Should we be optimistic?

It’s hard to stay positive about reducing carbon emissions in the face of so much evidence that we’re in very serious trouble, but human energy and imagination gives cause for hope. [21 July 2009 | Peter Boyer]

In these troubled times, when the heady, innocent days of wine and roses are a fast-fading memory (if they ever existed), I fear I may be a disappointment to some of my readers.

I’m thinking in particular of some of my regular contacts: people like Tom, who provides me with a wonderful press clippings service, and John, a regular correspondent who keeps me up to speed on the energy scene. I know they feel I should be less cheerful about our prospects.

There are many reasons to feel pessimistic about our capacity to turn around the human-carbon juggernaut. I think of the exponential rise in the loss of natural habitats and the animals and plants they contain, degradation of the marine environment, and the loss of Antarctic ice shelves thousands of years old.

There’s our desperation to keep the oil flowing in the face of imminent “peak oil”, after which the extra energy needed to get oil out of the ground causes prices to trend steadily upward. Such desperation is causing massive environmental destruction as we seek to extract oil from ever more unlikely sources, like coal and tar deposits.

I think of the failure of global leaders’ summits and national parliaments, in their focus on financial systems and economic growth, to address climate change head-on. I can’t help but feel bothered by this, as do John, Tom and hosts of other people around the planet.

The biggest obstacle is us: our ingrained habits developed over generations of good times and growing economies and our blind refusal to accept any evidence that might upset that applecart. I just need to surf through the comments on my own writings on The Mercury’s website, not to mention countless other climate sites, to know how hard is the task remaining.

Some recent email exchanges with readers emphasised that many intelligent, capable people are locked into mindsets that no argument, however well-founded, is going to sway.

A number of readers politely told me why I should not accept what Al Gore is telling people. Among other things, they told me that high carbon dioxide levels don’t affect temperature, that the sun is a much greater influence on temperature than greenhouse gases, and that a UK court found Al Gore guilty of fraud in 2007.

I found the experience dispiriting because when I put forward information to counter their claims, my correspondents didn’t acknowledge the rebuttals but simply dug up more tired old claims, equally wrong, that I had seen repeated countless times on the internet.

The internet campaign to discredit the case that we need to reduce human fossil fuel emissions, so powerfully supported by evidence, is much like that party game where a phrase is whispered from person to person around a room, with the inevitable mistakes in translation producing something entirely different from the original.

The UK court, for instance, didn’t find Al Gore guilty of fraud — or of anything else. It found that the UK government should not distribute his film An Inconvenient Truth to schools without explaining that some science cited in the film was not in the “scientific mainstream”. (That was in 2007; science has shifted more toward the Gore position since then.) The judge took care to explain that he personally agreed that carbon emissions caused climate change.

So it’s we humans who we need to be most worried about. And yes, we should be worried.

But not without hope. I know that those same cantankerous, difficult, obstinate individuals, once persuaded of the truth and urgency of our carbon pollution problem, have it in them to become heroes. Irksome enemies can be valuable allies, who once convinced can turn their energy to a rapid, effective response. That’s my hope.

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