Why I’m no longer so fussed about climate change (although I probably should be)

I follow climate change issues intermittently in the mainstream press and on a shifting selection of blogs. But it’s dawned on me that I probably follow them less now than I did two, three, four or even five years ago. Leaving out the personal and professional factors, [*] here are a few reasons why I think this is the case:

1. There’s been a recession and near-meltdown of the global economic system, with delayed, ongoing effects on quality of life across the world, and many remaining uncertainties and fears as to how it will all eventually play out. At the end of the day, the global financial crisis way out-trumps ACC as a near term serious threat to global human wellbeing. And near term threats tend to crowd out the longer term threats, as we all know. They just do.

2. There have been 2-3 pretty cold winters (here in the UK). I realise that on an intellectual level, this is a completely specious, sub-Daily Mail type of argument against ACC. But on a primal, everyday, ‘bollocks-it’s-cold-out-there’ level, it works just fine.

3. While global warming is still happening, and it’s still happening well within the bounds of the uncertainty estimates from IPCC AR4 model ensemble projections, it’s pretty clear that it’s happening within the lower range of these uncertainty estimates (ie not as quickly as predicted- see graph here). As someone who deeply doesn’t like climate change, this is a crumb of comfort I find very easy (given reasons 1,2, 4, 5) to cling to. Yes I know there have been La Ninas and sea ice and ocean heat and the rest of it are still causes for concern… but the naked truth is that it’s not happening as quickly as wot they said.

4. The political process of regulating/mitigating GHG emissions has stalled. Since the 2009 Copenhagen conference, it’s become clear that the international community is just not ready or able to take meaningful action on this front. The scientific and moral arguments are still there of course, but it’s not clear how they will have any impact on global policy. So in the spirit of serenity in the face of things that cannot be readily changed, I’ve withdrawn some of my attention from the debate. Yup— this is, in part, a philosophy of despair. But when you’ve done wringing hands and the sky doesn’t fall in (points 2 and 3 help here) there’s the rest of life to crack on with.

5. A related point: there is no obvious consensus for action. OK, if we believe the clever people who mostly agree that ACC is potentially a very serious problem for humanity (as I do), then what solutions do they (or other clever people) propose— both in terms of technologies, and policy mechanisms? Cap and trade or carbon tax? Nuclear or renewables? How about gas as a bridging technology… or can we bet the farm on a long term project like nuclear fusion? Is it desirable or even possible for our society to ever ‘power down’? How do the aspirations of the developing world for electricity and economic development fit into this? Whenever I check back in on the ‘debate’, it seems the same arguments are raging back and forth without clear sign of resolution. The lack of a clear sense of what we need to do when and if we decide we need to do something is a problem, because it robs much of the urgency from making the decision in the first place. If that makes any sense at all.

6. A clearer realisation that it’s a waste of my finite ‘fussedness’ allocation to be fretting about climate change per se (particularly given 4,5 above) when it’s not the climate itself that’s the problem from a human perspective; [**] it’s the ability of humans to adapt successfully to external challenges— be it to climate change, economic crises, or anything else. So I suppose I’m taking a broader view now: pursuing adaptation strategies seems more desirable than a narrow GHG reduction agenda because they have broader acceptability and broader application, outside of the stale and stalemated ACC policy arena.

As for the ‘I probably should be’… well, there’s been nothing in the last few years that’s made me doubt the reality of human driven changes in CO2 fluxes in the atmosphere, and the physics of how they drive up global temperatures. This is so well established that to me, it shifts the burden of proof to those who say that increasing CO2 emissions isn’t a problem. And I haven’t seen anything very convincing on that front. In short, I still think there’s a big problem brewing— it’s just a question of how big, and how quickly it will come to a head, and what we can usefully do about it. Nonetheless, the ongoing apparent lack of progress in answering these questions has allowed the keenness of my concerns to ebb somewhat.

[* Neither my paid work, nor— to a large extent— my studies, directly concern climate change, so I have no professional reasons to stay engaged. And there have been a shifting array of other interests and activities to occupy my time.

** Yes, if human society can successfully adapt to a human-changed climate, but at the expense of the quality of the natural environment and with greatly degraded global biodiversity, there would still be a big moral issue. But according to my scale of values, it would be much less of a moral issue than if we changed the climate and destroyed organised human civilisation as a consequence. (I suppose I’m a little anthropocentric like that— it’s why I’ll never be a Deep Green…)]

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