Scientists have been pleading the world to take action on climate change, yet a sizable chunk of the population still denies or downplays its reality. Gareth Shute runs down the most popular arguments for ignoring climate change and finds them wanting.
There’s been consensus in the scientific community about climate change for at least a decade now. This includes 97% of actively publishing climate scientists, NASA, and 200 Scientific Organisations who agree that the earth is warming at an alarming rate. It’s also clear that since human activity is the main cause for rising temperatures, the only solution is by “limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions and… enhancing activities that remove these gases from the atmosphere”.
Despite this, you’ll still hear a remarkable number of dismissive views about climate change from columnists, politicians, and on social media. Here we examine seven of those excuses:
Cold days in summer
There seems to be a continual stream of idiots who look out the window, notice that it’s raining/cold, and leap to the conclusion that climate change can’t be happening (the current US president is among them). What these people don’t seem to realise is that long-term trends in “climate” (measured across decades) are different from day-to-day “weather” (which occurs in a certain place at a certain time).
It might be difficult to predict the weather next week, but climatologists are still able to decipher climate trends over decades. NASA has looked at the data and found that 18 of the 19 warmest years on record took place since 2001.
It’s true that a heating world can have some odd consequences. Warmer air means more water vapour is held in the clouds, leading to more rain and – if it subsequently becomes cold enough – increased dumps of snow. This was one reason the term ‘global warming’ was dropped in order to emphasise that climate change models don’t predict hotter weather in all places at all times. Instead, they predict more extreme weather and an increase in the average heat of the planet (over a timescale of years).
No matter what the weather is doing outside your window, the evidence of a heating world remains undeniable.
But I read on the internet…
It’s amazing how many purported experts there are online these days. Very few even have science degrees (let alone doctorates), yet they seem very confident that climate change is some kind of hoax. They present theories about climate change not being manmade or question how the temperature has been measured (despite multiple measurements showing the same result).
If you make the effort to respond that, for example, blaming the sun for climate change has been discredited, or that the studies they quote have been put together by the same researchers who argued cigarettes don’t cause cancer, they just move onto a new angle.
There’s no point going through the endless arguments they put up (Stuff gathered together a group of scientists to dispel the most oft-repeated ones last year). Instead, we should ask ourselves why 97% of actively publishing climate scientists and NASA would take part in this grand conspiracy? You mean to say NASA scientists can fly a man to the moon and a rover to Mars, but when it comes to climate science they’re dumber than some random guy (it’s always a guy) on the internet?
Some deniers claim that scientists gain better prospects from pushing an alarmist view. Yet the organisations with the most to lose if the world takes climate change seriously are the oil companies and they have very deep pockets indeed. So any scientist who truly wanted to follow the dollars would sign up to produce research for them. For example, take much-quoted researcher Wie-Hock Soon who received US$1.2m in undisclosed funding from the fossil-fuel industry to push the idea that the sun was causing the fluctuations in global temperatures attributed to climate change. Climate denial is where the real money is!
In fact, so few scientists have spoken out against the consensus on climate change that Wikipedia has a page listing them all. Nonetheless, this small pool of scientists supply plenty of quotes and references for gullible internet experts.
Science will save us
It’s great that some people have such faith in science’s ability to save us, but also odd that these same people seem unwilling to hear from scientists who are far less confident. One prominent example of this argument can be seen in best-selling book Superfreakonomics. The authors proposed that a global agreement around carbon emissions is an impossibility so we should instead pin our hopes on pumping sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to reduce the amount of sun hitting the earth. This “geo-engineering” solution was subsequently ridiculed by serious researchers who found that it would be extremely expensive and potentially catastrophic.
Carbon-capture is another oft-cited solution, but the technology is developing very slowly. It’s proving extremely difficult to capture carbon even at the source where it’s being produced, let alone drawing down CO2 particles thinly dispersed in the atmosphere. Nonetheless, there’s a good argument for putting serious money behind carbon-capture technology and some are more gung-ho about it’s potential, so perhaps the fossil-fuel industry could divert the millions they spend each year on blocking climate change policies and put it towards that instead.
Currently, there is no sign that carbon-capture will be enough to save us from climate change on its own, so reducing our emissions and using guaranteed carbon-capture techniques (i.e. growing more trees) remain crucial to avoiding the worst outcomes.
New Zealand can’t do anything
The scale of emissions from countries like China and the US leave some suggesting that a little country like New Zealand can’t make a serious impact, so should follow behind those larger emitters, rather than trying to be a leader in this area.
The first problem with this argument is that if you added up all the countries that contributed 1% or less of global emissions (which includes New Zealand), it would add up to almost a quarter of the world’s total emissions. If all those countries sat on their hands, then it would be roughly equivalent to China or the US deciding to take no action. Even if we see ourselves as following rather than leading, why not follow the UK or the world’s fifth biggest economy, California, who’ve both managed to get their emissions to below 1990 levels (ours have gone in the wrong direction).
Whatever happened to New Zealand’s image of itself as a world-beater? Ernest Rutherford was the first person to split the atom and Edmund Hilary was the first person to reach the summit of Everest (along with Tenzing Norgay). Fast forward to the present and our current prime minister receives an amazing amount of coverage from overseas media for taking the initiative on issues like gun control. There’s no doubt that if we made serious progress in limiting carbon emissions, then this would resonate worldwide.
If we can become the country that produces the best meatless meat or finds an efficient way to produce hydrogen, then this will have a flow-on effect across the world, as well as ensuring a healthy future for our economy.
What about the farmers and our economy?
It’s true that there will be some immediate costs to businesses and government from taking action on climate change, but it will damage our economy far more if we just ignore the problem. Recent data has shown that our agriculture industry generates nearly half of our country’s emissions, while only producing 7% of our GDP. Meanwhile, it’s already clear that synthetic meat and dairy products will soon provide an existential threat to our farming industry and there is a clear argument to find a new way forward for farming.
Yet no one is suggesting we shutter all our farms overnight, even if farmers are already freaked out by the idea of the forestry industry taking over rural land. Instead, intensive research is needed into how we might transition our economy smoothly, which will no doubt involve moving to greener forms of agriculture. It’s also clear that our farms will increasingly be at risk from droughts, floods, and new pests brought on by climate change so we also need to prepare for these eventualities.
It’s not just farming that will need to change either, since New Zealand’s emissions from transport are also high and our country is chained to the use of coal because of Bluescope NZ Steel at Glenbrook and the Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter (and Fonterra too of course).
New Zealand needs to plan ahead now and start preparing for the world that we know is coming, rather than trying to eek out another couple of decades of profits under the current model to find we’ve been left behind by the rest of the world. It’s that latter course which will truly cause the economy to crash.
It’s pointless, we’re all doomed anyway
Those who read the literature on climate change might be left with a sense of despair at the enormity of the problem and its consequences. Certainly, if you read descriptions of the worst case scenario, then this response is understandable. But it’s not like New Zealanders haven’t faced up against daunting odds in the past and struggled on regardless.
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Imagine what it was like in May 1941 when it looked like a German invasion of Britain was imminent and Kiwis fighting in Europe would be on the losing side. Did New Zealand just throw in the towel and bring our troops home? In that sense, isn’t it a bit pathetic if we look at the problems climate change will cause decades into the future and say, “Oh, it’s all too awful to consider, I’m just going to ignore it”?
But I’m very busy
Yes, I know we’re all very busy, but this article isn’t to suggest that everyone should give up their day jobs and start marching in the streets. There are a raft of things that we can do to push things in a positive direction. Households make up 11% of our greenhouse gas emissions, so there’s plenty of potential to make personal changes worthwhile. That might involve eating less/no meat, taking fewer flights (or paying for reputable carbon credits when you fly), having fewer children, or driving a more fuel-efficient (or electric) vehicle.
You can also get involved in local politics (even if it’s just writing to your local MP), donate money/time to organisations that fight climate change, support organisations that are moving to greener practises, put pressure on businesses that are high emitters, take part in climate change demonstrations, and not let people in your own life get away with making all the excuses above.
We already know what New Zealand needs to do to fulfill its goal to be carbon zero by 2050. Now we need to support but also pressure our governments and businesses to get serious about the issue. The time to act on climate change was yesterday, but there’s no excuse to keep us from taking action right now.
The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.