Tag Archives: global-warming

A History of the Climate Change Controversies

After obtaining and analysing the documents and emails from the Climate Research Unit email controversy (the so-called Climategate emails), Der Spiegel “reveals how the war between climate researchers and climate skeptics broke out, the tricks the two sides used to outmaneuver each other and how the conflict could be resolved”.

The result is an exceptional and comprehensive article on the history of the climate change issue and the scientists’ place in it.

The article concludes:

Sociologist Peter Weingart believes that the damage could be irreparable. “A loss of credibility is the biggest risk inherent in scientific communication,” he said, adding that trust can only be regained through complete transparency. […]

It seems all but impossible to provide conclusive proof in climate research. Scientific philosopher Silvio Funtovicz [described] climate research as a “postnormal science.” On account of its high complexity, he said it was subject to great uncertainty while, at the same time, harboring huge risks.

The experts therefore face a dilemma: They have little chance of giving the right advice. If they don’t sound the alarm, they are accused of not fulfilling their moral obligations. However, alarmist predictions are criticized if the predicted changes fail to materialize quickly.

Climatological findings will probably remain ambiguous even if further progress is made. Weingart says it’s now up to scientists and society to learn to come to terms with this. In particular, he warns, politicians must understand that there is no such thing as clear results. “Politicians should stop listening to scientists who promise simple answers,” Weingart says.

via Art and Letters Daily

Seven Threats to a Sustainable ‘Food Future’

In a hugely captivating and comprehensive look at the food supply chain in Britain, Jeremy Harding provides a look at “the future of food and its supply”–including food ethics, food security and the dire need for a sustainable future.

Harding’s case is the most cogent I’ve read and it offers much more than a condemnation of our current, unsustainable habits: the article focuses on what Harding dubs the “seven big stories”–the seven fundamental “looming threats” we must keep in mind when planning for a sustainable, efficient and secure ‘food future’.

  1. Population growth: The expected large-scale urbanisation of the future “poses big questions about land use (housing v. farming) and the production of food by a minority for a majority as the gap between the two gets wider”.
  2. ‘The nutrition transition’: As we move further away from a diet based on grains, pulses and legumes and toward one of meat and dairy (the transition from maize feeding us to maize feeding the animals) means that “global production of food – all food – will have to increase by 50 per cent over the next 20 years to cater for two billion extra people and cope with the rising demand for meat”.
  3. Energy: “The industrial production of food is sure to become more expensive as fuel costs rise. It takes 160 litres of oil to produce a tonne of maize in the US; natural gas accounts for at least three-quarters of the cost of making nitrogen fertiliser; freight, too, depends on fuel”.
  4. Land: “The amount of the world’s land given over to agriculture continues to grow, but in per capita terms it’s shrinking. As with oil, it’s possible to envisage ‘peak food’ (the point of maximum production, followed by decline), ‘peak phosphorus’ [and] ‘peak land’: the point at which the total area of the world’s most productive land begins to diminish (soil exhaustion, climate change) and marginal land comes up for reassessment”.
  5. Water: “Worldwide, one in three people face water shortages and by 2030 the ratio will have narrowed. […] Much of our fruit and veg comes from water-scarce countries and […] lack of water closes down food production and livelihoods”.
  6. Climate change: “Extreme weather events will […] jeopardise agriculture and the movement of food from one place to another”.
  7. Agricultural workers: More than half of the world’s 1.1 billion agricultural workers” own neither land nor machinery and live in a state of semi-slavery. The conditions of this new global underclass are at last a matter of concern: worldwide food production is set on a downturn as their wretchedness weakens their capacity to produce and earn, driving more people inexorably towards the cities.

I suppose you could call these the food equivalent of Jared Diamond’s twelve problems of societal sustainability.

Long-Term Thinking and Climate Change

One of the reasons the general public are slow in acting on climate change in the manner the situation’s importance demands is our reluctance to think too far beyond our immediate time horizon. However this shouldn’t stop us.

That is the suggestion of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, who extols the virtues of long-term thinking more eloquently than I’ve heard before:

“As in politics,” he says, “the immediate trumps the important.” Our future-blindness may reflect a basic limitation of the brain. “In so far as brains evolved to cope with everyday life on the savannah, they evolved in a context where you didn’t plan 50 years ahead and you cared about your local community. Although…” A pause. A sip of tea. “Although, it’s odd—I gave a talk at Ely cathedral not long ago. The people who built the cathedral had a limited view of the world. Their world was the fens, and they thought it would end quite soon, but nevertheless built this wonderful structure which is part of our heritage 1,000 years later. And it’s shameful in a way that we, with our longer horizons and greater resources, are reluctant to think 50 years ahead.”

via The Browser

Note: The full article is behind a pay wall. The above quote and the context thereof is available.

Creating Effective Messages

Nature has published a short interview with psychologist Robert Gifford looking at the “interface between psychology and climate change”.

Noting the problem of pubic distrust of scientific messages that are delivered with uncertainty, Gifford proposes five elements of effective messages*:

  1. It has to have some urgency.
  2. It has to have as much certainty as can be mustered with integrity.
  3. There can’t be just one message: there must be messages targeted to different groups.
  4. Messages should be framed in positive terms. (Evidence from a recent thesis […] shows that people are less willing to change their behaviour if you tell them they have to make sacrifices. If you tell them they can be in the vanguard, be a hero, be the one that helps — that works.)
  5. You have to give people the sense that their vote counts and that their effort won’t be in vain.

This doesn’t apply just to messages on climate change, of course.

via Mind Hacks

*The original article has, since posting this, gone behind a paywall.

Environmental Assumptions

Big business is environmentally destructive: a widespread and almost unquestioned assumption. A false assumption, according to Jared Diamond, noting that profits often arise from green initiatives and environmental concern is of inherent importance to many large corporations.

The story is told through the lens of Wal-Mart’s transport and packaging initiatives, Coca-Cola’s concern “with problems of water scarcity, energy, climate change and agriculture” and Chevron’s policy of rigourous environmental protection (of which anyone who has read Diamond’s Collapse, will be acutely aware):

The embrace of environmental concerns by chief executives has accelerated recently for several reasons. Lower consumption of environmental resources saves money in the short run. Maintaining sustainable resource levels and not polluting saves money in the long run. And a clean image — one attained by, say, avoiding oil spills and other environmental disasters — reduces criticism from employees, consumers and government.

It’s not just big business we make assumptions about: as Tim Harford points out after reading Prashant Vaze’s The Economical Environmentalist, some typical environmental decisions are sometimes based on incorrect assumptions:

Environmentalists have been slow to realise that the fashionable eco-lifestyle is riddled with contradictions. The one that particularly exasperates me is the “food miles” obsession, whereby we eschew tomatoes from Spain and roses flown in from Kenya, in favour of local products grown in a heated greenhouse with a far greater carbon footprint. Other less-than-obvious truths are: that pork and chicken have substantially lower carbon footprints than beef and lamb (yes, even organic beef and lamb); that milk and cheese also have a substantial footprint; that dishwashers are typically more efficient than washing dishes by hand; and that eco-friendly washing powders may be distinctly eco-unfriendly because they tend to tempt people to use hotter washes.

Jared Diamond piece via Marginal Revolution