Friday, 4 February 2011

A sceptical conversation

So I was out having a drink last night and talking en passant about an organisation which I help to run, which aims to raise awareness of climate change and fossil fuel depletion, and organises local events like film nights and planting a community apple orchard. I was, as is my wont, a little disparaging about it – a bad habit I know, but I am so desperate not to appear intense (I think I fail) or evangelical that I end up saying stuff with a self-deprecating smile like ‘this little organisation that I help run that’s trying to save the planet’ when all of a sudden my interlocutor said ‘I have to say that I don’t think that global warming is happening’.

He went on to explain that he didn’t really understand the issues but was parroting (his word, not mine) the views of his family. Now, had this been me, I would have recognised that this was shaky ground upon which to argue, but in his case, the flood gates flew open and out it all came. People ‘on high’ apparently want us to believe the myth of global warming; the leaked emails from UEA prove that the truth about climate change – ie that it’s all a big bowl of spaghetti bolognaise – is being suppressed; those who buy into this myth are enormously vain – how can we have the audacity to think that little old us, the frail and humble Human Race, have the power to affect something as big as the global climate? Furthermore, we were all growing grapes in mediaeval times anyway; everyone always talks about hot summers, but really nothing seems that different from when we were children; if we run out of coal, we’ll find something else to burn; climate sceptics aren't allowed equal air time anymore and so on and on it went, each utterance more thought-through, evidenced and convincing than the last. Or not.

This is what I said in reply, though with a sinking heart (it’s kind of boring to engage with the same old arguments that don’t even start to bear scrutiny) which also started beating too fast in the face of conflict in a social situation.

First – and presuming that people ‘on high’ are those who lead us rather than those who have left us – to deal with the proposition that there is conspiracy amongst world leaders to mislead the global population. Let’s not even get into why all these powerful beings can shake on this when they cannot find common ground on pretty much anything else (‘World peace, Mr Ahmadinejad? Come on, come on, you’ve got my agreement on screwing everyone over climate change. Huh? Huh? Be happy with that! Now, let’s pick up Michelle and Mr Netanyahu and go out clubbing. I wanna show you DC....’) and cut to the question that I asked – namely, to what end? My query was met with an enigmatic smile. After all, if it’s a conspiracy the whole point is that the little man or woman in the street doesn’t know, so this just goes to prove that it’s a conspiracy. A brilliant, watertight, circular argument if ever there was one.

Second the leaked emails. On this, there is so much to say, and I only said a very small part of it. The most important point, from a public information point of view, however, is this. Should the fact that some academics mishandle a situation, to almost universal condemnation, be accepted as a convincing counterbalance to all the peer-reviewed and verified research out there? Is it enough to do away entirely with the fact that 98% of all climate scientists have an informed belief that climate change is happening, much of it is manmade and if we don’t take action, then the impact on the world, on us and most other species will be dire? If your answer to these questions is yes, then you are looking for a reason to refute the existence of climate change, and sadly this one has fallen into your lap. But if it hadn’t, you would, just as gleefully, have found something else. Since however UEA is the slender hook by which you hang your disbelief and it is therefore critical to understand it, have you researched it? Do you know what was actually said and done?

What I could also have said was – does this mean that every climate scientist or any scientist with any access to research data has not only signed a version of the Official Secrets Act but actually kept completely schtum? And let me see, have there been no leaks at all? Oh, yes, there has been the UEA fandango, but over the last 30 or so years, only one little leak means that someone somewhere is running a pretty tight-lipped campaign which you must admit deserves recognition. Imagine the scene -

‘An MBE for propagating a myth about climate change? Are you sure, Mr Cameron?’

‘Well, he has done enormously well, Your Majesty. Lots of mad greens running about out all over the place, not only hugging trees but having full sex with them.’

‘Yes, I see what you mean, Mr Cameron. Come on corgis, chop chop. Time for a snack with your favourite class A drug mixed in’.

Nobody out there wanting to sell such a jaw dropping story to the press or are all journalists part of this establishment silence as well? Nobody with a conscience, gagging to be a whistleblower? Everyone so convinced or so threatened that the great unwashed need to be kept in stifling ignorance that they just won’t break ranks? No pillow talk?

It’s as if the story of Harry Potter is all true. It’s known at the highest levels, of course, as Dumbledore has a hotline to the prime minister of the day. The difference here is that the population of the Wizarding world are all scientists with a big secret that none of us Muggles should ever know. Not only is there a Ministry for the Suppression of the Truth about Global Warming, but the civil servants in the department have the power to blank out Muggles’ memories when a scientist carelessly lets something slip. Beware the Dark Lord Juniper. Shiver as Draco Attenborough apparates all over the world to show us melting ice caps and warming oceans.

But let’s cut to the bone of this. Fundamentally, I really don’t care if someone disagrees with me about global warming. Despite the passion with which I have argued above, and my fury at the ridiculousness of most of the sceptics’ arguments, I honestly do not. Whilst I can point to evidence that the climate is changing faster than ever before and that it is likely that human activity is contributing to this increased rate of change, I can no more prove to them that it is happening than they can prove to me that it is not. What I am far more interested in is a strategy to manage the risk that it might be happening.

So, finally, these were the questions that I asked. First, are you absolutely sure that climate change is either not happening, or if it is, that we’re not contributing to it? Of course, the answer has to be no.

Secondly, have you ever taken out car insurance? You have. How sensible. Is this because you are definitely going to have an accident or is it because you have taken the rational decision that the future is unpredictable? Why do you take out insurance? Is it so that, if you are unlucky enough to crash, the insurance will minimise the impact of the accident in terms of impact on your time, finances and convenience? It is, of course.

So. We can all waste a lot of time arguing about whether climate change is or isn’t happening. But this is the wrong debate to be having. There is a lot more common ground if we focus on what might happen and build a model to cover as many of the possible effects as we can anticipate. It takes an enormously confident person, or an incredible risk taker not to insure against the possibility of the negative impacts of climate change. Would you trust such a person if your life, or other people’s lives depended on it?

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