Friday, 29 January 2010

Climate Change Science

Deforestation in Brazil

The inevitable backlash against climate change is gathering pace. First we had the revelations about exaggeration and bias in research on climate science from the University of East Anglia, then the disappointment of Copenhagen and now even more pressure on UEA about withholding emails and contravening the freedom of information act. Suddenly a cloud of suspicion is cast over all the science that so many have taken to be the incontrovertible evidence that the earth is warming and we are heading for disaster. The widely perceived failure of Copenhagen showed that the governments of the world could not agree on something they all say is of vital importance - so maybe it isn't? Perhaps the whole thing is hyped up?

Ever since I began to think about environmental issues I have worried about the intense concentration on a single issue, big as it is. Concern for global warming has taken such a precedence that it has dominated environmental news and the concerns of government and civil society alike. It is as if climate change=the environment.

Obviously a change in behaviour such as recycling and so on is excellent in many ways because our profligate western lifestyle has to change - but there is a huge negative side to seeing care for the earth as a single issue based on how much CO2 we emit.

A total consensus on any single concern is rare, but when that issue involves changing the economy, the balance between north and south and a huge shift in industrial and domestic energy use, then it is bound to create division. Vested interests become a driving force, camps for and against vie for column inches and attention and every aspect of the issue comes under scrutiny. And when the outcome of a warming earth is portrayed as utter catastrophe then those of us in the middle will, not surprisingly, find comfort in any doubts raised.

The main problem now is that because climate change is "the environment" it will become very much more difficult to raise concerns for other environmental issues if it is dismissed as mass fraud.

This was all so inevitable and all very depressing.

I don't know about the University of East Anglia and what it did and didn't do, but hopefully the legal process will sort that out. If it acted improperly then I hope those culprits are punished. But what I dread is that the dust thrown into the air about climate change will turn people away from the wider picture - that we misuse the earth on many levels, not just the amount of CO2 we produce - and that we have to change to put right what is going wrong.

Over fishing isn't to do with climate change, destroying habitats, degrading soils, pulling down forests to replace them with monoculture isn't to do with climate change. Putting pollutants in the fresh water systems and the oceans isn't climate change and building dams across most of the rivers of the world isn't climate change. Building on greenbelt, pulling down hedgerows, using large amounts of pesticides, concreting over wetlands isn't climate change. All of these do immense harm, wipe out species and degrade our earth. The effect of continuing to ravage the earth will be lack of fresh water for all, difficulty in producing food, a depleted ocean (and therefore fish to eat) and unknown problems with access to new medicines. We will not be able to pollinate plants or cleanse water - or carry out the many other "eco-system services" that we take for granted and that are provided free of charge by the earth.

E.O Wilson, the great Harvard biologist, talks about the evolution of the earth seeing the end of the age of the fish, then the end of the age of the reptiles and now we are now coming to the end of the age of mammals and entering the age of loneliness. We will live in an impoverished world where only humans relying on science and technology and a few scavengers will survive.

There is so much to care about and so much we have to do to change our perception of what the earth is for. Even if the climate change scientists have exaggerated, even if glaciers take a hundred years to melt not fifty and so on, we still have to change our lifestyles, reduce our consumption and undergo a dramatic change of heart, because all environmental issues depend on us reducing our assault on the ecosystems and resources of the earth.

And as for unscrupulous science - there have always been unscrupulous scientists, as we have seen with the MMR fiasco, but simply because some are charlatans doesn't make all medical research suspect and wrong. It is the same for climate change science.

I hope we won't be put off course by this worry over East Anglia and I hope we keep our eye firmly on the ball. Concern for the earth is not just acting on climate change, it is much, much more than that.


  1. I want to respond to this and have been trying to think of something to say - all I can come up with is that I agree absolutely and it is good to know that there are other people who feel the same way I do.

  2. Thanks Gill, I'm glad you agree.