainly is the case is that the media have picked up on the climate change mantra and run with it at every opportunity; it’s a perfect story; huge, uncontrollable forces, human tragedies, heroism in the face of adversity, and all played out in dramatic images on our TV screens almost nightly. What definitely has happened is that the reporting of  weather-related ‘disaster’ has increased exponentially in the past year or so. As a consequence, we are more aware than ever before of the substantial challenges people around the world face in surviving experiences which to us are both frightening and exceptional, but to them might be regular, seasonal occurrences. That Bangladesh faces floods every year which place lives at risk and pretty much guarantees persistent poverty and struggle for its people is no less a tragedy for its being persistent, but to use this annual event as evidence of something changing in the climate is, clearly, not credible.

Playing on some of these misunderstandings, the (now thankfully few) climate change ‘sceptics’ work hard to undermine our confidence in science by constantly questioning the validity of a belief which is commonplace but is not generally held by scientists in the first place. On top of this, they emphasise the manipulative element of ‘official’ representations of the problem and cast doubt on the credibility of both policy makers and scientists. Finally, they emphasise the uncertainties which exist in climate science (nothing exceptional really; science is in principle a means of testing doubts and uncertain ideas), and use these to claim that projection and prediction is impossible, that concern is irrational, that the inferences drawn from the evidence cannot follow, because the evidence, or the methodology, is somehow flawed. But their scepticism, too, is misplaced, because it also fails to address, often to understand, the real issues we face about a changing climate and a warming world.

The real worry is not what we do know, but what we don’t.

This isn’t to say that some of the more recent evidence of change aren’t in themselves of concern, only that the bigger concern is something different. It is also a bit of a simplification; more accurately, its the relationship between what is known and what is not which, in this case, leads a significant number of scientists to conclude that we should have a genuine sense of urgency about addressing the future consequences of our current actions.

Weather, and the climate trends derived from it, should be understood as a complex of events which are linked by a relatively small number of persistent or semi-persistent phenomena, often referred to as teleconnections, because the impact of what is happening in one part of the globe (actually, its more often hemispheric, in the first instance)  can be observed in another part, ‘down the line’; the impact is ‘broadcast’. The are not the only drivers of weather, but they are the biggest influences on the larger scale of the patterns which lead to, for example, heavy rainfall in the UK or India, drought in The South-West USA, or the potential for tropical cyclones to fall.

These teleconnections do not exist in isolation from each other, either. Every year, the situation around the world is slightly different – natural variability –  and the differences felt on the ground can be the result of any one or more of a number of changes in conditions to parts of the global climate system.

All of this is, by and large, known.  What is also known is that a change in the balance of forces which operate to regulate these mechanisms will have an effect on them. And one of the central forces is the amount of energy, heat, which exists within the global climate system, that is, the atmosphere and oceans combined.

If we change the amount of energy in the system, we destabilise it.

What we don’t properly know is what the consequences of this destabilisation will be. This is why global climate models exist. We can’t experiment on the real world, so we have to seek answers by imitating the factors which seem to be most critical in a model and seek to establish both what and how future changes might happen.

Why should this concern us? Because of the social and industrial constructs which make up our modern world. Almost every part of the world we currently inhabit and, most critically, the processes involved in the production and provision of the two fundamental of food and water, has been set up to account for a certain degree of natural variability in weather, and no more. Beyond a particular threshold of changes,  the reliability of food and water provision becomes compromised. At best, this would imply that there will be more competition for resources, and therefore higher prices for staples, and thus substantial recession-inducing economic inflation. At worst, there won’t be enough to go around.

Beyond food and water, we then have to think about the other ‘essentials’ on which our industrial/post-industrial world depends; foremost, energy, then key raw materials, and also the transportation systems on which the distribution of all of these depend. All of these stand to be effected by a destabilisation of the global climate.

Of course, we are a resilient species (historically, anyway); we have the means to survive an ice age, disasters, plagues. We will survive and persist. But our world is different to the world of the past. We have many more interconnected dependencies on large scale systems than ever existed before. We live in vast conurbations and close to key transportation and trade access-points. There is a vast, almost unimagineable amount, of ‘machinery’ which operates beneath the surface of our everyday lives, which we take for granted. On top of that, we exist in a marketplace, where our capacity to provide for our families is also dependent on an economic operator.

Once again; what we don’t know is how this world is going to be affected by a destabilisation of the global climate system. What we can almost guarantee is that it will be affected. We also don’t know how quickly the first effects are going to kick in, or if, in fact, they haven’t already. We do know, though, that whilst we can adapt , given time, to changing circumstances, we  may be running out of time.

I am aware now that this is a long, perhaps overlong, piece, so I will stop now, though so much more could and maybe should be said. Climate change matters, not because it will result in distant tragedy for some and some inconvenience for us, but because there does exist a real risk that everything we know, everything, might not be as permanent as we pretend it is.

Be loved.


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August 2007