Heat,Dust and Confusion

Climate change incites debate and discussion but there are no absolutes. Where do we go from here? And for how long before it is too late?

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Published: November 24, 2013 10:15:11 pm

Climate change incites debate and discussion but there are no absolutes. Where do we go from here? And for how long before it is too late?

The issue of climate change is as polarising as Narendra Modi. Both its cheerleaders and naysayers got physically upset when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that while the danger of global warming may have been overstated,it was now more certain that humans were stoking the fire. Everyone wanted them to cut the crap and tell us whether it was good news or bad. Clearly,in one crisp sentence,please,and no hedging.

Unfortunately,climate science is run by scientists. Responsible scientists do not offer absolute certainties. They work with probabilities on a scale from almost impossible to almost certain. But their scientific caution looks like hedging to the laity,who just want to be told what to believe. And they are outraged when they learn,as they did from a leak in 2009,that science knows as much about climate change as we know about the sex life of dinosaurs.

But sometimes,responsible researchers who probably do not have a juicy stake in the climate wars resort to plain speech. The latest broadside is Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion (Penguin UK). It is a book in praise of smallness — small needs,small growth,small carbon footprint. To him,big spells hunger and political unrest. On a scale of climate polemic from ridiculously pooh-pooh to hysterically alarmist,one would place him slightly away from the midline,on the alarmist side.

Emmott,who heads computational science at Microsoft Research in Cambridge,UK,is not the usual interested party. His interest is in complex systems in general,not climate in particular. His focus is living systems and the biosphere,and he approaches the problem of climate from that direction. The first page of Ten Billion says: “Earth is home to millions of species.” The second page says: “Just one dominates it. Us.”

The rest of these pages is blank. The book is a series of facts,lines of logic and gnomic conclusions,each on its own page. Which,naturally,is mostly white space. The design strategy is polemically effective but wasteful. Does Emmott’s publisher know how many trees would have been saved if he had engaged a designer who believed in the book’s thesis and did more with less?

Alarm signals included,the book is within the limits of the credible. It predicts social and political effects,including hunger and violence triggered by scarcity,that the IPCC has discussed. It dismisses the Green Revolution as a chemical phenomenon and predicts a real food revolution,driven by a new kind of science. Which is almost here — funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin,a team at Maastricht University has produced the world’s first artificial burger,grown from stem cells.

Among all the possible threats posed by global warming,a possible food crisis is getting a lot of play because journalists and politicians grasp its significance quite readily. The sea level rising by a couple of inches isn’t half as scary. Though Emmott predicts that by the end of the century,Bangladesh will be part of the Bay of Bengal.

To the casual spectator,global warming is all heat,dust and confusion. But in The Change Book,European communicators Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschäppeler draw attention to a deflection strategy used by high school teacher Greg Craven,who has become an influential green thinker. Craven offers a matrix of choices resulting from two questions. One,is a climate catastrophe imminent? Two,should we do something about it? You could boil it down to a single question: if a catastrophe is possible but not certain,what are the costs and benefits of action? Or,to simplify,if a chicken is about to cross an empty road but knows that cars are known to barrel down all roads,should it look left and right? Unless this is a game of chicken,the answer is obvious. If a climate catastrophe strikes,doing something about it would save humanity. Even if it turns out to be a myth,reacting to it would nevertheless create new needs,new sciences and technologies and new markets. That can’t be all bad.

Interesting,how a call to action against the backdrop of an imponderable threat can appear to be decisive,intelligent and the obvious thing to do,even when you know that the main problem remains untouched — the uncertainty of climate science. Narendra Modi knows this trick. Wisely,he only promises the certainty of action. Though,like the rest of us,he may have no idea what it means.

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