Notes from Cabot Institute Lecture (Climate Change)

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I’m keen to pass on news of articles, books, films etc that people may find interesting on transitional subjects – and for others to pass things on as well so that this blog becomes a noticeboard for people to find and post information. In that spirit, last Friday I went to a lecture by Chris Rapley, Department of Earth Sciences, University Colege of London, formerly head of the British Antarctic Survey and Science Museum There wasn’t a lot of positive news about climate change, but it was fascinating to see how and why it’s portrayed by different factions and the role scientists could/should have. I took a lot of notes so that I could pass on the gist of his talk – but I’d recommend looking at his slides as backup…  I know it’s a bit longer than other posts, but there was some really interesting stuff which I wanted to share.

Much of the lecture was about the background to climate change, and the ineluctable desire of human beings to live beyond their means, with the intense energy of fossil fuels built up over hundreds of millions of years powering the modern age. As Transition Clevedon is just about to hold a lecture about the history of climate change on March 12th I was intrigued to see whether Chris would say that it was all induced by humans, or whether climate change just happens and has nothing to do with us. Well, there’s good and bad news. The good news I suppose is that it is ‘man-made’ – good in that we may be able to do something about it, and good that Transition movements still have a purpose (!) but the fact it’s happening, and much faster than predicted, is pretty bad.

His slides showed that for the last 5-6,000 years climate has been reasonably stable, which has allowed civilisation to prosper. Before that there were wild swings from ice age to heat and back again in very short time scales – there were also varying CO2 levels, with ice ages having about 175 parts per million, and warmer climates having about 275 parts. The levels are now at 375 , meaning that current levls of CO2 are completely out of line with the normal cycle the earth has experienced within at least the last 30 million years, and that there is a huge energy imbalance. This huge increase has happened within the last 100 years.

The next part of the lecture looked at the role oceans play in climate change and the planet’s life support system. Up to now the oceans have absorbed 90% of this energy imbalance, so that rather than looking at air tempertaures to see if we have global warming, we would be better looking to the oceans as our planetary thermometer.  Sea levels have been fairly stable since the last ice age up till the last 100 years – now the seas are warming and accumulating water, ie showing evidence of global warming. However, he did say that the picture across the world is very complex with some areas cooling and not all evidence pointing to climate change, but that the global mean demonstrated an important general view.

The Arctic in particular has responded more strongly than other areas, to the extent that it may be an ice free region by 2017. The maximum winter ice now is the same volume as the summer ice levels in 1979, ie there has been a very dramatic change, which if it continues at the same rate will mean the end of the ice within 4 years. When the Inconvenient Truth was made in 2006, it was thought that the ice would take 50+ years to melt. Things have changed.

One problem, of many, associated with this is that the modern world is imperfectly adapted to climate change – it’s all happening to quickly for us. There will be major issues associated with water, productivity from farming and forestry, disease, oppressive heat and humidity impacting on human productivity, extreme weather, increased running costs, sea levels rising… And the melting of the permafrost, and the subsequent release of stored CO2 and methane, could result in runaway climate change.

Therefore, he was very clear, that climate change is real, and that the main driver is us.

He compared the present situation to people in the 1930s being in denial of issues leading up to WW2, quoting Winston Churchill: ‘the era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.’

With business (rather than government or people) shaping the future, global co-ordination is both necessary and very difficult. His view was that we’ve lost the opportunity to manage CO2 emmissions, but that our options to adapt and to address the problem are limited: one of the biggest barriers to progress being the human brain.

He suggested that all the information on climate change leads to a range of emotions such as anxiety, fear, grief, guilt, anger and helplessness, which leads to us raising our defences, suppressing feelings and arguments, in turn leading to anger and the messenger being blamed. Dismissal, disavowel and discounting are all much easier, particularly when organisations with vested interests deliberately offer doubt to compete with the scientific body of fact ( in a very similar way that tobacco manufacturers behaved). There was an amusing slide of people queueing at a cinema to see ‘A Reassuring Lie’ rather than ‘An Inconvenient Truth’.

If we sit back and see what happens it will be too late by the time we know. He compared the risk from climate change to that of your house burning down: most people take out insurance against the risk (1 in 10,000), but the risk from climate change is much greater, yet people aren’t acting.

But what scope do we have to act? He outlined three areas:

  1. Personal – it’s easy to reduce your carbon footprint by 10% without any major noticeable difference on your life, and by doing so you will control your own impact and set an example (and probably save money)
  2. Professional- for those people at work, there is scope to reduce usage of heating, lighting, paper and other resources, and that staff should be encouraged to come up with their own ideas, which will impact on the ethical position of the organisation and staff pride in their work place.
  3. Political – through writing to your MP, joining campaigns by such organisations as 38 degrees and Avaaz, your voice can be heard – and if you don’t act, MPs won’t know you’re interested.

Although much of the lecture focussed on the worrying issues, Chris did draw it to a close by saying that human ingenuity is unbounded and that there are many new possibilities to exploit. Humanity can either release an unstoppable force of nature… or make a difference, and we’ll know within 20 years which it is.

With people being such creatures of habit, the lost important thing is to change our habits. If people turn away from the message through fear, how do we engage with people on something that is frightening? Fear is often unproductive, with people shutting down, so Chris was keen for climate change to be made entertaining, fun and interesting so that people overcome their fear in an emotionally safe space and can discuss things openly without debates being combative and tribal.

I hope I’ve covered his main points clearly – any questions, please ask!

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