Last week a billboard appeared over an Expressway in Illinois showing a picture of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber who was convicted in 1996 of a 17 year mail bombing campaign that killed three people and injured many more. The caption read “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” The next day it had been removed. The billboard was the work of the US climate-sceptic think-tank, the Heartland Institute. There has been general condemnation of the billboard campaign and although Heartland may have received some publicity from the event, it seems likely that such a shoddy idea will have discredited the organisation in many people’s minds. It also suggests a level of desperation on the part of the climate-sceptics.
The rhetoric has been heating up on the pro-climate change side as well. Jim Hansen, who some describe as “the grandfather of climate change”, recently delivered the Edinburgh Medal Lecture at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. According to Hansen, by not dealing effectively with the known issues surrounding climate change we are storing up expensive and destructive consequences for society in the future and this is an “injustice of one generation to others”. He went on to argue that averting the worst consequences of human-induced climate change is a great moral issue on a par with slavery.
These are strong words from both sides of the argument but perhaps this is no bad thing as it exposes the issues more clearly. So, how do we find our way through this minefield of argument and counter-argument on climate change? In trying to understand the background to the topic, I tend to be guided by the scientists who have been in the field for a long time and know the subject well. Hansen is obviously one of those scientists and he and others have a paper coming out in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA where they lay out the issues and suggest solutions. The paper is entitled “Scientific case for avoiding climate change to protect young people and nature” and can be read here. There is a good discussion of how carbon dioxide emissions from burning of fossil fuels drive climate change and how far we need to cut emissions to stabilise the climate. The take-home message is simple; we need to cut carbon dioxide emissions to avoid damaging climate change in the future and the best way to do this is via a carbon tax coupled with extensive reforestation plans.
There is also a very strong moral overtone to the paper and I want to quote a section relating to lack of action on climate change: “It is a matter of morality – a matter of intergenerational justice. As with the earlier great moral issue of slavery, an injustice done by one race of humans to another, so the injustice of one generation to all those to come must stir the public’s conscience to the point of action”.
Perhaps you might feel that Hansen is too close to one side of the argument? Where do you then look for guidance? One possibility is the Royal Society, the premier scientific body in the UK, who should know what they are talking about. In 2010 the Royal Society produced a report: “Climate change: a summary of the science”. The report concluded that there was indeed warming of the planet and that human activity (burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use) was the major cause of the warming over the past 50 years. Continuing increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by continuing use of fossil fuels would lead to further warming of the planet. The report is very cautious in its conclusions but it agrees with Hansen’s ideas. If you want a more detailed discussion of the levels of carbon dioxide desirable for climate stability and the need to reduce emissions, have a look at 350.org and Skeptical Science.
It doesn’t feel to me like there is much argument. Climate change driven by carbon dioxide emissions from burning of fossil fuels is happening and needs to be stopped for the future of the planet. We know this now and yet we are not doing enough to prevent climate change. It doesn’t really matter whether you dress it up as a moral issue or not but if we don’t get on and do something soon, history and our grandchildren will judge us very badly.