One of the most precious assets of any scientists is their reputation for drawing conclusions on the basis of reliable objective evidence. Few want to get attacked for conducting flawed research or for exaggerating conclusions. Which tends to result in a degree of understandable caution and a determination to make sure predictions are seen as sensible and trustworthy.
So, it is entirely possible that the predictions of climate scientists have been watered down under pressure from the fossil fuel industry and that we actually have a lot less time than we think.
Consider, for instance, the events of recent days.
A wave of intense rainfall and flooding hit a huge area of land stretching from Belgium right through to the foothills of the Alps. Lives have been lost and immense amounts of property destroyed. Across in the States there are record forest fires destroying entire villages once again, whilst droughts have been so lengthy that the water in the Hoover Dam is at its lowest level since it was first built in 1931.
Meanwhile, in South America it was revealed that destruction of the Amazon rain forest had reached such an extent that it is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it is absorbing. In China, floods inundated a city leaving commuters on underground trains scared stiff as they stood and watched water levels rise from the floor to chest height before they were rescued just in time. And Arctic ice levels, hovering around record lows, are on track to reach less than half the average low between 1980 and 2010.
Any one of these events might be a chance weather phenomena, or the result of a temporary variation in the natural cycle of climate change. All of them at the same time indicates something much more serious. Climate breakdown seems to be happening harder and faster than most scientists predicted, while government action is weaker and slower. That’s a scary combination.
Complacent targets on climate change
Imagine what might happen if we continue to pump more CO2 and more methane into the system for another 28 years and the weather continues to deteriorate. What will happen to the intensity of storms, to the frequency of droughts, to the number and the scale of extreme rainfall events, to crop failures, and to the cost of repairing and replacing damaged infrastructure?
You may not need to image that, as it is actually what governments are hoping to achieve. It is the optimistic scenario. If governments around the world collectively hit their targets for reduction in the generation of greenhouse gases and for movement to green technologies, then the collective plan is that humanity will stop making the climate emergency worse in 2050. The hope is that we might achieve net zero carbon emissions by then.
It is a dangerously complacent target. But even so it is not being met.
Because it takes time for raised levels of CO2 to cease to have a warming effect, it’s anticipated that it may well take another 20 years after 2050 before the climate actually begins to stabilise and cease to get worse. Provided that there are no unforeseen feedback mechanisms that push the changes forward even more rapidly and severely.
A dangerous assumption
Most of the climate models do not include a Brazilian president enthusiastically encouraging the cutting down of much of the nation’s rainforest to win a few extra votes. Nor do many of the models include largescale emissions of methane as a result of a Russian president enthusiastically pumping out oil whilst he ignores the risks of melting Siberian permafrost. Both of those actions introduce huge potential for speeding and enhancing the problem.
Even if such concerns prove to be excessively pessimistic it is still far from clear that things are going to be OK. The best hope, that most scientists are pressing governments to achieve, is to restrain the increase in global temperatures beneath 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. There is no certainty that such a number will actually result in manageable change.
The scientists who put it forward came under massive challenge from the fossil fuel lobby for daring to suggest such a low target. It may well turn out that they didn’t come under enough challenge from the environmental lobby to lower it further. After all, we are conducting an irreversible experiment of raising global temperatures and no one actually knows the full extent of the consequences.
It is entirely possible that the majority of scientists might have been too cautious whilst the majority of politicians have been too reckless. The public therefore faces a choice. It can ignore the evidence of its own eyes and television sets and hope that green campaigners are over exaggerating the risks. Or it can insist that our leaders take our personal safety seriously.
The price to pay for ignoring climate change warnings
What price will we have to pay if the scientists prove right and there is another 28 years of increasing climate chaos facing us? What price will we have to pay if those scientists are proved to have been too cautious and that chaos happens faster and more aggressively?
I leave you to reflect on that as I look out of my window on yet another day of extremely hot conditions hitting the Yorkshire region. Phew what a scorcher. Throw another burger on the barbie and crack open a can. Maybe this year the bridge at Tadcaster won’t get washed away. Maybe this year York, or Leeds or Hebden Bridge won’t be under water. Maybe this year the lower reaches of the Don will be quiet and the waters well behaved.
But would you bet your house on those kinds of problems not happening again? Because that’s precisely what politicians are doing when they underestimate the importance of climate change.