GOODBYE, KIND WORLD
People choose to believe those who deny climate
change because the truth is less convenient to accept
By George Monbiot
THE GUARDIAN, LONDON
Sunday, Aug 15, 2004,
"We live," the cover story of the current Spectator tells us, "in the
happiest, healthiest and most peaceful era in human history." And who in the
rich world would dare to deny it? The aristocrats, the cardinals, Prince
Charles, the National Front, perhaps: those, in other words, whose former social
dominance has been usurped by the times.
But the rest of us? Step forward the man or woman who would exchange modern
medicine for the leech, sewage systems for the gutter, the washing machine for
the wringer, the EU for European wars, relative democracy for absolute monarchy.
Not many takers.
But the party is over. In 2,000 words, the Spectator provides plenty
of evidence to support its first contention: "Now is good." It provides none to
support its second: "The future will be better."
Let me lay before you two lines of evidence. The first is that we are living
off the political capital accumulated by previous generations, and that this
capital is almost spent.
The massive redistribution which raised the living standards of the working
class after the New Deal and World War II is over. Inequality is rising almost
everywhere, and the result is a global resource-grab by the rich. The entire
land mass of Britain, Europe and the US is being re-engineered to accommodate
the upper classes. They are buying second and third homes where others have
none. Playing fields are being replaced with health clubs, public transport
budgets with subsidies for roads and airports. Inequality of outcome, in other
words, leads inexorably to inequality of opportunity.
But this problem doesn't compares to a second problem: the threat of climate
change. In common with all those generations which have contemplated
catastrophe, we appear to be incapable of understanding what confronts us.
Three wholly unexpected sets of findings now suggest that the problem could
be much graver than anyone had imagined. Work by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen
suggests that the screening effect produced by particles of soot and smoke in
the atmosphere is stronger than climatologists thought; one variety of
human-made filth, in other words, has been protecting us from the effects of
another. As ancient smokestacks are closed down or replaced with cleaner
technologies, climate change, paradoxically, will intensify.
At the same time, rising levels of carbon dioxide appear to be breaking down
the world's peat bogs. Research by Chris Freeman at the University of Bangor
shows that the gas stimulates bacteria that dissolve the peat.
Peat bogs are more or less solid carbon. When they go into solution the
carbon turns into carbon dioxide, which in turn dissolves more peat. The bogs of
Europe, Siberia and North America, the New Scientist reports, contain the
equivalent of 70 years of global industrial carbon emissions.
Worse still are the possible effects of changes in cloud cover. Until
recently, climatologists assumed that because higher temperatures would raise
the rate of evaporation, more clouds would form. By blocking some of the heat
from the sun, they would reduce the rate of global warming.
But now it seems that higher temperatures may instead burn off the clouds.
Research by Bruce Wielicki of NASA suggests that some parts of the tropics are
already less cloudy than they were in the 1980s.
The result of all this is that the maximum temperature rise proposed by the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2001 may be a grave underestimate.
Rather than a possible 5.8 degrees of warming this century, we could be looking
at a maximum of 10 or 12. Goodbye, kind world.
Like every impending disaster (think of the rise of Hitler or the fall of
Rome), this one has generated a voluble industry of denial. Few people are now
foolish enough to claim that human-caused climate change isn't happening at all,
but the few are still granted plenty of scope to make idiots of themselves in
public. Last month they were joined by the former environmentalist David
Writing in the Daily Mail, Bellamy asserted that "the link between the
burning of fossil fuels and global warming is a myth." Like almost all the
climate change deniers, he based his claim on a petition produced in 1998 by the
Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and "signed by over 18,000 scientists."
Had Bellamy studied the signatories, he would have discovered that the
"scientists" included Ginger Spice and the cast of MASH. The Oregon Institute is
run by a fundamentalist Christian called Arthur Robinson. Its petition was
attached to what purported to be a scientific paper, printed in the font and
format of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In fact, the paper had not been peer-reviewed or published in any scientific
journal. Anyone could sign the petition, and anyone did; only a handful of the
signatories are experts in climatology, and quite a few of them appear to have
believed that they were signing a genuine paper. And yet, six years later, this
petition is still being wheeled out to suggest that climatologists say global
warming isn't happening.
But most of those who urge inaction have given up denying the science, and
now seek instead to suggest that climate change is taking place, but it's no big
deal. Their champion is the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg. Writing in the Times in May, Lomborg claimed to have calculated that global warming will
cause $5 trillion of damage, and would cost $4 trillion to ameliorate. The
money, he insisted, would be better spent elsewhere.
The idea that we can attach a single, meaningful figure to the costs incurred
by global warming is laughable. Climate change is a non-linear process, whose
likely impacts cannot be totted up like the expenses for an outing to the
seaside. Even those outcomes we can predict are impossible to know the cost of.
We now know, for example, that the Himalayan glaciers that feed the Ganges,
Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze and other great Asian rivers are likely to
disappear within 40 years. If these rivers dry up during the irrigation season,
then the rice production which currently feeds over one-third of humanity
collapses, and the world goes into net food deficit.
If Lomborg believes he can put a price on that, he has plainly spent too much
of his life with his calculator and not enough with human beings. But people
listen to this nonsense because the alternative is to accept what no one wants
We live in the happiest, healthiest and most peaceful era in human history.
And it will not last long.