The climate of change

This morning a ten billion dollar bond bailout was anounced for Dubai, to deal with the real estate collapse there. Friday saw the English Prime Minister Brown and French President Sarkozy pledge ten billion dollars in efforts to contain global warming. The cash to bail out Dubai (should it change its name to Don’t Buy?) is coming in steadily, but the pledges dealing with climate change at COP15 are the subject of acrimonious discussion, mayhem in the streets, and much political finesse.

The chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had already complained bitterly that the bank bailout packages put together by various governments after the colapse of Lehman Bros. in September 2008 were far better funded and quicker to assemble than collective measures to reduce CO2 emissions.

Why is the climate change discussion then apparently so challenging?

First, as David Suzuki pointed out in a lecture decades ago, we have an old mind for an old world. This makes us much less sensitive to large scale tragedy on the other side of the planet than to a kid being shot two blocks away. The immense daily death toll from hunger, disease, and war, scything across all ages, leaves the west relatively unmoved. Ordinary citizens have a perception that shifts in weather and climate exist, are impossible to predict with any certainty, and serious concern starts only when lives and property are directly threatened.

 In this case, governments reflect the concerns of citizens in their walk, if not in their talk. If a decision was taken to cut electricity supply for half an hour a day, or television for two hours a day, or to support a growth by two or three points in unemployment due to  a less efficient industry, at the next election the people would vote with their feet. Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this grass-roots view was the peak in oil prices over 2007-2008. The good citizens of Western Europe and the US, confronted with a golden opportunity to limit the use of cars, and make a substantial reduction in carbon emissions, spent instead most of their energy complaining about the high fuel costs. Now that gas prices are way down, not many protests are heard that this encourages profligate pollution.

Marketing hype has also painted everything green. The marketing has moved much faster than the science, and glided in on the wings of western desire for moral solace. Using less resources is a great thing, but as with the TV example (or internet, or many other things) people are only willing to abdicate to a certain degree – the limit to their compromise is the compromise of their lifestyle. If the case was made that cigarettes significantly contribute to global warming (they don’t) would you stop smoking? How about if you were diagnosed with early stage lung cancer? We go where our wind blows us (there’s a vegetarian bovine methane joke in there somewhere).

Speaking of wind, I heard James Lovelock (of Gaia, and less well-known, gas chromatography fame) explain recently that windpower was totally uncompetitive from an economic point of view. And the nuclear discussion is back on the table. Since I come from a generation which grew up with “Atomkraft, nein danke” stickers on the back of VW Beetles, it raises a smile.

Supermarket users are delighted to carry a reusable bag, proudly advertising their environmental credentials, rather than using plastic bags – in parallel they happily buy plastic garbage bags for waste disposal. I prefer to use plastic bags for shopping and re-use them for garbage. I don’t personally understand how I harm the environment that way. There’s always a shortage of plastic bags in the house, so I suspect I am plastic neutral.

In other words, there’s a lot of lip service, but I’m not sure how far real action, which puts its hand deep into your pocket will go. In Michael Lewis’s excellent book “The New New Thing”, a fascinating story of Jim Clark (of Netscape, not Formula 1 fame), the entrepreneur makes an analogy to a breakfast of eggs and bacon. The chicken is interested, the pig is committed. 

Finally a note about the science. There has been a good deal of controversy recently, with rather suspect timing, about scientific “cheating”. The first point is that climate predictions are made using climate models. Weather models don’t work, and “cheating” is done using something called data assimilation. That means that if today you predict the weather in five days time, you improve your forecast tomorrow by updating the model with the real data. Since you have errors every day, your four-day forecast tomorrow will be better than your five-day forecast today.

Climate models make long-term forecasts, using variables considered to be the best for prediction. It is natural that these models have inbuilt uncertainty. It seems reasonable that some people fervently believe them and some don’t. We are, for instance, completely unable to predict when the next El Niño will happen. Those cycles are every seven(ish) years, but not always(ish).

The other huge challenge is that the consequences of change for ecosystems are impossible to predict – think dinosaurs and small hairless mammals (aka humans). Incidentally, one of the theories on dinosaur extinction that was around when I was at school was death by constipation. The animals had been bunged up by the change in diet from ferns to flowering plants. Apparently, this is still being discussed. If true, it certainly redefines the Big Bang.

Are there glaciers melting? Of course. Should we reduce carbon emissions? Of course. Saving resources is always a good thing. But we are all sorcerers’ apprentices with respect to effects. Climate oscillations are exactly that, and setting a target cap of two degrees centigrade does not mean the planet will tamely take two steps and then straighten up and fly right. This is not like a fever which subsides to return you to a stable body temperature. It oscillates. The warming and cooling of the economy is a good metaphor. Let’s see how Dubai deals with this change in climate, and whether it changes its name to Do Sell.

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