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Climate change: time to transform

The understanding of global climate change has deepened since the 1970s, in parallel with voluminous research into and clear scientific evidence of its reality. The obstacles to recognition remain powerful. But this, the 2010s, really is the crucial decade.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
17 August 2012

People end up in peace research from many different backgrounds, quite often including the natural sciences or mathematics. For me, the route was via an interest in environmental and resource conflict, including several years in the 1970s as a lecturer in environmental science at the then Huddersfield Polytechnic in west Yorkshire, northern England (see "Climate science: a peace-studies lesson", 12 March 2010).

We were setting up a pioneering course in “human ecology” that brought together ecology, politics, economics and other disciplines. A key purpose was to provide an understanding of what was then known about the workings of the global ecosystem or biosphere. This included a component on natural-materials cycles, including the nitrogen and carbon cycles. These biogeochemical cycles typically have “sinks” or large concentrations of specific elements, along with a cycling process.

I was recently moving offices and came across a dusty file with my lecture notes on these cycles, dating back to the early 1970s. Those for the carbon cycle included a section on the increase in the concentration of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, and how the method by which the gas absorbed reflected solar radiation might have a warming effect. Almost as a footnote, there was a suggestion that this might eventually have an impact on the global climate.

The growing awareness

That was forty years ago, well before climate change became an issue outside of the work of specialists. It figured very little in the seminal text on human impacts, The Limits to Growth, and was hardly mentioned even in the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in May 1972.

By the late 1980s, the recognition of climate change was growing, and with it the understanding that it would entail potentially disastrous consequences for many of the world's poorest countries (see David Rind, “Drying Out the Tropics”, New Scientist, 6 May 1995). But from the start there were powerful forces opposed to recognition of the dangers.

The fossil-fuel industries and oil-producing countries were at the heart of the effort, joined in time by ideologues of the free market. The influence of the George W Bush administration, baleful here as in other respects, ensured that the 2000s would be a lost decade. The limited progress of the 1990s and the Kyoto protocol was reversed.

Even in the face of clear and rapid climatic changes, especially in the near Arctic, the deniers remain powerful. Their interests are served by the governments of Russia and Canada, which are in a position to reap short-term gain as the Arctic is opened to economic exploitation and fossil-fuel exports (see Øyvind Paasche, "The new Arctic: trade, science, politics", 7 April 2011)..

Against this, two recent pieces of research greatly reinforce the scientific basis of climate change and its causes. The first is the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (Best) project, led by physicist Richard A Muller and funded partly by climate-change “sceptics” (including the Koch brothers). Miller had been dubious about human-induced climate change but the Best study - which looked at 250 years of data - has shifted his view (see Richard A Muller, "The Conversion of a Climate-change Skeptic", New York Times, 30 July 2012).

The second was conducted by James Hansen and colleagues, and is now published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). It examines trends from 1951-2011 and concludes that weather patterns are becoming more extreme, including a markedly increased incidence of heatwaves across much of the world (see James Hansen, Makiko Sato & Reto Ruedy, "The new climate dice: public perceptions of climate change" [PNAS, 6 August 2012]). 

The new picture

These two studies, based on copious data, do much to confirm what has been argued for three decades. In face of the evidence, the persistence of the denial process is extraordinary. Here, however, there are signs of movement. A fascinating example is the influential weekly journal the Economist, which was long scornful of the basis and potential impacts of climate change but which since the late 1990s has been won round to a belated acceptance of the obvious.

In contrast to an era when much column space was devoted to the “sceptical” view, the Economist - perhaps after an internal battle in which its able science correspondents eventually won the day - now reports regularly on new evidence, including the Hansen study and (in a detailed supplement) the warming of the Arctic (see “Bell weather: a statistical analysis shows how things really are hotting up” [11 August 2012]; and "The melting north" [16 June 2012])  The Economist  also reports widely on green technologies. This fresh outlook may be welcomed. Still, almost two decades have been lost - and the denier groups are still there, well funded and hugely resourced.

A single development alters the picture. This is the clear discrediting of the old idea that climate change is something for the future - perhaps twenty or thirty years down the line, and therefore of little immediate concern. Not so: climate change is happening now. Its impact is already becoming grievous for many communities. This creates an urgent need to respond, on a scale that the political classes so far nowhere near appreciate (see "The climate peril: a race against time", 13 November 2009).

A transformation is essential the 2010s is the key decade. There are two, linked, factors: we have to adapt rapidly to what is already happening and may be irreversible, and the transition to ultra-low-carbon economies has to accelerate far faster than any political leader recognises (see "Beyond 'liddism': towards real global security", 1 April 2010) .

It is scant comfort that there are ever more unambiguous warnings of what is to come, given that it is the poorer and more marginalised communities that bear the brunt. Even so, those warnings are pressing and inescapable. Perhaps the striking weather patterns across north America in 2012 might just help the process along.

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