Challenging conceptions about climate change

IT'S always interesting to look at how different media outlets report the same science-related story.

Recently, Nature GeoScience published a paper that assessed how much CO2 we could still emit and keep the global temperature increase to a liveable average of 1.5°Celsius (per the Paris Accord). It set the time limit for reaching zero emissions somewhat further out than before.

This does not mean we heave a sigh of relief and can continue with life as usual, merrily pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The previous deadline was absolutely and utterly undoable. The new one (less than forty years to zero) is not much better; putting real brakes on the roaring train of climate change must and will require huge shifts in how we do politics, business, agriculture and life.

The enormity of the problem is the reason so many are now discussing ways to initiate systemic change, change that definitely means living and conducting business very differently to what we do now.

The Nature GeoScience paper looked at updated data, updated measurements and factored in some of those wild cards which can intervene and throw earlier models off track. (One such wild card is the fact that some models “had also projected more rapid warming in the expectation that, for example, sun-blocking pollution particles would be cleaned up more quickly…” Guess what? They weren’t. Hooray? Hardly. Cough cough cough.)

But the Times (UK), went for this headline: “We were wrong - worst effects of climate change can be avoided, say experts.”

The Daily Telegraph opened with: “Climate change poses less of an immediate threat to the planet than previously thought because scientists got their modelling wrong, a new study has found.” 

The dear old Daily Mail can be counted on for red-button lingo: “…a vital new report that shows how the apocalyptic predictions of the green lobby have been exaggerated. […] the immediate threat from global warming is lower than previously thought, because the computer models used by climate change experts are flawed. According to these models, temperatures across the world should now be at least 1.3 degrees above the mid-19th century average […] But the British report demonstrates that the rise is only between 0.9 and 1 degree.”

The scientists themselves responded robustly to assertions that their paper showed global temperatures are not rising as fast as predicted, and that this takes the urgency out of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions:

“Both assertions are false. Our results are entirely in line with the IPCC’s 2013 prediction that temperatures in the 2020s would be 0.9-1.3 degrees above pre-industrial […]

“What we have done is to update the implications for the amount of carbon dioxide we can still emit while expecting global temperatures to remain below the Paris Climate Agreement goal of 1.5 degrees. We find that, to likely meet the Paris goal, emission reductions would need to begin immediately and reach zero in less than 40 years’ time.

“While that is not geophysically impossible, to suggest that this means that measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are now unnecessary is clearly false.”

Emotive and inaccurate terms

Why would publications report in these emotive and inaccurate terms? One reason I have to suggest upfront is that reading, understanding and contextualising science is hard work, which is why we need more experienced science journalists. But that’s not it.

It could be the unrelenting pressure from the powerful and enormously wealthy faction fighting a rear-guard action against doing anything about limiting climate change.

Part of the mix is undoubtedly a deep reluctance to accept that systemic change is necessary. It’s an idea that is all too often posed in rather austere, monastic terms: give up your car, your iPad, your electric blanket, your avocadoes-and-asparagus-in-all-seasons menu, instead of looking at the positive outcomes that mitigation potentially offers.

When you tot up the recent damage by the extraordinary bunch of hurricanes charging through the Caribbean (not caused by, but intensified by climate change), the massive losses to flooding in East Asia, drought in Africa, immense wildfires in North America, and many more events turbo-charged by climate change, well, it might not seem like such a big ask after all.

Factor in recent research showing that “… higher CO2 concentrations will sap the protein contents of barley by 14.6 percent, rice by 7.6 percent, wheat by 7.8 percent, and potatoes by 6.4 percent”, as well as reducing key nutrients such as iron and zinc, and you might feel dramatic mitigating action can only be a good thing for humanity.

But really, instead of mourning the passing of the god of growth-at-all-costs, the industrial revolution’s golden calf which played such a huge role in getting us to this pass, we should see this as an opportunity to build new lifestyles, new ways of doing life and business, that focus on the needs laid out in Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef’s Model of Human Scale Development, subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom.

There’s a lot of creative thinking being done in this sphere (not least by our own Professor Lorenzo Fioramonti, whose book The Wellbeing Economy I’m reading and will report on soon).

It’s tremendously challenging and stimulating stuff; cast off the shackles of yesteryear’s thinking, and plunge into a lively new world that puts wellbeing at the head of the charge, rather than profits!

  • Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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