Global warming and the circles of denial

NASA image of Arctic sea on 26th August 2012, with much of the ice cover (except next to Greenland and eastern Canada) gone

Along with the Arctic ice, the rich world’s smugness will melt | George Monbiot (in yesterday’s Guardian)

This article appeared in yesterday’s Guardian and it is about the record melting of Arctic ice that has happened this summer, which is the worst ever recorded — 50% worse than the previous record, from 2007 — and which has led one scientist to say, “it feels as if everything I’ve learned has become obsolete”. It also overturns the previously widely-believed theory that places with temperate climates, like the UK, will be the places least badly hit if climate change continues:

New knowledge of the way in which the destruction of the Arctic sea ice affects northern Europe and North America suggests that this is no longer true. A paper published earlier this year in Geophysical Research Letters shows that Arctic warming is likely to be responsible for the extremes now hammering the once-temperate nations.

The north polar jet stream is an air current several hundred kilometres wide, travelling eastwards around the hemisphere. The current functions as a barrier, separating the cold, wet weather to the north from the warmer, drier weather to the south. Many of the variations in our weather are caused by great travelling meanders – Rossby waves – in the jet stream.

Arctic heating, the paper shows, both slows the Rossby waves and makes them steeper and wider. Instead of moving on rapidly, the weather gets stuck. Regions to the south of the stalled meander wait for weeks or months for rain; regions to the north (or underneath it) wait for weeks or months for a break from the rain. Instead of a benign succession of sunshine and showers, we get droughts or floods. During the winter a slow, steep meander can connect us directly to the polar weather, dragging severe ice and snow far to the south of its usual range. This mechanism goes a long way towards explaining the shift to sustained – and therefore extreme – weather patterns around the northern hemisphere.

(The scenario that some of the temperate northern European countries would escape the worst of global warming was hardly a situation to look forward to — it also proposed that Britain would become a ‘lifeboat nation’ which everyone would be trying to get to, while our land would be called on to produce much of the world’s food while being encroached on by our cities.)

George Monbiot’s books and articles have at length exposed the “denial industry” around global warming, which consists of various PR companies funded by the oil industry which run websites promoting “sound science” and purporting to refute so-called junk science, some of which has led to celebrity scientists, like David Bellamy at one point, wheeling them out and giving rise to confusion — surely someone with his authority and profile cannot be wrong? He gives a few examples of “astro-turf” opinion columnists and the like here, including one or two who have previously worked for the tobacco industry on the “smoking causes cancer” denial campaign.

I used to think there was a hierarchy of denialists, with climate change denialists at the bottom. It is a hierarchy of moral repugnance, but Holocaust deniers are fairly high, because what they deny is something that finished nearly 70 years ago and nobody is going to die if you say the Holocaust didn’t happen. Below that, however, comes people who deny present threats to human health and the environment, and the denial of these by people in positions of influence could lead to real human suffering now. The denial of the ongoing Serbian genocide in the early 1990s by a certain group of ex-Marxists, in my view, is worse than Holocaust denial because people might actually have died if it had been acted on.

So, in the lower circles of this Hell are to be found: ME denialists (whose misinformation led to people being told to exercise when it was bad for them, resulting in numerous incidents of cruelty to children by doctors and social workers and people becoming bedridden for years or even decades), AIDS denialists (who influenced African governments not to facilitate antiretrovirals, leading to people getting ill and spreading HIV when they could have lived fairly healthily and posed no health risk to, say, their partners and unborn children) and smoking/cancer link deniers whose effect on public health over the past 50 years is pretty obvious. At the bottom should be climate change deniers, whose propaganda could lead to environmental degradation of many kinds on a worldwide scale and potentially lead to war.

But in reality, there is not a face-off between these deniers and their friends on one hand, and a mass of mankind who wants to save the earth on the other. Nobody wants to accept that our lifestyle, based on mass consumption of mass-produced manufactured goods (often sourced from far away), on cheap and fast travel powered by petroleum and electricity, and on mass consumption of large quantities of meat, is unsustainable, and no politician will try to sell it to the population as it would be electoral suicide. Hardly anyone is blameless in this except for subsistence farmers in third world countries who do not drive and do not burn huge amounts of fuel daily. Monbiot himself does not believe we should all accept going back to horses and carts, but claims that it is necessary to almost totally eliminate air travel, and proposes a system of rationing of carbon emissions. Of course, barring a violent revolution (which the population of this country will not help bring about), the chances of it being implemented are practically nil. It is not only corporate interests that prevent serious action on global warming; it is democracy, and popular apathy.

The way things stand, most of us are not a great deal better than those who say global warming is not happening. There are lots of heads stuck in the sand. When I was at school, we were asked to imagine the world in 2015 and the teacher suggested that the result of global warming be considered in our work. One boy, who was the class science nerd, said “the Greenhouse Effect will probably be gone by then”. We asked whether he meant that it will have taken effect or that mankind will have solved the problem, and he said, “solved the problem”. The way things are going, it looks like the opposite will be the case.

Image source: NASA via The Register.

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