Sunday, January 02, 2011

CLIMATE CHANGE - there are things we can and should agree upon

In May, 2010, I submitted the following letter to the editor of Science, published by the American Society for the Advancement of Science. For reasons best known to themselves, they failed to acknowledge its receipt nor did they print the article.

Yet again, scientists have shown their lack of understanding on how to influence the non-scientific world about climate change. In his editorial on 7 May 2010, Brooks Hanson rightly lambasts some US legislators for their views about this issue, but he fails to acknowledge the mistakes, errors and exaggerations made by reputable scientists on key climate change issues such as Himalayan glacier melting rates and ‘climategate’. You don’t win friends and influence people by ridiculing the very people you’re trying to convert to your cause while ignoring the elephants in the room.

The letter from Gleick et al lists five ‘fundamental conclusions about climate change’. However, three of these conclusions (most heat-trapping gases derive from human activities; a warming planet results in many other climatic changes; climate changes pose threats to human societies and to nature) are unarguable facts that most climate change deniers accept. Most disputation centres around the remaining two conclusions: that our planet is warming because of higher levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere; and human-induced climate changes are overwhelming natural changes.

As most negotiators know, when trying to reach agreement with an opponent, success is often achieved when the parties begin by agreeing on what is not in dispute. In addition to the above three conclusions, protagonists in the climate change debate should be able to agree on many points, for example:
1. That China’s electricity consumption per dollar of GDP as measured in kilowatt hours is more than double that of India and almost four times that of the USA (ref: 1)
2. That motor vehicle fuel efficiency in the USA is roughly half that of European vehicles (ref: 2)

If both sides of the debate could agree on just these two points, then governments could start addressing the required technical, economic and political solutions to China’s wastage of electricity and the USA’s wastage of motor fuels.

Another example of a mutually agreed issue is the finite amount of non-renewable fossil fuels occurring on our planet. While the date when the readily extractable resources will begin to run out is contentious, agreeing that this will happen at some undefined point in the future should convince even the staunchest climate change denier to accept that energy conservation measures implemented now will provide benefits to future generations. In turn, such energy conservation will also lessen the rate of increase in heat-trapping gases emitted to the atmosphere.

The editorial and letter in your 7 May 2010 edition show that scientists have an essential role in investigating and reporting on scientific issues but they should be prepared to call in economic and political experts when non-scientific resolutions are required.

1. Lights and action: Electricity and development in China. The Economist, May 1st, 2010
2. U.S. ‘stuck in reverse’ on fuel economy. Roland Jones, Business news editor,, February 28, 2007.

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