Boris Johnson’s avoidance of the Channel 4 debate shows how it works: accept the science, but obstruct necessary change
Tonight, Channel 4 will host the first ever election debate on the climate crisis. All of the major party leaders have confirmed their attendance, save for Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. The Brexit party doesn’t have a climate platform, so that squares, but Johnson would be a curious absence. The Conservative government recently passed a commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050; the party’s manifesto repeats that pledge, and includes new spending for environment and climate policies. Until now, the Tories haven’t seemed afraid to talk climate.
This distinguishes them from other rightwing parties in the English-speaking world. The US and Australia especially seem doomed to forever re-fight the climate denial battles of the mid-00s – witness Donald Trump’s tweets about cold weather contradicting “global warming”, or the now Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, triumphantly brandishing a chunk of coal in parliament.
But in the UK, since they overwhelmingly supported the 2008 Climate Change Act, the Tories seem to have come around and fully accepted the science. No one in the party openly questions the link between carbon emissions and warming, or the need for action. Its once-vocal science denier fringe has been almost entirely silenced, or, like former minister Ann Widdecombe, decamped to the Brexit party.
But it should be clear to us now that it is possible for leaders to accept the scientific consensus, attend the meetings, meet the activists, nod gravely, sign the pledges and then effectively do nothing. It’s time to ask whether this approach is really a marked improvement on denying the climate crisis altogether. There is a term currently floating around activist circles, “new denialism”. This is attached to ways of thinking that acknowledge the reality of climate change, but don’t lead to what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” needed to avoid 1.5C warming.
This seems markedly less evil than the cartoon-villain propaganda of climate science deniers. And at close range it is. But any future moral accounting of the climate crisis is unlikely to distinguish bad faith from good intentions; rather it will be weighed in megatonnes of carbon, which hit another all-time high this year. As the academics Philip Mirowski, Jeremy Walker and Antoinette Abboud noted in 2013, the thinktanks behind climate denial never thought they would win the war of ideas with academic science – they simply wanted to stall for as long as they could anything that would threaten the interests of the fossil fuel industry.
Seen this way, new denialism isn’t anti-science specifically – it’s a reactionary project, which seeks to uphold or reassert the status quo. And if denialism is about stopping action, then anything that needlessly obstructs action is denial. Ultimately, then, there’s no fundamental difference between outright denialism and new denialism. New denialism is visible in the gaps between words and actions: oil companies claiming to decarbonise while approving enough fossil fuel production to shoot us well past 2C; governments promising emission reductions with no credible plan to do so. Two weeks ago the UN called the majority of existing climate policies “totally inadequate”.
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More than half of the climate tipping points identified a decade ago are now "active", a group of leading scientists have warned.
This threatens the loss of the Amazon rainforest and the great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, which are currently undergoing measurable and unprecedented changes much earlier than expected.
This "cascade" of changes sparked by global warming could threaten the existence of human civilisations.
Evidence is mounting that these events are more likely and more interconnected than was previously thought, leading to a possible domino effect.
In an article in the journal Nature, the scientists call for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent key tipping points, warning of a worst-case scenario of a "hothouse", less habitable planet.
"A decade ago we identified a suite of potential tipping points in the Earth system, now we see evidence that over half of them have been activated," said lead author Professor Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter.
"The growing threat of rapid, irreversible changes means it is no longer responsible to wait and see. The situation is urgent and we need an emergency response."
Co-author Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said: "It is not only human pressures on Earth that continue rising to unprecedented levels.
"It is also that as science advances, we must admit that we have underestimated the risks of unleashing irreversible changes, where the planet self-amplifies global warming.
"This is what we now start seeing, already at 1°C global warming.
"Scientifically, this provides strong evidence for declaring a state of planetary emergency, to unleash world action that accelerates the path towards a world that can continue evolving on a stable planet."
In the commentary, the authors propose a formal way to calculate a planetary emergency as risk multiplied by urgency.
Tipping point risks are now much higher than earlier estimates, while urgency relates to how fast it takes to act to reduce risk.
Exiting the fossil fuel economy is unlikely before 2050, but with temperature already at 1.1°C above pre-industrial temperature, it is likely Earth will cross the 1.5°C guardrail by 2040. The authors conclude this alone defines an emergency.
Nine active tipping points:
Arctic sea ice
Greenland ice sheet
Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation
West Antarctic Ice Sheet
Parts of East Antarctica
The collapse of major ice sheets on Greenland, West Antarctica and part of East Antarctica would commit the world to around 10 metres of irreversible sea-level rise.
Reducing emissions could slow this process, allowing more time for low-lying populations to move.
The rainforests, permafrost and boreal forests are examples of biosphere tipping points that if crossed result in the release of additional greenhouse gases amplifying warming.
Despite most countries having signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to keep global warming well below 2°C, current national emissions pledges—even if they are met—would lead to 3°C of warming.
Although future tipping points and the interplay between them is difficult to predict, the scientists argue: "If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization.
"No amount of economic cost-benefit analysis is going to help us. We need to change our approach to the climate problem."
Professor Lenton added: "We might already have crossed the threshold for a cascade of inter-related tipping points.
"However, the rate at which they progress, and therefore the risk they pose, can be reduced by cutting our emissions."
Though global temperatures have fluctuated over millions of years, the authors say humans are now "forcing the system", with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and global temperature increasing at rates that are an order of magnitude higher than at the end of the last ice age.
I'm not presenting any data at all.
In March 3, 1912 Popular Mechanics had a five-page article titled “Remarkable Weather of 1911” by Francis Molena.
The subject The effects of coal combustion and what scientists predict for our future.
“While the heat that warms the earth comes from the sun, the climate is fundamentally dependent on earth’s atmosphere and it’s circulation.”
The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year, adding about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly . . . a more effective blanket for the earth, and raising its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.
Readers might be surprised such awareness existed over a century ago.
In the early 1800s Frenchman Jean-Baptist Joseph Fourier knew from the earth’s distance from the sun that it should be considerably colder and there must be some factor other than solar radiation warming the planet.
In 1816 he produced 650 pages on terrestrial temperatures, unequal heating of the globe and the principles governing the temperature of a greenhouse. He followed that up with a more comprehensive report in 1824 explaining how carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gasses in Earth’s atmosphere prevented much of the solar heat escaping back into space.
Other very important contributing scientists of that century grabbed the baton. John Tyndall, T.C. Chamberlin and Swedish scientist Svante August Arrhenius. Arrhenius published his famous paper on global warming in 1896. The following year Chamberlin produced a model for global carbon exchange and feedback. The ground work had been done and the Arrhenius equation still operates today.
Great science continued into the new century. The contribution of Guy Stewart Callendar, a relatively unknown amateur scientist, is fundamental to climate science today. His great works gathered from worldwide data produced reliable graphs of global and CO2 temperature rise from 1880 to the mid-1930s (see: https://www.google.co.nz/search?q=Guy Callendar temperature chart).
Other dedicated climate scientists of the 20 century David Keeling 1950s J. Murray Mitchell, Jr. 1950s — 60s James Hansen — Michael Mann.
By 1988 the science was so compelling that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) formed The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The IPCC’s role is to examine all available scientific information and assessments with a view of formulating realistic response strategies on all aspects of climate change and its impacts.
Yet strangely the messages and signs go unheard and unseen by many.
Worse, climate scientists themselves are under constant attack.
In the USA, The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund fights constant frivolous lawsuits funded by fossil fuel companies (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent).
There was Climategate: 10,000 emails were hacked in an attempt to discredit climate science. All scientists were exonerated.
We had a New Zealand Climategate. Climate Conversation Group joined with New Zealand Climate Science Coalition to challenge NIWA anomalies in their global warming data.
Our High Court declined all claims and ruled that the coalition pay all NIWA’s costs.
Last year Neil Henderson took your Herald to court when you decided not to run his letter.
He was calling an official US report that July 2015 was the hottest month on record propaganda.
His complaint was not upheld.
Two hundred years of accumulated recordings, steadily-rising GHG (greenhouse gas) temperatures, and sea levels are sound science.
The “more effective blanket for the earth . . . raising its temperature.” Francis Molena predicted 104 years back what is happening now.
At last year’s summit in Paris, no world government doubted the science. All promised to reduce their country’s impacts to some extent.
The science findings are that humanity must reduce GHG emissions sufficiently now.
It is getting late.
The data can be got online for free, like from most stations elsewhere.
You looked up, cherry picked, the data you posted.