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Septic spread of scepticism

February 15, 2010

Perhaps the “pathetic” response of world leaders to the challenge of Copenhagen was what sowed seeds of doubt in people’s minds about the urgency of the climate threat we face. Scientists, politicians, the media, celebrities all got people keyed up about the importance of Copenhagen, so the damp squib meeting that went nowhere was a bit of an anticlimax to say the least.

Or maybe it’s the inclusion (not in the IPCC’s scientific findings and climate data material, but in a report on impacts of warming) of an erroneous claim that the Himalayan glaciers could entirely melt by 2035, that make people question the broader climate change predictions. Or the humiliating and ongoing public relations disaster for climate scientists at UEA, whose hacked emails reveal a less than professional handling of the (admittedly stressful) position of being besieged by irritating, time-wasting climate deniers while trying to process enormous amounts of important data to a deadline?

Perhaps, being waist deep in the thick soup of a recession makes people less inclined to listen to more doomsday scenarios. Or maybe it’s down to the freakily cold weather in the northern hemisphere that makes people forget that the past decade has been bizarrely warm.

Whatever the reason, there’s a growing presence of climate change scepticism/denial led by a few PR-savvy individuals who’ve seen their opportunity to sway public opinion and grabbed it.

I’m in Sydney at the moment, where Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was elected, in part, for his promise (after a decade-long drought in Australia) to act on carbon emissions, is now finding his emissions trading scheme policies unpopular with the electorate. These are policies, mind you, that “strain credulity” in terms of meeting their ambitious targets, requiring “Herculean” efforts, according to Roger Pielke’s assessment.

Still, most people I speak to in Sydney seem to be of the impression that climate change is a giant unproven conspiracy to steal away their money and stop them having fun. It doesn’t help that some of the steps people have taken towards reducing emissions are now in the news for the wrong reasons. A government-backed programme to insulate homes using a foil lining in the roof has caused several electrocutions and fire-related deaths when the foil has been in contact with live wires. The programme has been stopped while homes are checked. And then, for the more wealthy ‘greenies’, there’s the Toyota Prius dodgy accelerator issue.

It’s not just down here that sceptics are gaining ground. A recent BBC poll of 1000 British people found one-quarter of them don’t believe in global warming – a 10% rise since a November poll.

And climate deniers are making subtle inroads elsewhere. This week’s UK Sunday Times – let’s remember that this was the paper that for years insisted that HIV did not cause Aids – carries a headline “World may not be warming, say scientists“. The article is points out that some of the world’s weather stations have seen changes to their local environment, such as construction of buildings nearby, that artificially boost their temperature measurements. This has been accepted and known about for some time. The Sunday times is not revealing anything new here. Our knowledge about the extent of global warming comes from a variety of other sources including satellite data and physical changes such as sea ice melt.

Newspapers need to make money with exciting headlines. But why on earth is the UK’s Energy Institute tomorrow giving sole platform – not even a debate – to a climate sceptic? I thought we’d got past that level of engagement with the issue 5 years ago.

Climate change is a political issue. While developed nations are currently leaning towards climate scepticism, poorer nations are doing the exact opposite, and not necessarily being scientific about it. And that’s my biggest gripe. I have no problem with people having different opinions over what to do about the issue, but the science of global warming – how our carbon emissions bounce heat back to the earth’s surface, and why producing fewer of these molecules will reduce the warming – is not a matter of opinion, it is provable through simple high-school chemistry.

Perhaps this is why, although I have always found IPCC chair (and romantic novelist) Rajendra Pachauri charming during my encounters with him, his political views on climate change do not sit comfortably with his Nobel Prize-winning role as chair of the scientific body whose reports governments are supposed to endorse. His opinion that the nation with soon the world’s largest population should not cap their emissions – for whatever laudable socio-economic reason – do not square with the IPCC’s assessment that humans are causing the planet to warm by polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Just as there’s no such thing as ‘good Aids’ and ‘bad Aids’, there is no ‘good carbon’ or ‘bad carbon’ – it’s just an element that we need to emit less of.

If there is a reason to smile at all in this depressing return to the dark ages of climate change denial, perhaps it’s in the tickle that even Bin Laden has felt the need to weigh in on the stupidity of Western leaders’ failure to act on the issue.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. klem permalink
    February 15, 2010 8:17 pm

    “Whatever the reason, there’s a growing presence of climate change scepticism/denial led by a few PR-savvy individuals”

    It may be led by a few PR-savvy individuals but there is a strong majority of the public who now don’t believe in AGW. They know that the earth’s climate changes whether humans are around or not. They know that there WAS a 1000 year warm period back during midevil times. They know that CO2 represents only 1/28th of 1% of the air, and that the earth produces 33 times more CO2 than all of humanity combined, EVERY YEAR. They also know that there is a 600 year lag between historic temperature changes and historic CO2 changes(when it should be the other way round). They know that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that Copenhagen would be the beginning of a new world government. They also know that there is alot of carbon money to be made off the backs of the average person. They also know that when carbon control is established it will be impossible to dismantle. So yes, there is a growing presence of skepticism, and no wonder.

    • Gaia permalink*
      February 16, 2010 12:18 am

      Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from whatever source has a warming, ‘greenhouse’ effect. Without this effect Earth would be too cold to sustain life. But in recent years, humans have been putting enough carbon into the atmosphere to cause the planet to warm up. As we’ve seen from the Earth’s past warming events, which have occurred without human interference, significantly warming (or cooling) the planet leads to great loss of life and extinctions. It is very difficult to do anything about the massive amounts of carbon that is released into the atmosphere through natural processes, but we CAN do something about the proportion of carbon that humans are adding.

      This past year, I have met many people who are being directly impacted by the consequences of global warming, during my journey through the developing world. These people have seen their crops fail, their houses inundated by sea-level rise and their children and animals starve. They do not need convincing that the climate is changing. They don’t want to live like this.

  2. attila permalink
    February 16, 2010 9:29 am

    No no no. It is wrong! The Earth produces so much LESS CO2 than the humans. For instance, many people are blaming the volcanoes. But the volcanoes are emitting less than 1% of the humans:
    http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/volcanowatch/2007/07_02_15.html

  3. attila permalink
    February 17, 2010 10:04 pm

    Of course, I forget to say: the volcanoes are emitting much material to reflecting sunlight away, so volcanoes are actually precisely cooling Earth, even although they are in a year emitting 200 million tonnes of CO2.

    Also, even if were correct that the humans are emitting less than the nature, so what, if the small amount makes unbalance? If you have a bath with water running in and out (the plug is leaking) and at a steady height, and then you increase just a little bit the water running in, you will see that the bathwater will slowly slowly climb until it goes on the floor. This we do not want for the Earth!

  4. February 18, 2010 6:54 am

    The problem with global warming, and climatology at large, is that they are both based on chaos theory, owing to the complexity of the systems they aim to understand. This led to the famous utterance that a butterfly wafting somewhere on earth can result in a change on a much larger scale thousands of miles away therefrom. No doubt, the scientists in the global warming party, particularly those involved in the recent “climategate” scandal, must be living with this, however tiny, nagging feeling of uncertainty. It is merely to do with being human that some of them tried to smother evidence that global warming is not a threat. While I understand it is vital that developing countries do their best not to jeopardize their economies, what I am at a loss to understand is why global warming sceptics do not state it clearly that, even assuming for the sake of argument that global warming is not an immediate threat, nobody gives us the right to recklessly exploit our planet and dump waste into its seas, rivers and atmosphere on such a scale that, based on scientific evidence, is having harmful consequences for natural systems.

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