The year just ended produced ample evidence that both the level of global carbon emissions and public awareness about the dangers of inaction are headed in the wrong direction. [3 January 2012 | Peter Boyer]
With a brand spanking new 2012 upon us, now is as good a time as any to check our bearings and re-set our priorities.
The year just past has much to tell us. One is that we’re not, essentially, far-sighted and rational. We remain as we’ve always been, firmly rooted in the here and now, motivated much less by abstract knowledge than by gut instinct. That’s not a value judgement; simply a fact.
How else can we explain last year’s retreat of whole societies (including a fair proportion of the Australian community) from a once firmly-held majority belief that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity were changing Earth’s climate?
This at a time when published scientific studies, supported explicitly by all the world’s major scientific academies, continue overwhelmingly to confirm the already solid science behind anthropogenic warming and the increasing urgency of changing how we conduct our lives.
This is sure to bring the indignant response that I’m an elitist out of touch with ordinary people, twisting the facts to suit some sort of perverted ideology.
While I reject this, I have some sympathy for such a view. With life getting more complex by the day, who needs the added complication of human-induced climate change? It’s reassuring to think that people like me are just alarmists or doomsayers.
So what are the facts? 2011 began with global temperature records held in Europe, the US and Japan revealing that 2010 was either the warmest year on record or one of the warmest three years on record, and that the preceding decade had been easily the warmest ever recorded.
Many doubters had felt that the University of California “Berkeley Earth” data project would support the view that global temperatures were cooling, but by April 2011 their expectations were dashed when the project’s leader confirmed that Earth is indeed continuing to get warmer.
A Nature Geoscience paper in December concluded that at least three-quarters of warming over the past six decades was caused by human release of carbon into the air, a factor that the Global Carbon Project revealed had increased by a record amount in 2010.
The year saw a steady ratcheting up of warnings from science about the state of the planet. The prestigious journal Nature reported a survey of leading permafrost specialists from many countries indicating that current thawing of the Arctic tundra would by late this century see the present rate of greenhouse gas release increase many times over.
A November 2011 report by the Hobart-based Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC said a rising level of atmospheric carbon dioxide had caused top-to-bottom warming and increasing acidity in the world’s oceans at a scale and a rate far beyond the normal.
The report says that warmer polar waters are threatening the stability of Antarctic ice sheets, with big implications for sea level rise. It also predicts increasing acidity in ocean waters will reach the point at which some key organisms are unable to form skeletons or shells within a mere 20 years.
Then a couple of weeks before Christmas, veteran climate scientist James Hansen told the American Geophysical Union that proposals to delay action on emissions, as envisaged by the Durban climate conference, were “prescriptions for disaster”. He calculates that we need to cut emissions globally by 6 per cent a year starting now, in 2012.
Lacking a credible argument against the overwhelming evidence that we’re in deep trouble, many have chosen to bypass the message and attack the messengers with any mud they can get their hands on.
People like me, they say, are part of a global power grab using mechanisms like the UN climate meetings (a favourite target of Lord Christopher Monckton). The claims would be laughable if this wasn’t so serious, but those feeling the pressures of modern times are a receptive audience.
Stability is important to any society in any age. The insecurity felt by people today is an echo of times past when both authority and people at large felt compelled to attack what they saw as threats to their way of life.
Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries, whose belief system was founded on a fixed Earth with the sun and all other heavenly bodies revolving around it, treated with derision Nicolaus Copernicus’s 1543 assertion that Earth was just part of a system centred on the sun. Copernicus, a Catholic, escaped censure only because he died before his views were published.
The following century, observations by Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei confirmed (with modifications) the Copernican theory, and the Church in its own defence punished Galileo as a heretic.
It’s easy to deride the people who attacked these scientific pioneers for simply reporting what they saw, but we shouldn’t. The reaction of many today to the well-established science behind human-induced warming is little different from that of the Catholic Church of 1543.
Galileo published his argument for a sun-centred universe in 1632; it was another 100 years before the new theory finally became mainstream belief among Catholics. Heaven forbid that it should take as long for us to accept that humans change climate.