Friday, 16 April 2010

Politics, climate change and fiction

It's been a bad year for politicians, climate change and my novel-writing efforts (yes, there is an admittedly rather tenuous link between all of these).

Here in the Land of Uk, our politicians have been neatly hoist with their own petard in that the Freedom of Information (FoI) act which they passed a few years ago has been used to expose all kinds of shenanigans with their expenses. A few of the more extreme cases are now subject to criminal proceedings, but the lesser offenders fell foul of a kind of cultural groupthink; they fell in with a prevailing official culture which allowed all kinds of secret abuses of the system on the grounds that their basic pay was being artificially restricted for political reasons. When the news broke, howls of rage and derision were heard throughout the land. The fall-out is due to land soon with the forthcoming General Election which will see the biggest clear-out of politicians since 1945 - plus a popular wish for a "none of the above!" option to be provided on the voting form.

Politicians also failed to shine in a different way at the Copenhagen conference on climate change. Here they could really have done with some groupthink to get their act together and come up with some constructive results, but they failed. Part of the problem is that most politicians are more concerned with being re-elected than anything else, which makes them very sensitive to public opinion, which means they are strongly inclined to follow public opinion rather than lead it - even when that opinion is badly informed. The inevitable conclusion is that democracy, for all of its other merits, is a very poor system for persuading people that they really do need to face up to something which they would really rather not - especially if the problem is very complex and isn't due to hit home for decades (i.e. many elections away). Ironically one country which is unconcerned about elections - China - had its own reasons for not wanting to know about any potential restrictions on economic growth.

Most of the reason for the Copenhagen failure was probably the feeling that recovering from the economic recession took priority, but it wasn't helped by the publicity about the now notorious emails within the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. These revealed another kind of groupthink among the researchers, who felt themselves beleaguered by the constant attempts to discredit their work, including the bombardment of demands for information under that same FoI act which did for the MPs. They seem to have adopted a bunker mentality, trying to block and frustrate the activities of their critics. As is now obvious, this was a very bad idea. So was the inclusion by the IPCC of an unsupported remark concerning the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers in what was supposed to be a peer-reviewed and thoroughly checked report.

All of this has no doubt contributed to the sharp increase in the number of those in the UK who do not believe that climate change is a problem, although I suspect that a much bigger reason was the severe winter we've just endured. I had to laugh at the cartoon which showed a traffic jam of cars partly buried in snow with, coming from all of them, a version of that well-known question-and-response chant familiar from demonstrations and protest marches:

"What do we want?"
"Global warming!"
"When do we want it?"

The fact that the Meteorological Office had predicted a milder than usual winter, coupled with their springtime prediction of a "barbeque summer" which turned out to be thoroughly wet and cold, only added to the public feeling that the so-called experts had no idea what they were talking about.

The problem basically comes back to the fact that climate change is a complex subject with long-term consequences. Unfortunately, amendments to our behaviour to deal with this are also long-term in their effect, and therefore need to be put in place well in advance. In order to try to wake the public up to the potential severity of the situation, there is no doubt that many people involved with climate change research have been guilty of over-simplifying and over-dramatising the issues. Sadly they have thereby supplied free ammunition to those who do not want to believe that there is a problem, or if there is one that it is anything to do with human activities, or that if it is to do with human activities, that there is anything that we can realistically do about it.

As an interested bystander , I offer my own small contribution to correcting these perception problems by going back to basics. The first essential is to clarify the distinctions between global warming, climate change and weather; something which a lot of people are evidently still confused about.

Global warming describes the gradual increase in average planetary temperatures over the past century or so. It's important to stress the "average" bit: on a year-by-year temperature graph, the line zig-zags up and down, making it difficult to see what is happening. So statisticians calculate a rolling average over several years; this smooths out the annual variations and shows the underlying trend. And what this trend shows is that the planet is indubitably warming up: see THIS. Various explanations have been put forward for this and (as is usually the case) the truth is likely to be a complex blend of interacting reasons: but the informed opinion of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists is that the substantial increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting from human industrial activities (which is also well evidenced) bears a very large share of the blame.

Climate change affects us much more directly than global warming: it concerns what happens to regional temperature, wind and rainfall patterns as a result of the overall warming trend. This has been the subject of many of the more alarming predictions about the consequences for humanity. However, it is a very complex and difficult area to predict, so any statements about the consequences need to be expressed as probabilities rather than certainties - and even the probabilities need to be regarded with caution as they will certainly change as we learn more over time. Having said that, there are already considerable differences from one part of the world to another. For instance, the Arctic is warming up faster than anywhere else, probably because the much reduced summer ice cover is allowing the ocean to absorb more of the suns rays and thereby warm up, instead of the rays being reflected back to space by the ice cover. At the other extreme, the Antarctic is hardly warming at all. Perhaps even more significant than temperature changes are the consequences for wind and ocean current patterns and how they will affect rainfall. All we can say at the moment is that there will be a wide range of climate changes in different parts of the world, and that while some may be beneficial to specific areas, the overall consequences are likely to be negative. Why is this? Simply because our current patterns of population distribution and agriculture are based on and adapted to the existing regional climates, so if these change for the worse (e.g. less rainfall in an agricultural area) the effects are likely to be serious. These comments only apply to moderate levels of climate change. If the global average temperature increases by several degrees, then the resulting climate changes are likely to be catastrophic almost everywhere.

Finally, Weather. This of course describes the temperatures, winds and rainfalls which we experience hour by hour, day by day, month by month. The graphs for these zig-zag around wildly, giving us considerable short-term variations (hence the wet summer and cold winter). These can be very inconvenient but are not of any long-term significance. It is only if the weather changes consistently and over a long period of time that this becomes important - and then it becomes climate change.

From my perspective, the whole question of climate change is one of risk assessment: how likely is it to happen, and if it does happen, how bad might the consequences be? Finally, what would be the costs of taking remedial action? As you will have gathered, there are no certainties in any of this, nor are any simple answers possible. However, the best judgment which I can make from studying the published evidence and the professional opinions of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists is that global warming is very likely to continue unless we take some strenous actions to prevent it; that this will drive ever-increasing climate change; and that the long-term consequences for our civilisation are likely to be serious.

So what should or could we be doing about all of this? I have gone into this in some detail HERE. The main point is that adapting our activities to reduce global warming as far as possible is not all bad news, because it brings opportunities as well as costs: as old industries wind down, new ones will spring up. This is already happening in many areas of life (to give a simple example: as production of low-efficiency light bulbs declines, that of high-efficiency ones accelerates), and these changes will continue anyway.

So what on earth has all this to do with my novel-writing problems? Well, a year or two ago I had an idea for a new novel. I was intrigued by the kind of existence people would have living in arcologies - basically huge buildings containing homes, shops, workplaces, leisure facilities, even food-producing areas - but considered that these are only likely to become economically worthwhile if temperatures fall considerably while energy costs rise, because of the huge energy savings they would permit. At that time there was considerable concern that the melting Arctic ice might stop the flow of the warm current from the Caribbean which keeps NW Europe much warmer than it otherwise would be, so this region could experience a fairly short-term but severe cooling effect, until global warming gradually restored the situation. Great! I had the background I needed and could get on with devising a suitably science-fictional murder-mystery set in my arcology. I had it all planned out - right down to the dramatic final twist - and was happily ploughing through it when disaster struck. I discovered that the original concerns had been caused by oceanic measurements which indicated that the current had already slowed by 30% over a few decades; but more recent research had showed that this was merely a short-term variation, and that particular threat was no longer regarded as very likely. Collapse of one SF author, torpedoed below the water line. Oh well, I suppose that novel was just an early casualty of climate change!


M Pax said...

I was recently reading about how climatologists and meterologists [weather people] do not agree about global warming.

I live in the land of 'let's pretend reality is different than it is' [US]. Our politicians are no better. Must be a global disease.

The fact that we may be killing ourselves off has given me lots of sci-fi story ideas. Good luck with getting your writing going again.

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for that, but fiction writing is a low priority for me at the moment - too many other things going on. Also, I can't write fiction to order - I have to have an idea which interests me so much that I'm willing to devote months of work to it. That happens very rarely...

彭志文 said...