Confessions of a Failed Climate Change Sceptic

Caution: it’s raining and I haven’t been out of the house all day, so this is a bit of a long ranty post that’s been rattling round my head for some time. I also have a feeling I’m going to regret this…

There was a time, back in January, when I started to wonder just what I was doing bothering with initiatives like 1010. Copenhagen had collapsed into acrimony, and it seemed that we weren’t even going to get a bad deal, let alone one that was going to save the planet from a 2°C rise in temperature. We’d been told in the run up that this was it, our last chance to save the planet but when the politicians duly didn’t save it, the response from everyone seemed to be one giant shrug. Where were the demonstrations on the streets, the rising sense of panic, the mass buying of sandbags against the coming floods, the stockpiling of bottled water? We were all too busy worrying about the big freeze and stockpiling salt instead.

So I began to reappraise. I wasn’t, personally, going to save the planet, even if I just lay down in a darkened room to die, breathing as shallowly as possible. The politicians weren’t going to save the planet – in fact, Copenhagen had shown that, with unusual honesty, they weren’t even going to pretend to save the planet. There was one tactic left: denial. After all, we were going through the coldest winter since the history of time, probably. And suddenly the news was full of dodgy climate scientists and dodgy climate dossiers. Maybe I had been brainwashed by reading the Guardian and listening to those damn green-pinkos (beigeos?) on the BBC. Assuming that they were both part of some vast conspiracy to make everyone give up driving and take up yoghurt whittling (and you know that makes sense), on what other evidence was I, personally, basing my belief in the need to cut CO2 emissions?

Well, it was this:

1. Back when I was doing my Geography O’Grade (and yes, that is a long time ago) my geography teacher Mr Mitchell explained about greenhouse gases and how they were heating up the planet. It made sense to me at the time, and Snitch was never, never wrong, except in his claim that Prestwick Airport was Fog Free. If greenhouse gases weren’t a problem then what else was up for debate? Tectonic plate theory? Latitudes and Longitudes? The world might, literally, be turned upside down.

2. I worked with a lot of scientists, not climate scientists admittedly, but biologists and ecologists and not one of them was anything but deeply worried about climate change. And that included all the Americans.

But, you know, maybe both Mr Mitchell and the vast majority of plant taxonomists were wrong. Maybe it was time to give the other side of the argument a whirl. After all, that way I could turn up the heating a bit and stop feeling so guilty everytime we drove anywhere when I could, technically, have cycled. I don’t think it was just me, either. Suddenly even the BBC and the Guardian were running stories that countered the new consensus about climate change. There was wild talk on Feedback (Feedback! The bastion of middle England) that stories were being suppressed by the BBC. So I had a look to find out what I had been missing without the (environmentally responsibly sourced organic fair trade) wool pulled over my eyes.

Well, they were these:

1. Some Himalayan glaciers aren’t melting as fast as the IPCC report said they would
2.The ‘hockey stick’ graph that shows temperatures shooting upwards was based on dodgy data.
3. The climate scientists have not been taking into account urbanisation affecting weather stations
4. Some climate scientists have been saying not very nice things about other people in emails
5. We’ve had the coldest winter since records began.

(Oh no, hang on, that last one wasn’t exactly supressed, it was reported ad nauseum from the moment the first flake of snow fell.)

Convinced? I think you’d have to try quite hard to make that add up to a thorough debunking of the yoghut whittlers’ conspiracy, even if you add in recent reports about arctic sea ice melt mostly being down to wind. The glaciers may not melt by 2035, but they’re melting all the same. Even if you take out the dodgy tree rings, we’re still looking at the warmest temperatures for a 1,000 years. And sea temperatures are rising as well as land temperatures and last time I looked, the sea hadn’t been particularly urbanised. Scientists being rude about other scientists? It’s as central to the whole process of doing science as peer review. I am prepared, if only for my own peace of mind, to think that the climate may be more resilient than some people fear, mainly because otherwise I start thinking about tipping points and runaway greenhouse gas emissions and I have to go back to the darkened room and whimper for a bit.

The truth is, like 99% of all people (and that includes you, dear reader, before you start up in the comments, unless you actually are a climate scientist) I know I don’t have the skills to make a judgement on this myself, so it’s back to where I started: whom do I believe, Mr Mitchell or some guy who works for an oil company? Well, I know what I think. And unfortunately, it means we’re all doomed.

So, how was your Wednesday?


13 Responses to Confessions of a Failed Climate Change Sceptic

  1. Rebecca says:

    I have even less scientific exposure than you do, but I know that extreme temps are one of the results of global warming. Not just warmer temps, but extremes on both ends – plus, an increase in natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

    I remember the that there were 2 years in a row of exceptionally strong hurricane seasons. One of them was the year Katrina hit. At the time, I was thinking this was going to continue getting worse and, being a native of the Gulf Coast, I couldn’t imagine how there was going to even be civilization there in the not very distant future. But then I read that these things actually go in cycles, and would do so whether or not there was global warming. That made me wonder how we could tell what was the actual result of global warming and what was just part of a natural cycle.

    I do believe we need to do more, lots more, and hopefully fairly soon. But I also believe that our global awareness has been raised, in spite of the naysayers, and that there has been some improvement – albeit, relatively small and slow. I’m 56, and I can tell you that there are major differences between now and when I was a child. But, like I said, not big enough and a little too gradual.

    Still, even though I’ve always considered myself a natural pessimist, I now believe that huge changes will transpire once we reach the tipping point. The reason for this possibly baseless optiism, I think, is because our last presidential election was something of a miracle of the same nature we’d need for climate change. Even though the man himself has been a huge disappointment to me in the last year, the fact that the grassroots were able to bring him to victory against all freaking odds makes me think that we will eventually be able to harness our communal global power to effect changes in environmental practices once we reach critical mass. We’re still not quite there, but we are a hell of a lot closer than we have ever been. This gives me a glimmer of hope that we can rescue our planet before it turns into an orbiting fireball.

    Of course, I could be wrong. But, as you pointed out, who really knows?

  2. disgruntled says:

    Hurricanes I can see – but earthquakes?

    I hope your optimism is not unfounded…

  3. The PaperBoy says:

    2000 years ago, the Romans were growing grapevines in North Yorkshire. Not in greenhouses (glass was too expensive and rare)… 700 years ago a large part of the population of Europe was wiped out by famine after a succession of extremely wet years (followed by the black death)… 300 years ago the Thames froze over regularly and they held Frost Fairs.

    I’m also not certain that global warming or as we now have to call it “Climate Change” (to cover the fact that some places are getting colder/wetter/drier) is affected unduly by human actions…

    However that doesn’t mean we should conserve natural resources – oil/coal/gas won’t last forever – but they’ll last a lot longer if we up our general efficiency (and/or augment with renewable resources like hydro, wind, solar & tidal power).

    Incidentally did anyone else see the bloke on telly talking about the need for new baseload fossil powered power stations saying that the problem with renewables like tidal power were their unreliability? (We’re in deep manure if the tides stop – means the moon is AWOL)

    Oh and once we get to having electric cars, does anyone think that the government will be able to resist taxing electricity to the same degree that hydrocarbons for transport are taxed now? (That’s to say around 200% tax on the basic pre-tax price)

  4. disgruntled says:

    I noticed that the BBC had suddenly woken up to ‘Peak Oil’. Actually, maybe that’s the answer…

  5. Ruaraidh says:

    You have to separate weather from Climate, they are not the same thing…. (it sounds funny I know but it’s macro and micro…)

  6. john in nh says:

    As a firm believer in climate science and one who has done basic experiments in the lab on the theories behind climate change, I still wonder sometimes. There are many many feedback loops that we do not know about yet, because we truly know so little. This is why geo-engineering “fixes” scare the hell out of me. I try to live my life as minimal as possible, use very few appliances/gadgets, local foods, bike everywhere, buy recycled or ecological friendly clothing and products when I absolutely need something. In a way I pray about peak oil, it is the one thing that will make people understand the issues and will turn things around, its really the only thing we can hope for to do it on the scale we need. It will hurt many many more people than if we (collective we) worked to do it voluntarily, it will hurt developing countries much more, but its the only thing I see in the near future that will have the needed effect.

    Its depressing sometimes, but then I read a new study, or see a new idea and I get excited again, or hell even seeing new shoots on the trees and smelling fresh tilled earth 🙂

  7. The Paperboy says:

    I just got my electricity account for the year and we’ve cut just under a third off our consumption. It was already meagre by most standards, now it’s even more so. Woohoo!

  8. Dom says:

    Might I point out that the majority of the information is being supplied to us via the Meedja who are well known for spinning things out of all proportion. Case in point: Y2K. According to them planes were going to fall out of the sky, nuclear weapons fire without warning, hospital equipment would stop working, your fridge would die and civilisation would collapse. Absolute tosh. In the majority of cases it would simply be that things got a bit confused about what day it was. This only becomes a problem where getting the date right is kind of important – like banking. Given 99% of the worlds money is electronic suddenly having all the computers getting the dates wrong and calculating interest, payments, etc, for the wrong day (or worse, year) could cause a bit of a meltdown in the world economy. But no, not sexy enough for the news, planes have to fall out of the sky for that. Remember that we could also tell what was going to happen as we could easily crank the clock forward to 01/01/2000 and watch the results and yet the meedja were still spinning it out of all proportion.

    The environment is an unknown [or at the very least a poorly known] where we’ve got conflicting information, experts who claim opposing theories, either one of which might be right. Throw in lots of sexy newspaper selling stories of floods, extreme weather, The End Of The World As We Know It and you enter into a minefield where you really are going to have to make your own decisions and pick your sources of information very carefully.

  9. The revelations have been shocking, and they’ve made me very angry. But they are still a very small undermining of a vast body of evidence. I continue to believe in climate change, in the inability of politicians to do anything about it and in the importance of small local actions. It might not help much in the grand scale of things but it can be fun, if you can live with the odd guilt trip, and it’s helping us to built resilience if it all hits the fan.

  10. yarb says:

    For me the vested interests are so thick on both sides, and the modelling so insanely complicated, that I can’t commit. The variables are too many and too variable. I do know that human beings have a history of attaching far greater import to their actions than eventuates. But as someone who is basically a conservative, I believe in conservation – of energy, of natural resources, of the environment – and worry that all this shouting is providing a smokescreen for more obvious and avoidable misdemeanours.

  11. Autolycus says:

    No-one seems to have mentioned the precautionary principle.

    We know, with at least as much certainty as most other bases for political and legislative decisions, what greenhouse gas emissions can do.

    We know how the processes of population growth, industrialisation and urbanisation work, and what they do in terms of increased loads on natural resources.

    At the very least, we know that we don’t know how we can be sure these two won’t combine to make the planet unlivable.

    So we don’t gamble. We cut down anyway.

    End of.

  12. Rebecca says:

    “So we don’t gamble. We cut down anyway.”

    Exactly! That’s exactly how I see it. After all, it can only help. Right?

    And, as much as I believe that something does need to be done, I have often felt that the worst case scenarios were missing something important. I felt guilty having that thought, it seemed so disloyal to the cause. But it’s a nagging thought. It just won’t go away.

    Still, a part of my future goals that I’m working hard toward is extremely environmentally friendly. I’d like to live on a catamaran sailboat in the tropics, where it will be quite possible for my transportation to be almost completely wind powered and my electrical needs almost completely solar powered. So I won’t need to feel guilty anymore. Plus, you know…beaches, and all that.

  13. R::B says:

    Personally, I’m an optimist. I think the effects of anthropomorphic climate forcing will be minimal and that extinctions will be relatively localised and human casualties directly attributable to such climatic changes limited to a few millions.

    I am, however, quite pessimistic about the wars that are going to be fought over water…and that’s less to do with climate change than plain human stupidity.

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