“Climate change” has become one of the dominant rhetorics of the early 21st century. It is “politically correct”, and is widely seen as the major threat facing human society. The failure of the UN Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen last year is thus bemoaned as being a tragedy. Perhaps, though, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on some of the über-hype associated with the notion of “climate change”. To be sure, the impact of human occupation of the earth, and our associated despoliation of many aspects of the physical world in which we live, should rightly give cause for concern. Likewise, we should clearly seek to limit the amount of pollution of all sorts that we generate. However, I believe strongly that much of the debate and argument, particularly in the popular and populist media, is misplaced. Six issues seem to me to be highly problematic:
- First, it is absolutely essential that we differentiate between “human induced climate change” and “climate change”. The latter has occurred long before hominids walked the earth; the former has existed in some form ever since “humans” began making changes to the environments in which they live. Yes, the amount of human influence has increased enormously over the last two centuries – but that largely reflects the increasing number of people living on the planet. The important point to note here is that climate has changed very significantly over recent millennia – even without substantial human interference. The term “climate change” has generally now become all encompassing, so that in the popular imagination all climate change is seen as being human induced – this is highly problematic.
- Second, in the past, humans have adapted to changes in the climate in many ways. The glacial and interglacial periods of the Quaternary have been associated with extensive global changes in flora and fauna, and early humans had to migrate in order to survive. Indeed, for much of history, periods of climate change have been associated with human movement. Perhaps the fundamental challenge of contemporary climate change (including both human-induced and natural change) is that our political, social and economic systems are not geared up to cater for the mass population movements that have been the human response to climate change in the past. We are not going to be able to make substantial changes to the physical aspects of climate change in the short term; let us then adapt our “human” systems better to manage the resultant demographic movements that must happen. We need to be placing even more research emphasis on these social, political and economic processes, and perhaps less on the physical sciences associated with climate change. If we do not, the potential for violent conflicts, as vast numbers of people seek to leave lands increasingly subject to flooding or desiccation, will be huge. We need to plan now for very large populations of people to move from one part of the world to another.
- Third, far too much of the focus of the climate change debate has been about the adverse effects of climate change. Yes, it is very concerning that our species is having such an impact on the climate – but just as some parts of the world are going to become less inhabitable, others are going to become more hospitable to human occupation. Far too little research has yet been done on the potential positive impacts of climate change. Will vast new areas of the globe become available for food production? Where will be the most desirable place to live in 200 years time? There are even those who suggest that human induced global warming over the last millennium may actually have prevented (or delayed) the descent into a very much colder climate when ice sheets would once again have covered many cities nearer the poles. It is an interesting question to ponder whether we would prefer climate warming or climate cooling?
- Fourth, I have huge concerns about the amount of money that has been directed towards “scientific” research on climate change, at the expense of other equally (if not more) important research. Climate change scientists have been very successful in gaining the political limelight, and redirecting enormous sums of money to their institutes. Indeed, it is often said that during the first decade of the 21st century, you more or less had to mention climate change in any scientific grant application, at least in the field of the earth sciences, if you were to have a hope of getting funded! This distortion of scientific enquiry has been highly damaging to the interests of other aspects of science. The recent controversies (e-mail leaks in November 2009, “errors” over Himalayan glaciers, “errors” in Amazon data) over the actual basis of some of the “science”, are just one part of this issue – science is not, and never has been, value free. Those involved in climate change research have a range of very specific interests and agendas that influence their work.
- Fifth, there have likewise been numerous interests involved in the agendas of gatherings such as the Copenhagen Summit. Primarily, these have been driven by those who have something to gain from reaching a “global agreement”. Fundamentally, most people involved in these discussions want to reach a solution that will not lead to a dramatic change in their lifestyles. They want to find new ways of generating “clean” energy, so that they can continue to consume; they want to reap greater profits from carbon trading. We have to stop living in this fool’s paradise. If we are really sincere about reducing “adverse” human impact on the globe, we need a fundamental change of lifestyles. The voices of radical opposition movements to such global summits do need to be listened to.
- Sixth, quite simple changes to our lifestyles can have a major impact on the amount of energy we use, and thus in the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere. Simply constructing buildings with thicker walls and better ventilation systems could dramatically reduce the energy demands of air conditioners and heating systems, but we continue to build energy inefficient constructions across the world. Wearing warmer clothes in cool climates, recycling much more of our waste, switching off equipment when not in use… All of these can make a difference. But most of us are not prepared to do this. Why?
I wonder, somewhat paradoxically, if our fetish about human induced climate change may not actually reflect a deep desire in people to be “in control” of “nature”. If we say that we are responsible for “climate change” that implies we have control over it – but as the tragic earthquake in Haiti so clearly demonstrates, “nature” has a nasty habit of reminding us that actually we may not be as all powerful as some of us may like to think. Ultimately, does it really matter if the human race goes the way of the dinosaurs? If so, why, and what should we seek to do about it?