An odd discussion on one of the Australian tv networks yesterday morning. They had run, to their credit, a segment looking at extreme weather events in different parts of world and tentatively suggested that these might be due to climate change. Well done (more than our public broadcaster has been permitted to do).
At some point during the editing of the segment (and obviously I am guessing this) someone seems to have said “hey, guys, balance, remember, we must have balance”. So they had created “balance” by saying something like “of course all major disasters can’t be ascribed to climate change”. Curiously though, they clearly hadn’t understood their own attempt at balance because they gave an example about flooding. I forget which major flood it was, Thailand perhaps, and the comment was that the damage there was the result of people building in the wrong places, and drainage being impeded (there may have been other factors I forget). So, “not climate change in that case”.
So the discussion by the bright young things began. One was delighted that the presenter of the segment had been “moderate” by pointing out that one even couldn’t be “blamed” on climate change. In her view in general in fact there was far too much talk about catastrophes associated with climate change, and what we wanted was a much more moderate view. The others agreed that, yes indeedy, moderation every time was their preferred option, and that it was really bad to scare people by warning about calamities. The first speaker, who makes much of her origins in the country, said farmers were getting the idea of climate change, but resisted it because of the lack of a “moderate” approach.
Now a number of things occurred to me while listening to this. First, while the media determination to prevent any serious information about climate change reaching the public, and hence prevent any action on greenhouse gases, is as strong as ever, the changes we are seeing in the Earth’s climate are becoming so obvious that they can’t continue totally ignoring the matter. Hence the segment.
Second was the total misunderstanding of what the issue is with extreme weather events and climate change. Events can’t be ascribed or not to climate change based on whether they were made worse by human activity on the ground or not. It isn’t the effects (in loss of life, crops, infrastructure) that is the measure, but the origin of those events. Were they caused by record high rainfall or temperatures, or record numbers or extent of storms, is the question to ask, not what happens afterwards (though of course one of the responses to the now inevitable serious climate change must be improvement of infrastructure to try to make effects less severe on the ground).
My final thought was what a confusion of thinking (not unique to this bunch of tv identities) about what is actually happening to our planet was represented. They were again unable to separate two different issues. Partly they were saying – mustn’t tell people bad stuff that’s going to happen because then they will get scared and react badly and not do anything. Fear not a good motivator. A rare Republican with the nous to understand climate change is saying similar things in the US currently. This sounds kinda logical until you think about it. There are two major aspects to climate change. The first is the gradual rise in CO2 levels, gradual rise in average world temperature, gradual seal level rise and increasing acidity, gradual melting ice caps and glaciers, gradual changes in plant and animal distributions. The second is the manifestations of these changes in weather patterns – record hot days, extreme rainfall events, storm intensity and frequency, droughts, Now the first kind of change is impossible for the average human being to perceive. We rely on scientists to measure such things over time, and report, but we can’t experience the changes for ourselves from one day to the next or even one decade to the next. The extreme weather events however are what we can experience. They are not only a major way in which humans are being directly affected, but the only way we can sense that change is happening and what the implications are. So what these tv personalities (and the Republican, and others) were saying was don’t emphasise to the public what is going on by pointing out to them that what they are sensing is happening is indeed relevant. Instead concentrate on the slow changes that they can’t perceive. This is a recipe that has been in operation for 20 years now and it has resulted in precisely no public awareness or alarm. It is the classic frog in boiling water syndrome.
But partly what these tv icons were also saying is that the “moderate” view was by definition the correct one. That, three bears-like, climate change would be not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Not too wet, not too dry. And so on. It is the kind of mentality that sees a driver whose petrol gauge shows empty driving faster to get to the petrol pump before he runs out. That sees people believing that after a run of “bad luck” they are due some good. That a lump somewhere in the body must be benign, because, well, it just must be. That people who behave well get rewarded. And so on. The climate cannot be changing in a major and disastrous way because, well, it just can’t be. So people who tell us we are in big trouble must be wrong. And while people who tell us we don’t have any problem might just, possibly, also be wrong, it is those who tell us things will change a bit, moderately, but won’t be too bad, who must be right. If change wasn’t going to be moderate, these tv clowns would have to say something, do something, but they aren’t so it must be.
Reality check, guys. The planet, indeed the universe, has absolutely no concern about human beings at all. Knows nothing and cares less about our existence. Doesn’t in fact have the wherewithal to care. Is not sentient. Things happen as a result of physical laws. That’s it. If you pour CO2 into the atmosphere of a planet that planet will warm up, whether or not it contains naked apes. If it warms up enough the consequences for ice, water, soil, oceans, are also inevitable, Homo sapiens or no Homo sapiens. There is no moderator, there is no “moderate”. There are no bargains. There is no good behaviour that keeps you safe, there is just what there is.
And what there is represents calamity ahead, coming ready or not. And if tv clowns think everything will be fine as long as we don’t mention the C word, then we are in really big trouble.