Friday 25 June 2010

Weathering the weather

In many ways, I wasn't overly surprised a week or so ago to find that the proportion of people who don't believe that man-made climate change is either happening or is a problem has increased. The controversy over the leaked e-mails didn't help, but there are a number of deeper issues as well.

1. There is a general lack of understanding about the difference between weather and climate. Many climate change campaigners haven't really helped by drawing attention to weather events as evidence for climate change. There were always going to be weather events which sceptics could then use against them.

2. Humans are, in general, not very good at thinking about the longer term impact of their behaviour. Evolution has fitted us well to look for immediate individual survival, but not for collective species survival. We have an innate tendency towards short termism. Those who will suffer short term economic disadvantage by any proposed measures have a natural inbuilt propensity to be willing to believe whatever justifies their own decisions as well.

3. The internet makes it easy to spread 'junk science' and plain old fashioned error. Repetition can give that a credibility which is wholly undeserved.

4. Climate change is complex. It depends on understanding probabilities rather then certainties. Lack of certainty can easily become lack of good reason to act.

5. Politicians have an electoral incentive to avoid giving people really bad news about changes that we need to make unless and until they can all agree to say the same thing (or until hell freezes over, a rather likelier event) for fear that another politician or party will give a message which people might prefer to hear.

6. Large companies and organisations most threatened by climate change have the muscle and the money to fund 'research' which 'proves' that there is no problem.

When asked, at a hustings meeting during the last election, whether I am an optimist or a pessimist on climate change, I replied that I am a pessimist. Not because I believe that we can't do enough to avoid the problem, but because I believe that we probably won't. That isn't a reason to give up trying though.

I've long been convinced that the biggest single change that we can make is in our use of, and our sourcing of, energy. It's easier (or maybe just less difficult) to convince people that we should switch to renewable sources than it is to talk about lifestyle changes. Perhaps we should try and concentrate the argument more tightly on that main issue.

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