Just about any online conversation on climate change, such as today’s story in the Independent that we’re staring at a six degree rise by 2100, rapidly descends into a mud slinging match over the cause of climate change (just look at the comments following the main piece).
In fairness, there probably aren’t that many people out there that deny climate change is really happening. The few high-profile individuals that do are seen by most as the frontsmen of the climate equivalent to the Flat Earth Society: the serious debate isn’t around whether climate change is happening, but what’s causing it.
There is an increasingly vocal group that point to solar activity as the main driver for climate change. The significance of this is that it gets us humans off the hook: if we’re not causing it then it’s just part of the natural way of things and so nothing to worry about. We might still be in for catastrophic changes in species distributions and extinctions, but it’s not our fault and we’re powerless to stop it. Phew.
Contrast that with the suggestion that climate change really is happening because of the fossil carbon and other nasties we’re blasting into the atmosphere. We should do something about it urgently, and that action is going to cost us dear.
Hence the fuss over Copenhagen. Those that buy into the IPCC stance that climate change is driven primarily by human industrial activity see it as a last-gasp chance to put in place the legislative controls to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put the brakes on the runaway climate train. The on/off seesawing of recent weeks has certainly lowered expectations of what might and might not be achieved. For the wider public it will no doubt have raised more questions than it answers, particularly in regard to the question of who should pay, and how much, to put things right.
Something else is happening, too. There’s a palpable sense that people are latching onto denial of a human cause for global warming with some relief. The projections are still scary, but at least we don’t have to deal with the fact that we caused it and, perhaps more importantly, don’t have to suffer the financial and social burdens of constraining climate change to “safe levels”.
Indeed, recent surveys suggest a groundswell of denialism. But what’s driving it? Is it really that so many people have scrupulously analyzed the evidence for and against human-mediated global warming and concluded that, in their scientific opinion, we have no guilt to bear? Or is it that despite there being a substantial body of expert knowledge that clearly shows how our activities do heat the atmosphere, accepting responsibility for it is just too hard to do?
The more zealous campaigners such as Al Gore (whose financial interest in carbon trading hasn’t helped) have probably raised awareness and scepticism in equal measure. But climate change shouldn’t be a matter of opinion driven by celebrity and personality. It should be about assessing the evidence in a dispassionate way and seeking the optimal course of future action, no matter how far it deviates from business as usual.
We should also be aware of the difference between accepting responsibility for climate change and the need to act to protect biodiversity, irrespective of “blame”. The UK is an impoverished place when it comes to trees and woods, and humans were undoubtedly the cause of its deforestation. In an increasingly uncertain future any action taken now to reinforce habitat connectivity will surely be to the benefit of all. And if it turns out that our greenhouse gas emissions are indeed the driver for climate change, we won’t have to apologise to our children for failing to act.