Give Me a Crash Course In . . .

A cli­mate-change warn­ing

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - JOHN GIBBONS

So there’s been yet an­other warn­ing about cli­mate change. Noth­ing new, surely?

Yes and no. The ar­ti­cle pub­lished ear­lier this month in New York mag­a­zine, “The Un­in­hab­it­able Earth”, by David Wal­lace-Wells, runs to a hefty 7,000 words and has caused a pub­lish­ing sen­sa­tion. With a mil­lion pageviews it’s the most-read ar­ti­cle on­line that the mag­a­zine has ever pub­lished, and it has trig­gered a firestorm of re­ac­tion, both from the me­dia and from sci­en­tists.

Why? Isn’t ev­ery­body bored by scary, fin­ger-wag­ging cli­mate ar­ti­cles?

You might have thought so, but ap­par­ently not. Wal­lace-Wells doesn’t hec­tor, but the ar­ti­cle is cer­tainly scary. “No mat­ter how well-in­formed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough,” is how he frames it. His ar­ti­cle as­sumes that hu­man­ity will con­tinue on its cur­rent high-emis­sions path­way. With Trump in the White House and coun­tries such as Ire­land do­ing al­most noth­ing to cut emis­sions, it’s a rea­son­able bet. And that path leads to cli­mate hell.

Haven’t cli­mate sci­en­tists rub­bished this ar­ti­cle?

Not ex­actly. There have been some quib­bles, mostly about timescales, and a cou­ple of factual er­rors have been up­dated, but the nub of Wal­lace-Wells’s ar­gu­ment re­mains in­tact. In a nut­shell, while our goose may not yet be cooked, it’s al­ready wrapped in tin­foil and we’re slid­ing it far­ther into the oven each year.

Isn’t it a bad idea to be so neg­a­tive?

That’s ex­actly what has up­set most of Wal­lace-Wells’s crit­ics. The ar­gu­ment runs some­thing like this: the ex­perts know the sit­u­a­tion is dire, but if the pub­lic gets wind of just how bad things re­ally are, they will be­come de­pressed and ap­a­thetic, then switch off and tune out. Which guar­an­tees the very worst out­come.

So ar­ti­cles like this are re­ally un­help­ful, then?

That’s one view. An­other is that when things are re­ally, re­ally bad, that’s the time for hon­esty, not false op­ti­mism. Let’s say you’ve just been di­ag­nosed with a tu­mour: opt­ing for herbal reme­dies and home­opa­thy in­stead of the grim chemo­ther­apy rec­om­mended by your doc­tors might make you feel good for a while, but it’ll prob­a­bly cost your life. Be­ing bru­tally hon­est about cli­mate change to­day may help us face the truly tough de­ci­sions that could one day save our chil­dren’s lives.

Surely you ex­ag­ger­ate. What’s the worst that could hap­pen?

If you re­ally want to know, hu­mans stand a rea­son­ably good chance of go­ing ex­tinct in the rel­a­tively near fu­ture. Yes, all of us. An in­crease of 2 de­grees in av­er­age global sur­face tem­per­a­ture is widely seen as the tip­ping point to­wards an apoc­a­lyp­tic fu­ture on Earth, yet we’re al­ready more than half­way there. The ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change projects 4 de­grees this cen­tury, on our cur­rent path­way. This is a Mad

Max vi­sion of a col­lapsed global econ­omy and shat­tered en­vi­ron­ment, with bil­lions of peo­ple scram­bling just to sur­vive.

Mow you’re freak­ing me out. What if it’s re­ally not that bad?

There is a pos­si­bil­ity that Earth’s cli­mate turns out to be a lot less sen­si­tive to car­bon diox­ide than feared, so the ef­fects of cli­mate change may be less se­vere. But this is un­likely. It’s is equally un­likely that so-called pos­i­tive feed­backs – hid­den tip­ping points in a com­plex cli­mate sys­tem – could kick in and ac­tu­ally make things far worse than the IPCC’s mod­el­ling sug­gests. There’s a lot of un­cer­tainty, but un­cer­tainty is not our friend.

How come this ar­ti­cle hasn’t been cov­ered more by Ir­ish me­dia?

Maybe it’s be­cause we live on a small, damp is­land that many peo­ple in the me­dia man­age to kid them­selves that it’s not re­ally our prob­lem. Mis­take.

Wild­fire: flames ap­proach houses in Cal­i­for­nia. PHO­TO­GRAPH: DAVID MCNEW/GETTY

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