Blowing hot and cold on climate change


Climate-change deniers have shifted the international response to global warming. The new plan for humankind is adaptation

IT’S ALL happening in front of our eyes. The US is parched. More than half of its continental land area is affected by moderate to extreme drought after the warmest 12 months since records began, in 1895. The US National Weather Service issued excessive-heat warnings this month for parts of Arizona, Nevada and California: temperatures were forecast to hit 45 degrees in Phoenix, 45.5 degrees in Las Vegas and 51.6 degrees in Death Valley.

In Russia, a state of emergency was declared in the southern towns and cities of Krymsk, Novorossiysk and Gelendzhik after six months’ rain fell on the region in two days, causing devastating floods that killed at least 170 people and led to almost 3,000 being evacuated. On Thursday a report by climate-change strategists at HSBC bank said this extreme weather has “direct implications for agricultural production” and was already being reflected in higher commodity prices; in the US alone, corn production forecasts have been cut by 12.3 per cent.

Closer to home, it was reported that large parts of Cork city are now uninsurable because of the floodings of recent years, the latest at the end of last month. This week the Government approved a €10 million hardship fund for householders affected by the floods.

Although none of this extreme weather can be definitively attributed to global warming, it is all entirely consistent with the predictions of climate scientists going back many years that we would experience increasingly severe weather, including droughts, floods and heatwaves as a result of climate change.

This link is barely acknowledged, especially in the US. “The phrase ‘extreme weather’ flashes across television screens from coast to coast, but its connection to climate change is consistently ignored, if not outright mocked,” says Amy Goodman, an American columnist. As a result, “we may not act in time to avert even greater catastrophe.”

Earlier this month Prof Kevin Leyden of West Virginia University was at a lecture on climate change by the contrarian Dr Stephen Peck, who said it had “everything to do with the cycles of the sun” rather than anything we humans had done or were still doing. This very comforting view is a recipe for business as usual.

“I let him have it, but he said the IPCC” – the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – “is ‘full of priests’ etc,” says Leyden. “Turns out that most of the crowd were sympathetic to the ‘natural causes’ theory and [think] that we can wait and see if the ‘doomsayers’ are right – and then we can work on adaptation.”

Much of the media has turned off the issue, even though it must be seen as the greatest single threat facing life on Earth. But concentrating on the consequences by calling for more flood defences, for example, while we get on with our gas-guzzling lives is a refusal to face the reality that the way we live is part of the problem.

The precautionary principle alone should dictate the urgency of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. So should the UK’s landmark Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, from 2006, which concluded that the cost of acting now would be relatively affordable compared to responding in the future.

TWENTY YEARS AGO,amid the optimism and camaraderie of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, we all thought climate change was a distant threat, something our grandchildren would have to confront. But even as the evidence that it’s already upon us has hardened, it has been greeted perversely with scepticism and denial.

There is no doubt that climate-change denial has grown, infecting the corridors of power and inhibiting action by manufacturing doubt and seeking to reposition global warming as theory rather than fact, just as the tobacco lobby sought to discredit the link between smoking and cancer.

It has been particularly virulent and effective in the United States. A leaked 1998 memo showed that the American Petroleum Institute planned to “recruit a cadre of scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science and to train them in public relations so they can help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases”.

This has taken its toll on public opinion, as shown by a survey in 2009 that found 54 per cent of American voters believed “the news media make global warming appear worse than it is”, while 59 per cent suspected that some scientists “falsified research data” to support their case; admittedly, this was in the aftermath of the “Climategate” controversy surrounding leaked emails showing scientists disagreeing over the interpretation of data.

Most people and many governments, including our own, are preoccupied with economic issues, particularly the financial crisis, and haven’t time to think about the longer-term threats posed by climate change.They either don’t know or have forgotten that the economy is merely a division of the biosphere, not the other way around.

POLITICAL COMPLACENCYin the face of these threats was on parade at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro last month, as one “world leader” after another mounted the podium to deliver pro-forma speeches and then sign a largely anodyne declaration – agreed in advance – shamelessly entitled The Future We Want.

According to the Guardian columnist George Monbiot, what happened at Rio+20 was “the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first World War. The earth’s living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations – the US, the UK, Germany, Russia – could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it.”

The chances of limiting the rise in average global temperatures to 2 degrees – a goal agreed by delegates at the UN’s 16th annual climate-change conference, in Mexico in December 2010 – are “getting slimmer and slimmer”, according to Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency’s chief economist.

Although 2 degrees seems very small, it’s equivalent to the difference in temperature between the last Ice Age and the present day.

Yet even if all the right policies were put in place, it seems fatuous to imagine that we could achieve this goal: the climate system is very complex and can’t be turned on and off like a tap.

Delegates representing 190 countries will convene in Doha, in Qatar, in late November for the UN’s 18th climate-change conference, after a preliminary meeting in Bangkok next month. But don’t hold your breath. Based on previous experience, Doha promises little in terms of real commitments for global action.

One chink of light, overshadowed by the US supreme court’s ruling on Obamacare, was a landmark decision on June 27th by the US court of appeals in Washington DC to reject four lawsuits challenging the authority of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon emissions from cars, trucks and coal-burning power plants.

To the fury of climate-change deniers, the court ruled that the EPA’s interpretation of the US Clean Air Act to set limits on carbon emissions, on the basis that they endanger public health and welfare by contributing to global warming, was “unambiguously correct” and “neither arbitrary nor capricious”. For once, reason prevailed.

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