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Why don't we take climate change as seriously as scientists tell us we should? Climate change ought to be something that we can easily grasp. It lends itself to disaster movies, to iconic photographs of polar bears on small lumps of ice in melted seas, and to glaciers collapsing into the sea. Droughts, floods, hurricanes and heatwaves capture the imagination.
It is not as if the scientific evidence is getting weaker. On the contrary, the science continues to progress as do the emissions and the forecasts have not got any better. The latest annual update from the International Energy Agency (IEA) the 2011 'World Energy Outlook' boldly stated:
In the New Policies Scenario [in which recent government commitments are assumed to be implemented in a cautious way], the world is on a trajectory that results in a level of emissions consistent with long-term average temperature increase of more than 3.5 degrees C. Without these new policies, we are on an even more dangerous track for a temperature increase of 6 degrees C or more.
There is a paradox here: the public mood gets more indifferent or even sceptical about taking the necessary action, whilst at the same time the science and its media face becomes more apocalyptic. Compared with the last decade, fewer people in many of the major developed countries now report a willingness to pay much to mitigate emissions, even amongst those who accept the science. To this public scepticism has been added an element of 'climate change fatigue'. They read the stories, see the pictures and the movies, and yet nothing dreadful seems to happen, and nobody else seems to be doing much about it. Crazy as it seems to many mainstream scientists, many still wonder whether climate change really matters, and even if it does, whether it matters very much. That makes it much more difficult to crack the problem, since it is the broader public that must pay the bills for mitigation, not the scientists.
Instead of blithely dismissing this as the malign influence of mavericks and climate change 'deniers', it is important to understand precisely why so many have their doubts, and why it is so hard to get any action. Only then can we take on the business of explaining just why climate change is so serious, what we do and do not know about the underlying physical processes, and what the likely impact of various degrees of warming might be.
Why the public has doubts
Some climate scientists and some economists are partly to blame for this scepticism and fatigue. It is corrosive: politicians react to public opinion, and as they see the voters' interests waning, they follow suit. Scepticism comes in three forms: about the science, about the economics, and about the willingness of others to do much about the problem. It shows up in opinion poll surveys. Across Europe by the end of 2011, electorates' warmth towards green parties appeared to be on the wane even in Germany, where the Green Party's share of the vote fell back from the post-Fukushima highs of around 25% to below 15%. Indeed, in Germany the Pirate Party achieved almost 9% in Berlin in regional elections in late 2011, and was almost level-pegging with the Greens in state elections in early 2012. It is difficult to interpret what these swings mean, but the volatility does lend credence to the view that many vote green as a protest rather than as a deep commitment to what these parties advocate. Elsewhere in Europe, the far-right political parties, which tend not to worry too much about the climate, have been scoring high ratings.
Climate change has slipped far down the list of voter priorities. In the US, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (formerly the Pew Center) reported a marked decline between 2006 and 2009 in the number of people who see solid evidence of global warming. Others have provided more positive results. Yet overall, given the advances on the science front, far more positive results might have been expected.
Of the three forms, scepticism about the science is the most serious. After two decades of further research since the UNFCCC, we now know a great deal more about the theory and the empirical evidence. Scientists have made great strides in the physics, in looking at ice cores, ocean currents, sea levels and changes in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Yet the public, ignorant of the complexities of the science, have taken a good hard look at the messenger and have questioned the basis of this developing science. When they are told that 'scientists say ...' it is not unreasonable to ask: what are their interests? Have they got 'skin in the game'? The grants, the money, and indeed the career prospects and the status go to those who conform to the paradigm. Those following the scientific consensus tend to control the key journals; they are the heads of the departments, and they are members of the grant-giving bodies.
As has occurred all too often in the history of science, outsiders holding sceptical views face an uphill struggle to get themselves taken seriously. Aided and abetted by the green groups and lobbyists for particular technologies like wind, the way to undermine those who challenge the conventional wisdom is to question their motives, discredit the individuals, create a 'them and us' division, and never to question the mote in their own eyes. Many greens cut their teeth on the all-out assault on nuclear power. Sceptics become deniers. Nigel Lawson found it hard to get his book on climate change published, even though he accepted that climate change was likely to occur. Bjørn Lomborg became a pariah, again despite accepting that warming would probably happen. These writers found that even questioning the relative importance of climate change was unacceptable not only to activists, but also (and more worryingly) to sections of the mainstream media. All this is frighteningly akin to the treatment of minorities in the wider social and political sphere. Not surprisingly, the public smell a rat.
Climate scientists, often passionate in their concern for the future, and watching emissions going ever up, are all too human. They want to 'do something'. They take to the airwaves and the televisions screens, and the boundary between science and NGO-style campaigning begins to break down. The seminars at environment and climate change institutes and departments invite in the campaigners, blurring the boundaries between impartial academic research and partial and committed interests.
The University of East Anglia (UEA) 'Climategate' affair illustrates what can go wrong. Hostile critics got hold of emails from UEA, which revealed a number of worrying features. Accusations were made about data manipulation, and about an approach to research that appeared to make sure that the evidence lines up with the preferred conclusions. Opponents claimed to be deliberately undermined. The result has been inquiries and reviews, none of which has concluded that much more than the occasional lapse occurred. Yet it is hard to argue that the treatment would have been the same had the emails come from someone questioning immigration, for example, or considered to be pro-nuclear.
The media's habit of ascribing extreme weather events as evidence of climate change, often encouraged by interested scientists, has not helped. Whilst scientists tend to be careful not to claim explicitly that hurricanes like Katrina in 2005 or the European heatwave in 2003 were caused by climate change, they use these examples to illustrate what they claim will happen. There is an implicit linkage and too often exceptional cold weather is met with a deafening media silence. Again the public notices.
Scientists cling to the defence that 'peer review' ensures that they keep to the straight and narrow. This might convince some within the academic community, but it does not ring quite so obviously true to the wider public. Taken seriously, peer review is an open process by which new research is tested by other scientists. The approach should be sceptical trying to find reasons why claimed results may not stack up. Yet when it comes to climate change, it has not always been rigorously adhered to.
Even the most important body on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has had its lapses. The IPCC is an unprecedented endeavour. The idea is to bring together the best scientists in the world to investigate the science of climate change and to provide authoritative conclusions for governments and the public. From the outset it was designed to support advocacy of urgent action. It is both heroic and questionable. It is heroic in the sense that it tries to corral disparate research groups. Academics are notably anarchistic. Groups in different universities compete in the world of ideas and evidence. It is not in the nature of the beast to be brought together under one global umbrella. But the IPCC results depend upon who does the science, and it is a voluntary activity, typically unpaid and often without grants. It is also immensely bureaucratic. Those who most enthusiastically join in are likely to be those who believe most strongly in the outcome. So there is a problem. Those on the inside tend to do the peer review. The result is to reinforce 'group-think'. The IPCC approach has sadly been characterized by some of these paradigm effects. Claims about the melting of Himalayan glaciers turned out to be not only exaggerated, but also inadequately checked. A more recent example is the IPCC's 2012 report on renewable energy sources and climate change mitigation. It is a struggle to find anything other than positive arguments for renewables, as opposed to objective analysis, which would include more on costs, limitations of land areas, and a serious consideration of environmental impacts. Fritz Vahrenholt gives an alarming account of what happened when he was asked to review the renewables report in 2010:
I noted many errors and in the end someone from Greenpeace edited a main part of the summary of the report. A Greenpeace scenario, claiming that in 2050 we can produce 80% of our energy with renewables, was presented as one of the main considerations.
He goes on with his devastating critique: 'I found out that one third of the core writing team of the summary for policymakers in 2007 had connections with Greenpeace and WWF'. Whilst correctly pointing out that this does not prove that the report is false, he asks this telling question: 'Suppose that people find out that the IPCC summary reports were written by people with connections with Exxon or Shell would that be acceptable?'
But at least the IPCC's work is supposed to be peer-reviewed. One might conclude that anything not peer-reviewed in the climate change literature should be discarded not to be taken seriously because it has not endured trial-by-peers. But this is not so, which brings us to the second example, and the second area where scepticism has emerged on the economics front.
Nicholas Stern's The Economics of Climate Change (hereafter referred to as the Stern Review), published in 2007, is one of the most referenced studies. Every major European politician has cited it, and it is referenced at the back of numerous books and articles on climate change. Yet it was not peer-reviewed. Although led by an eminent economist, it is the work of a government-sponsored and government-resourced endeavour, undertaken in a very political context (Prime Minister Blair's positioning at the G8 Gleneagles summit, and Chancellor Brown's desire to capture the issue). As William Nordhaus put it, 'the Stern Review should be read primarily as a document that is political in nature and has advocacy as its purpose.'
None of these considerations is a criticism of the content of the report itself (although, as we will see, there are many reasons to question both its analysis and its conclusions). Rather, the 'peer review' standard turns out to be regarded by mainstream scientists as unnecessary when it suits them. Indeed, they widely quote the Review.
It is easy to see why both politicians and scientists got so excited by the Stern Review and the activists too. It concluded rather precisely:
An estimate of resource costs suggests that the annual cost of cutting total GHG [greenhouse gases] to about three quarters of current levels by 2050, consistent with 550 ppm CO2e15 stabilization level, will be in the range -1.0 to +3.5% of GDP, with an average estimate of approximately 1%.
When compared with the costs of the credit crunch and the Great Recession that followed, it is a very manageable number. But imagine if the Review had concluded that the economics of climate change pointed to a very high cost of mitigation. The view from both the academic community and especially the green NGOs would surely have been that it could not be taken seriously because it was not peer-reviewed.
Politicians jumped on its conclusion. The 'greening' of the economy through climate change policy has been variously claimed to be a way out of recession, the path to a 'new industrial revolution', and capable of lowering future energy prices. Listening to the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, you could easily be led to believe that the challenge of climate change is actually a good thing regardless of the climate; that climate change mitigation will lead to future prosperity. Here he is in New York in the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference:
In fact, the economic case is just as strong [as the scientific]. Acting against climate change is of course a moral imperative to current and future generations. But it is above all an immense economic opportunity. The cost argument is getting clearer. Tackling climate change will be expensive ... But it's about more than minimizing the pain; it's about surfing the next wave of economic development. Take Europe's climate and energy package, for example, which we agreed in 2008: cutting emissions by at least 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 and doubling the share of renewable energy to 20% within the same time-frame. We think this will generate some &8364;90 bns ($130 bns) of additional investment in renewables, and some 700,000 new jobs in this sector, as well as reducing our oil and gas import bill by around &8364;45 billion ($70 billion) a year by 2020.
Such claims stretch economic and political credibility, especially when they appear to jar with customers' actual bills. Politicians tell us that the solution to the economic crisis is 'green growth', and even that decarbonization will reduce energy bills by 2020. The mantra about the sunny uplands of decarbonization just keeps on getting trotted out. It's hard to take seriously that the world's carbon-based economy can be decarbonized in a few decades without economic pain; that we will all be better off. Even more surprising is that apparently intelligent people actually seem to believe it.
The third source of scepticism derives from the fact that others appear to be doing very little. Many who may accept the scientific consensus, and who may even agree with Stern about the economics, nevertheless remain sceptical about the actions of others, notably the US and China. This is understandable given what has happened so far. The Durban conference at the end of 2011 confirmed this public suspicion: nothing of substance is scheduled to happen before 2020.
Scepticism is corrosive: if the public doubts the science, questions the economics, and despairs about the inaction of others, then the climate change battle will be lost and indeed it increasingly looks as if it will. To recover the initiative from this sorry state of affairs, we need to sort out what we do know from what is hypothesis, so that the uncertainties can be understood, together with their implications for policy. It turns out to be anything but straightforward.
The science of climate change
The first step in the science is the easy bit: laboratory experiments can be conducted with stylized atmospheres to work out what happens when the concentrations of different gases are increased. This is 'old science': in the nineteenth century, the 'greenhouse effect' was identified by looking at the penetration of the sun's rays and reflection back through a mixture of gases, of which carbon dioxide (CO2) is a very small but key component, along with a number of other greenhouse gases, especially methane, and water vapour. The greenhouse effect was suggested long ago by the research of Joseph Fourier and then John Tyndall in 1859.
Excerpted from THE CARBON CRUNCH by DIETER HELM Copyright © 2012 by Dieter Helm. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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