Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Climate change - why the fuss?

Sometimes it is hard to remember why people make a fuss about climate change and global warming. In the politically charged arena of online advocacy the language of the issues has been framed by the denihilist procrastinators, so that most discussions of consequences revolve around whether or not climate change is 'catastrophic', whether or not warnings are 'alarmist' (crying wolf), whether or not projections of harm with large uncertainties are useful for policy discussions.

All of these, deliberately, miss the point, the reasons why action to mitigate and adapt are urgent, and reveal the moral vacuum which is inhabited by too many people these days.

So, here is a reminder of why I bother to have a blog and to comment on websites and fora such as Quora. These are my reasons. Some co-bloggers will have similar motives, others will have their own, but for me, this is the bottom line.

People will suffer.

Recent work has shown the link which already exists between both emergency and systemic situations and their consequences. Not just storms, floods and wildfires, which make dramatic TV and therefore feature in the media, but drought, seasonal shifts threatening food supply chains, evapo-transpiration effects, disease vector changes; there is really quite a long list.

Inasmuch as these measured effects are either affected or exacerbated by the changing climate -  and the argument is not that they are not affected, but the extent to which a measurable difference can be identified and isolated - the problems which exist now are overshadowed by the problems which will exist soon.

So, people have already suffered, and more people will suffer. Many more.

There is a strong general agreement that, whilst balancing other social factors, a move to reduce the upper limit of the changes down the line (through mitigation) will actually reduce the extent and degree of suffering.

Recent discussions on Quora have enlightened me to contemporary attitudes to the harm expected from climate change; there are people who think this is not important, that the suffering of others does not matter.

At the more radical end, it would be surprising if others hadn't worked out what I have calculated and reached the conclusion that by the end of this century, and quite likely well before this, many millions of people will have either died or been permanently displaced by the various upheavals which result from and are magnified by climate change. For some people, this is perceived as a 'good thing'.

So there are already two opposing forces pulling in different directions when it comes to the question of why climate mitigation is necessary.

On one side, we have identified that people are suffering and will suffer, and that at least some of this suffering is preventable. Our duty/responsibility is clear - if we can act to reduce the suffering of others, we should act. This is a baseline in the very notion of society. There is a further principle too, that if we choose not to act when we have the means to do so, then we are culpable in that suffering. Most particularly, our political leaders, who have executive power and common responsibility, are on the line for allowing suffering without intervention or assistance, where these would prevent it.

On the other side, we are conscious that population stress is another magnifier of suffering and that environmental and ecological problems, along with infrastructure problems, in part exist because of the strain put on them by increased consumption demand purely from the pressure of numbers. An analyst taking the very long view might conclude that allowing a degree of suffering for the time being, so that population pressures are eased down the line, could be a better solution.

But this is very harsh on the victims. One reason why climate impact projections focus on economic or environmental damage is that these have a degree of measurability and are thus amenable to modelling. Conversely, the extent and degree of human suffering - people being harmed, is much more difficult to quantify, since it is also affected by a cluster of magnifiers and causes which are more or less connected to climate. Nonetheless, the IPCC, WHO, UNEP and UNHCR. along with other agencies, have placed their analysis in the public record, and it makes for ugly reading.

The more recent projections suggest that there will be several million additional premature (and unnecessary) deaths from climate related impacts by 2050 alone. The current estimates include 160,000 per year already in the system, rising to 250,000 a year out to 2030-2050.

Later, I'll write about the error we make in assessing the personal consequences of climate inaction, but there is still a lot more to say.

For the time being, let this sink in. Not very long ago, there was no doubt that the untimely deaths of six million people as a consequence of a state policy was such an appalling crime that the perpetrators with command responsibility were tried and executed for their decisions. This was the Holocaust.

What is the material difference, especially to the victims, between that situation and this? What is the moral difference between that situation and this? For those who promote caution or outright denial of the issues linked to climate change, I ask - are you, morally, any better than those people? Are you, in effect, wearing a symbol-laden armband in support of the unspeakable? How will you be judged?