Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On the egotism of Man

Edit 22/01/2019: I just wanted to say that I am no longer quite the climate change sceptic I once was. I never flat out denied it, I was just cautious. It’s been a while now, and while I don’t know enough to be 100% convinced of man-made climate change, I defer to the thousands of much more knowledgeable people that assure me it’s a scientific certainty. I could delete this post in light of this revelation, but that would be revisionist and cowardly, so I choose to clambour up what little moral high ground I can find in this situation and leave it where it is.

The Copenhagen summit has kicked off and I’m a little worried. When you put that many World leaders in a room and tell then to save the planet, surely no good can come from it.
Let me start by saying that I’m not completely down with all this global warming talk. I’ll accept, at least for the sake of this rant, that global temperatures are rising, and that within 50 years I will be able to hold off switching on the heat pump for an extra week or two. However, I’m not willing to accept that there is enough evidence to say, without a doubt, that humans are solely responsible. I find it typically egotistical for us humans to think we’re destroying the Earth. There are a quite a lot of us, but I know for a fact there is quite a bit of this planet that is human free, roughly 99% of the planet in fact. And not all of that human-inhabited 1% is in a position to be held responsible for having any effect on the world outside their own village. We hear the words ‘scientific consensus’ thrown around like they have meaning. I can tell you, sitting where I am in this world of science, that there is often little consensus. There are, however, scientists who seek funding anyway they can, and therefore follow the trail of money to wherever it may lead. They may convince themselves they believe in the things they seek to prove, however you can’t survive in this industry by holding onto your beliefs. Science has become little more than a business, far from the academic think-tank it once was.

Undeniably, the most popular evidence for man-made global warming is the level of atmospheric CO2. I can not see how anyone can definitively say that this is causing the globe to warm. “But surely you can’t deny that CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased at a rate beyond that occurring in nature alone?” Maybe I could, if I did some more research, but that’s not my point. What I’m saying is that an increase in any two things over time does not necessarily mean they are directly related. Time is a confounding factor in many studies, one that often makes it impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions. Both the number of books you’ve read and the price of milk has increased in the last 10 years; does that mean I should blame your literary thirst for driving up the cost of my morning cereal? Granted, atmospheric CO2 may be a different story because if it’s responsible for the greenhouse effect then surely the more of it there is the bigger the effect and the higher the temperatures. Just don’t show me a line graph of CO2 levels and global temperatures plotted against time to prove it, or I might be forced to add the price of milk to that graph and blow your mind. If it is the cause of rising temperatures, it’s bound to be far more complicated, and not something that be easily proven by presenting simple proportional relationships.

So, let us move back to the Copenhagen summit. Is it a bad thing to get all these people together to discuss climate change? Not if this sort of thing happened quite often to discuss the World’s problems. My problem is that ‘climate change’ is such a big talking point at the moment that it distracts from the more important, tangible problems that are more than evident throughout the world. Think about the significance of having all that power focussed on a single issue. Why not shift the focus of that power over to something like, say, World hunger? At least that’s a problem that can be seen to be affecting people, and has a potential solution. Do you have any idea how much it would cost to arrange this many World leaders to get together in one room? I don’t, although I can safely assume it’s a fair bit. The money needed for security alone could probably feed an African nation for at least a couple of years.

Reduce CO2 emissions by all means, that can’t be a bad thing. However, I beg of you, separate the air-quality issues from the doomsday scenario. I’m sick of being told that every coffee I drink emits the same amount of CO2 as slapping an orphan across the face with a bottlenose dolphin. Don’t make me feel guilty by using convoluted equations based on vague relationships and clouded logic to blame the end of the world on my mundane lifestyle. And to all the powerful people attending Copenhagen, please don’t come up with some convoluted, misguided, ill-informed tax scheme that will inevitably punish the poorest individuals. Do you think it will be the big companies that will suffer? BP and ExxonMobil forced to change their heathen ways? Hardly. They have way too much political influence to let anything affect them. I’m sure that if anything happens to their profits they, with all their infinite compassion and respect for consumers, will just raise the cost of petrol. Or, if forced to investigate alternative fuels, will simply find a way to produce oil from the tears of baby fur seals, just to make a point.

A few months ago I went to a seminar from a visiting scientist who had investigated a number of schemes being adopted by British companies designed to charge their suppliers based on their CO2-equivalent emissions. These schemes calculated emissions based on a number of factors, one of which is deforestation. The problem here is that not everyone has records of what their land was used for prior to the magical year of 1990. If you have no records of your crop prior to that year, the calculations default to the maximum. What this means is that if a Kenyan farmer cut down a few trees on a section of grassland to plant his beans, but kept no records of what had been done, it is assumed that he levelled a section of Malaysian rainforest. This farmer, who is hardly raking in the shillings in the first place, can now only get a fraction of what he was getting for his crop, all because a supermarket chain in Britain wants to put a ‘Carbon Neutral’ sticker on their packet of beans. I fail to see how anybody wins in that scenario.

The other danger of giving CO2 our full attention is that it gives us false hope that we can stop what is happening. What happens if we invest all this time and money into reducing CO2 emissions, solely for the purpose of slowing global warming, and then in 20 years time we realise it had nothing to do with it and we’re not prepared for the consequences? I have a feeling that we’re busy burning all our books, all the while refusing to accept what’s happening and adjust our grocery budget.

Let’s all take a deep breath, brush aside the hype for a second and think about this. After all, every deep breath locks up the same amount of CO2 as giving a sugar-coated rainbow to a unicorn.

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