18 July 2008

Climate change: The state of play

The upcoming years promise to be challenging for all. The problems humankind faces are many. Global economic meltdown , food shortages and peak oil are but three of the (interrelated) problems we face. But most serious problems -- threatening not just the social fabric but the very means of our existence --are the myriad environmental issues we face, including (but not limited to) anthropogenic climate change.

Unfortunately many seem to doubt the reality of this fact. The skeptics, deniers, delayers, inactivists -- call them what you will -- are numerous, outspoken and seemingly appear to be achieving their goal preventing meaningful action in addressing these issues. They operate through misleading statistics, a twisting of the facts and observations and ad hominem attacks* on persons attempting to illuminate these issues. Willful ignorance and viewing the world through an ideological lens appears to be the order of the day.

How do we know climate change is happening? There are many ways to examine this question. The most common method is through use of a globally-averaged temperature, As discussed in a previous post, this unambiguously shows a long-term upward trend, apparent since the mid-70s.

Unfortunately, people tend to focus on the short-term weather noise and so 'don't see the forest for the trees'. Or they deny that CO2 really does absorb (and emit) IR radiation, minimizing the effects of humanity's contribution to the composition of the atmosphere (even without the warming, the addition of CO2 is probably not a good thing). Or they blame the Sun or natural variability, all of which have been considered by climate scientists. These effects aren't zero, but they aren't large enough to explain the observed rises, either. And there are, without a doubt, genuine data quality issues, but again not large enough to explain the temperature rise.

There are perhaps better ways to spread the message. I try to do this here at planet doom? By using observations of changes occurring in the natural world: to animals and/or ecosystems. Many scientists do this more rigorously, but their results don't appear to be widely publicized or promoted. There's lot happening that is unprecedented and this provides very strong evidence of climate change.

Perhaps we should ask the indigenous people of the world, who are more attuned to the natural world and remain closer to their traditional ways of life. Are the people of small island nations (like the Maldives or Kiribiti) confused as their homes disappear into the sea, a result of warmer temperatures and rising sea levels? Are the Inuit mistaken as they lose their way of life as a result of the massive changes to Arctic? What about observations from all over Africa?

These issues are real, and the time for acting on solutions is now. But for these solutions to happens we not only need (metaphorically speaking) to be on the same page, but reading from the same book! It is time to accept our responsibility for these issues (particularly those of us in the Global North).

But there are no 'magic bullets'. There is not one simple solution to all of our climate change and other environmental woes (nor to our economic, food or energy crises either, for that matter...). Radical shifts in society, occurring over several generations, will be required. New ways of thinking and living are needed.

Realistically, the adult generations of today are going to be unable to fully accommodate these changes required; our worldview is too ingrained to be changed easily with much success. Too much change in too short of a time results in paralysis and future shock. The best we can hope for at this point is to begin this long process: put a price on carbon and other environmental 'externalities'; seek out alternative energy sources and embrace energy efficiency and conservation measures. We also must avoid apocalyptic thinking. The most important step is to inculcate an awareness of environmental thinking and lifestyle into the youth (both alive and unborn) of today. These are the best steps to insure future generations.

In some ways, the 21st century hasn't begun yet. Sure the numbers have ticked over, but globally we remain mired in 'twen-cen' modes of thought. Old paradigms die hard, and it will probably take a Cataclysm – an environmental disaster of unprecedented magnitude – to fully shake of these outdated modes of thought. We can wish otherwise, but many of the current doubters will remain unconvinced until it is no longer possible to believe otherwise.

These doubters don't have a complete hold on the world, though. Some nations** are making the effort to move into the 21st century. K-Rudd is calling for the adaption of an CO2 emissions trading scheme here in Australia, tentatively to begin in 2010. Many are opposed because it will 'destroy the economy' (like that isn't happening already?) and many only see the flaws in it. Given the size of Australia's population, the scheme won't 'save the world'. That is not the reason it needs to be adopted, though. Rather, it's about leadership. The countries that can break the old modes of thought will be leaders in the future. This scheme may be (and most likely will be) imperfect...these things can be fixed in the future (according to the plan, it will be reviewed in 2013...). Will it be enough? Unlikely, but it is a start.


*Unfortunately, this tactic is used by all sides of the debate. For my taste, too many climate/environment blogs revolve around the people and politics rather than the issues at hand, with many comments threads (and the posts themselves) rapidly devolving in to mud-slinging and personality conflicts.

** The European Union also has a multi-national trading scheme for CO2. The US tried, albeit unsuccessfully. Maybe after 'the world's biggest polluter' and his Congressional cohorts are gone...

Image: The Age

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