How semantics and self-interest can cloud our judgement

Those of us who question that humans need to change their ways are ignoring overwhelming evidence that — regardless of climate change — our impact on the planet’s natural systems threatens our own future. [10 February 2009 | Peter Boyer]

“Global warming”, an old term coined by scientists to describe what happens with rising greenhouse gas levels, is now part of everyday language. From a scientist’s perspective it’s clear what it means, but it’s led the rest of us down a lot of blind alleys.

To begin with, some people argued that a warmer world wasn’t such a bad thing. When they realised it was, the climate deniers hit the letter columns, blogs and airwaves to say the planet wasn’t warming at all and we’re now in a cooling phase.

The scientific evidence is clear that a rising amount of carbon in the atmosphere has caused a clear and continuing warming trend over recent decades. But like much to do with climate, all the permutations involved make simple, precise answers impossible.

So the warming-cooling debate will doubtless go on. But in another sense the whole argument about air temperature is missing the point, because it’s only a part of some big changes that are happening to our world.

We’ve known for many years that we’re living beyond the planet’s ability to support us. We know that economies and wealth, production and population can’t go on expanding forever. At some point, whether we like it or not, all of these things stop growing and start contracting.

Science has now given teeth to concerns about unmitigated growth, showing us that continuing as we are presents real physical dangers. Even without a destabilised climate these dangers remain – a degraded land environment, extinction of species and acid oceans, to name three.

Each of these latter problems is undeniably a result of human activities – the same activities that are fuelling climate change. Everyone who thinks about it, including those who deny we’ve got a climate problem, can only agree that something has to give.

So why do people persist in challenging science’s assertion that our human activities are putting our future at serious risk? Why is there such strong opposition to ideas and actions to do things differently when there’s no question that this would benefit both ourselves and our planet?

People who reject the findings of climate science often describe those who advocate changing the way we live as environmental extremists or soft-headed do-gooders, and seem to feel, with some passion, that such people are conspiring against them and their way of life.

This is a tough one to resolve. We can get locked into opposition to certain groups – as is seen most obviously in Tasmania in the endless forest debates – so that opposition itself becomes the driver rather than the value of the ideas involved. When this happens, we need circuit-breakers.

I’d like to suggest one small circuit-breaker. The climate-environment debate isn’t a simple morality tale where people are either “right” or “wrong”. Trying to reduce consumption or energy use doesn’t make us better than those who carry on regardless.

But it does begin to prepare us for the new physical and economic order around the corner, which will come whether we like it or not. “Begin” is the operative word: if we’re to sustain our presence on this planet we’re in for decades of difficult transition.

Politicians talk up growth because in any downturn they see a risk to jobs, including theirs, but the best of them should be able to articulate a longer-term vision where endless growth is seen for what it really is – not a security blanket but a perilous illusion. Why is that so difficult?

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