Climate science — and why the world won’t listen


The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued the executive summary of its latest report on global warming on Sept. 26. It stated, among other things, that hundreds of scientists are more certain than ever that the planet is warming up and that humanity’s ever-growing use of fossil fuels is the cause. The report said its authors are 95 percent certain that this is so (up from 90 percent certainty in a similar conclusion in the IPCC’s 2007 report).

The report also said that since 1750 (the approximate start of the industrial age) humans have released 545 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels “unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years,” that in most of the scenarios the panel considered the average global surface temperature is likely to go up 1.5-2.0 Celsius (2.7-3.6 Fahrenheit), that glaciers and sea ice have been melting at an accelerating rate, that sea levels could rise by as much as three feet or more by the end of the century, and that if another 455 billion tons of carbon dioxide are put into the atmosphere — raising cumulative human-caused carbon dioxide emissions to one trillion tons — average global temperature increases will break through the 2 C ceiling that the panel thinks is the highest that can be reached without major climate changes ensuing, and so on.

No real surprises here.

Also unsurprisingly, a number of environmentalists and media outlets chose to view the report with alarm and opine that it should serve as “a wake-up call.”

The British magazine New Scientist contained a different take. It ran a piece by Adam Corner, a research associate in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, titled, “Climate Science: Why the world won’t listen.”

Corner argued that by early 2008 compelling scientific and economic cases had been made for aggressive global action to contain and roll back the production of greenhouse gases — but “the exact opposite happened.”

“Fast forward to today … Apathy, lack of interest and even outright denial are more widespread than they were in 2008,” he wrote.

Corner offers some psychological reasons for why the world’s response to the IPCC’s “wake-up” calls has been to roll over and go back to sleep:

Psychological research has shown that trying to scare or shame people into sustainable behavior is likely to backfire, that people’s beliefs about the climate are influenced by extreme and even daily weather, and that concern about climate change “is not only, or even mostly, a product of how much people know about science.” Increased knowledge “tends to harden existing opinions,” he said.

I suspect there’s a lot of truth in Corner’s observations, but you don’t really need to rely on psychology to explain why both policymakers and the public at large are losing interest in trying to do anything about climate change. Political realities will suffice.

Start with the following finding from the IPCC report:

“A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from carbon dioxide emissions is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale, except in the case of a large net removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over a sustained period. Surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of net anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions … ocean warming will continue for centuries. Depending on the scenario, about 15 to 40 percent of emitted carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere for longer than 1,000 years.”

In short, even if the world stops using coal, oil and natural gas tomorrow, the climate will continue to get warmer for hundreds of years. That isn’t an oil company CEO talking. It is the 800 scientists of the IPCC.

Political reality 1: No sane politician in the United States or anywhere is going to commit his country to policies that will extract a staggering price in national wealth, personal income and personal liberty from their constituents if there is no discernible payoff for centuries for doing so.

Political reality 2: The American people are not going to agree to make the required sacrifices if the carbon reductions achieved by them are cancelled out by the expansion of coal-fired electric power generation in China, India and other developing nations. That’s why Congress furiously rejected the Kyoto treaty in 2000.

Political reality 3: Climatologists and environmentalists argue that global warming is an existential threat, but their actions suggest that they don’t take the threat very seriously. The two most mature and most commonly deployed technologies for generating carbon-free electricity are nuclear and hydro-electric power. Greens despise both and actively oppose new nuclear plants and hydro-electric dams. If they genuinely believed global warming posed a life-and-death threat to the planet or even civilization as we know it, they would be supporting both, despite any real or imagined risks.

Political reality 4: If environmentalists really believed that global warming posed a clear and present danger to human existence, they would be finding ways to expedite the construction of utility-scale wind farms and solar power plants instead of finding ways to delay them — like by being overly solicitous of the Desert Tortoise or litigating to delay the construction of new power lines to connect alternative energy projects to the grid. The fact that they delay, sometimes by years, the green projects that they claim are needed to save the planet suggests that green solutions are being put forward in bad faith.

And so on.

People concerned about global warming think the reason people and governments are losing interest in climate change is because they don’t understand what’s happening.

They ought to consider the possibility that maybe it is because they do.


This column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.