I was concerned for you on the news the other night. I’ve never seen you looking uncomfortable in front of the camera before. Answering questions about climate change with water all around you left you short of breath and a bit panicky, I thought. A pint in your hand would have helped settle the nerves. I’ll buy you one – it would give me a chance to talk through a couple of things (I’m with you on the straight glass thing by the way).
You said to the journalist: “I have no idea whether CO2 emissions are contributing to climate change.” Well, I’m an academic at the Open University, a social scientist working with climate scientists and technology specialists, so I can help you with that one.
In the mid 1980s it was agreed by governments and the top science institutions around the world that humans might cause changes to the climate, and that we’d better look into it. That’s when the IPCC was born: a panel of top scientists conducting a massive review of all the relevant science. The first report said that some uncertainties would decrease over time and some would increase. For sure some uncertainties have increased. But they have got much more confident about the role of humans in climate change with every report.
But this is difficult stuff to hear when everything we do seems to depend on fossil fuels. The result has been that many people with an interest have turned climate change into a truth war. Personally I find it much more helpful to instead think of climate science as a risk assessment, and climate policy as risk management. No sides, or battles, just different appetites for risk. The IPCC risk assessment came in years ago, with absolute clarity: the message was that we shouldn’t risk the future for the sake of cheap oil and coal.
But you might say I’m missing your point: many opposed to climate change action, but who accept some of the basics of the science, say the cure is worse than the disease, right? Wrong. Board members of some of Britain’s biggest companies, including car manufacturing, consumer goods, energy and water industries, can point to no-regrets tech progress their companies have made in key sectors, driven by commitments to act on climate change and pursue resource efficiency. They’re delivering better products to consumers, reducing bills and gaining market share. They’re fitter to compete globally too.
You and I also care about the quality of everyday life for those oft-mentioned but oft-neglected hardworking ordinary British people. But again I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Things like green transport and housing policies can help to make people healthier, happier and richer across a lifetime, and reduce tax burdens around health care and welfare. The T-shirt version: climate action = better lives, lower taxes. So long as the policy people start early and learn as they go.
But what if the IPCC is wrong? What if the maverick naysayers are on the nail? The most convincing (to me) climate contrarian arguments are rooted in the idea that we’ll “get lucky”. In other words, that climate sensitivity will be at the lowest end of the range of scenarios. This line is nicely summarised by the climate contrarian’s mascot scientist Richard Lindzen in his contribution to the UK House of Commons Climate Change Committee hearing on the IPCC’s latest report: “It is entirely possible there is no problem.”
But, luck. Chance. Optimism. Hope. A bet. A gamble. A roll of the dice. How did that go with banking?
Yes. It is entirely possible that there is no problem, but almost all the good evidence available to me points in another direction. Happily most of the things that are likely to be required can, if well thought through, carry some huge benefits to honest hard working British people and British businesses.
Let’s have that pint. Straight glasses. Cask ale. And talk more about the weather.
PS: The next time TV journalists do that thing where they make you stand in a flooded street and ask you about climate change you can say the IPCC would stress that the capacity to directly attribute extreme weather events directly to climate change is years away, if it’s even possible. But if you do borrow that line of argument do please promise to read some of the other things they’ve got to say.
Joe Smith currently receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Ashden Trust.