Am I a Mad Doomster? Raving I hope (ii) Wrong Questions
We are confused about climate change partly because the questions that might seem the obvious ones to ask in fact are not. Of these there are two in particular. The first is: is it the case scientifically that global warming is a significant man-made problem? This would seem to be absolutely crucial, for all depends on the science. But the problem here is that scientists make discoveries through the rigour of scientific method: unprejudiced gathering of data, experiment, logical deduction and peer review. Global warming does not lend itself easily to this process of enquiry. This is partly because the subject is so complex. So entangled are the interactions of eccentricities in the earth’s orbits round the sun, the movements of ocean currents and changes in the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, it requires computers to work them out. But computers can only do what computers can do. Are even the most advanced computers that we have today up to the job? Computer predictions do not have the same credibility as experimental data. A second problem is that the feared consequences of climate change are largely in the future. Again, scientists are dependent on computer simulations of possible scenarios. Experiments on the future are not possible. This is why even the I.P.C.C. are only prepared to say that they are 95% certain that global warming is a consequence of human activity. But 95% is not the same as 100% and not good enough for the most rigorous scientists. Who knows what information there is yet to be revealed that would swell that 5% of doubt to something much larger? This is why you can find excellent scientists in pretty well every field of global warming studies who are not prepared to say that climate change is undoubtedly a consequence of human activity. If we ask a purely scientific question in the form of ‘can we be absolutely certain that global warming is a consequence of human activity?’ the answer has to be no.
A second question that seems to be the obvious one to ask but misleads us is: ‘is all this carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere thickening the blanket of carbon round the earth, thus strengthening the greenhouse effect and so causing global warming?‘ Everybody has heard of the greenhouse effect, and it is in this form that the public generally perceive the question. Again, if the question is put like this the answer has to be no. Compared with the amount of carbon that nature itself is pouring into the atmosphere every day our contribution is minuscule. Every organism that dies surrenders its carbon debt. We are not emitting so much carbon it is preventing warm air escaping into the outer atmosphere. The problem is a different one. Nature balances its huge emissions of carbon by cooling mechanisms that almost, but not quite, neutralize the effects. Almost miraculously, it would seem, that ‘not quite‘ has kept the earth warm enough for life for millions of years.
These cooling mechanisms are primarily three: trees and ocean micro-organisms together with polar ice that reflects the sun’s rays back into space. What we are doing is disabling the cooling mechanisms. The carbon we emit is not creating a thick blanket round the earth but it is having a disproportionate effect at the poles. This is why polar ice is melting at such an alarming rate. We are tearing down the rain forests and excess carbon is poisoning the oceans. The danger is not that we are directly causing global warming, but that we are unleashing natural forces that will do it on a far vaster scale than anything we could ever hope to achieve. Nor is it simply that we are disabling the cooling mechanisms and no more. Once disabled they do not just cease functioning, they turn turtle and actually start enhancing the processes that they had hitherto been holding back. Every tree that burns not only ceases to store carbon, it releases its already stored carbon into the atmosphere. The same is true of ocean algae. Ice that melts does not simply stop reflecting the sun’s rays. It turns into water that absorbs and then releases heat. This process of reversing is even worse. Every tree that catches fire makes the atmosphere that much warmer which means that next year even more trees catch fire, and so on in an ever escalating spiral. What happens at the poles has a disproportionate effect on the rest of the earth. As melting ice stops holding back the warming of the earth, the increased warmth feeds back and so causes even more ice to melt. It is this process of galloping feedback, runaway global warming, that the scientists fear. For decades it has been thought that there was no possibility of this happening until the temperature reached two degrees above pre-industrial levels, and no possibility of that happening until carbon atoms reached 400 parts per million in the atmosphere. The very earliest this process could begin, it was thought, was 2015. In fact, we have already passed 400 ppm in May 2013. But once again scientific method works to obscure the issue. The effects of this increase in emissions will not be manifest for another thirty years, so it is not possible until then to see whether the theory of all this can be observed in practice. But by then, many scientists fear, it will be too late.
We are asking the wrong questions. The real issues are not ultimately scientific ones, although they arise from the findings of science, but moral and practical. Suppose ten fire experts came to see you and nine told you that your house was unsafe and it was not at all unlikely that you and your children would be burnt to death one night, while the tenth thought the danger greatly exaggerated and advised inaction. The tenth might be right. But what responsible parent, himself knowing little of fire science, would disbelieve the nine? Or suppose that you had booked a holiday for you and your child in a foreign country. Then there is a cholera outbreak, although it might not reach the region you are proposing to visit. There is a grave danger of civil war breaking out, although it might not. There has been a marked increase in kidnappings, although not everybody gets kidnapped and it might or might not happen to you. The airlines have gone on strike but there is a marginal possibility that the dispute may have been settled by the time you propose to fly. None of these eventualities might come to pass, but would you take your child on holiday? Of course you would not. Strictly speaking, very strictly speaking, the widespread public scepticism about climate change is defensible. But morally and practically we are ducking the issue almost entirely.