Climate change: we’ve put off the difficult decisions for too long
Climate change is rarely too far from the headlines, whether it is in connection with the ongoing debate about how we meet our energy needs or discussion of the prevailing weather – the latter being one of our defining national pastimes. But the headlines do not always represent an accurate picture of what we know about climate science, instead focusing more on those who either want to ignore the evidence and carry on as we are, or those who predict extreme catastrophe. Fortunately, in the UK we generally take science seriously. The latest polling data released by the government shows that a large majority of people in the UK realise that climate scientists have shown that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide – released in the burning of fossil fuels – trap heat in our atmosphere and warm the earth. People understand that recent increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide are largely caused by human activities and that while we do not have all the answers, the risks associated with some of the changes are substantial. The majority of people also recognise that the benefits of taking action to tackle climate change outweigh the risks. These attitudes are reflected by the leaders of our main political parties and by our businesses – the position of the Confederation of British Industry is a good example.
There are, however, still people who might be confused about the scientific evidence or some aspects of it. They may not fully understand that changes in the global climate could have wide-reaching impacts across the planet that we need either to try to prevent or to prepare for. The importance of these issues means that societies across the world have to develop sensible policy decisions about climate change – and that means starting with the highest quality advice about climate science.
That is why two of the world’s premier science academies, the National Academy of Sciences in the US and the Royal Society in the UK, recently got together to produce a balanced and accessible account of the science of climate change.
Authored by some of the most eminent climate scientists in the world and independently reviewed by other scientists, this authoritative guide explains the evidence for those that have questions about what we know about climate change and what remains uncertain.
There are other, more fringe opinions of course – both among extreme sceptics and catastrophists, often columnists and organisations with a particular political or ideological agenda. However, these have failed to produce the evidence to convince the majority of climate scientists, and are not a reliable guide for the development of sensible public policy.
The evidence is becoming increasingly clear. However, not every question has yet been answered or every detail defined – for example, there are debates concerning the models used to predict the exact extent of global warming.
The guide looks at the recently hotly debated link between climate change and extreme weather and explains that the not so simple truth is that, at present, we cannot say that a specific weather event, including the recent storms and flooding in the UK, is the direct result of climate change – but based on what we do know about climate science, we would expect such extreme events to become more frequent on a global scale. It’s a bit like smoking and lung cancer – we know that smoking increases the risk, but we cannot generally say that a particular person got their cancer through smoking.
So what is to be done now? The debate needs to move on and be more about what we are going to do next. For this there is still an important role for science. We need to keep looking at the scientific evidence about what is happening to the climate now and predictions for the future – but science and engineering also have key roles in the possible solutions. What are the alternatives to fossil fuels, and how viable are wind, tidal, solar and nuclear options? How can we protect ourselves against potential impacts such as rising sea levels and more extreme weather events?
But the debate needs to go beyond science. Economics, politics, and a range of other issues must be considered as well. There are those who say taking any action to decarbonise the economy would cripple our businesses. Yet the Confederation of British Industry disagrees. It estimates that in 2011/12, the green economy represented around 8 per cent of GDP and accounted for over a third of economic growth. The Government has also just announced new funding for carbon capture and storage trials. If UK scientists and engineers were to crack this, the rewards would be substantial. The technology and expertise could be exported to everywhere that is currently generating power from burning fossil fuels. The Chinese market alone (which already buys 7 per cent of UK green exports) would be massive.
Energy security is another factor that we need to take into account. Not many people would argue that it is better for the UK to be heavily reliant on imported fossil fuels from unstable regions, rather than finding new sustainable energy sources of our own. Fracking for shale gas may help in the short term, but cannot be a long term solution. The ever shifting dynamics of geopolitics make over-reliance on others for our energy a precarious position – just look at Ukraine and its reliance on Russian gas.
We also need to use energy more efficiently so we get more out of what we have. Our scientists and engineers can help present and implement the options, and our economists will need to objectively assess the costs. The public and our policy-makers need sound independent assessments, rather than a shouting match between competing lobby groups. We also need to think about how fragile economies in the developing world can be helped to diversify their energy needs away from carbon-inefficient fossil fuels without damaging their economic growth or their efforts to improve living standards.
Another medical metaphor may be useful. If you went to your doctor and he told you that you had a serious medical condition, for most people the conversation would quickly move on to what could be done about it. The debate on climate needs to move to the “what can we do about it” stage. It is time we ignored the extremist fringe unless they can back up their views with convincing scientific evidence and argument.
Perhaps we have listened too much to the sceptical extremists because it allowed us to put off dealing with the difficult questions and what should be done about them. But most of us, including our political leaders and businesses, know the reality of where we are and that it is now time to move on to doing more about it.
The solutions might lead to changes that require investment in the short term, and we need a well informed debate to be able to make the best decisions. But if we do get them right, they will help humanity around the world and could well pay off handsomely for the UK in the future.