Monday, 21 December 2009

Climate Change - where is the truth?

There is a huge amount of noise going on surrounding climate change, global warming and the politics of COP15. I've been trying to make sense of it, from my scientific engineering background. I've done quite a lot of reading, but I can't give you the answer. Here's why:

EITHER the world is getting hotter, OR it isn't. I've tried to read the science myself, and the result seems to be "we don't know". Some studies suggest the world is getting hotter, other studies suggest it isn't. The amount of "noise" makes it hard to measure (for example we are trying to measure a 2 deg C global rise against seasonal variation of 25 degrees between winter and summer - it's like measuring the depth of water in a bathtub whilst your child is splashing the water about). Faced with the variance in results, the newspapers, politicians and activists read this whichever way they want. The general public remain confused.

IF the world is getting hotter, it is EITHER caused by mankind, OR it isn't. Again, my reading of the data is unclear. "We don't know". Soot from the 1980s seems to have mitigated the situation. What about pollutants from the industrial revolution? Nobody's mentioned the Ozone Hole recently... Are the changes in climate due to our actions in the last 5 years, the last 50 years, or the last 500 years? Do we know? The answers are confused because the studies show different results. Again, dry matchwood for fueling the fiery debate. The arrogant absolve responsibility of anything, blaming everyone else. The general public remain confused ... and feel guilty.

We don't know if the world is getting hotter, or who caused it. There are some pretty significant signs that the world IS getting hotter, and we can logically argue that the heat and rubbish we've generated over the last 250 years has been pretty irresponsible. However we may not be able to say conclusively why these things happen until a lot more data has been collected and analysed ... by which time it may well be too late. The general public will still be confused, will still feel guilty, and will probably be dying out.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, we DO have a responsibility to do something. Our wasteful society is running out of oil, possibly running out of drinking water, probably going to run out of land, will eventually run out of coal.... We cannot continue our society forever in this way. In fact we probably can't continue our society for 10 years in this way. As natural resources become scarce, people will adapt to new ways of doing things, but history also tells us that there will be conflicts: do we want a Second American Civil War over drinking water? Do we desire to resolve the land crisis that will result from global flooding through the loss of a billion lives? The alternative, unfortunately, is what Al Gore calls "an inconvenient truth" because it means inconveniently buying things that aren't made in China, inconveniently having to go without a second - or even a first - car, inconveniently not being able to hop over to Prague for a night at the opera.

Copenhagen has showed us that Politicians can't give us the answers: the Nanny State that we trusted in to provide for all our needs looks like the Emperor in his new clothes. Are there things that the general public can do? Things that will REALLY make a difference. Not just changing lightbulbs and stopping coal-trains, but radically changing our way of life? Somebody? Anybody?

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