We need to start taking climate change seriously

Comment

There is little to be gained from criticising scientific work on climate change as ‘too alarmist’, as occurred with the report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last weekend. The same thing has happened over the past seven years, since the fourth report from the Panel in 2007. Yet the IPCC is merely pinpointing a principle which applies even in the isolated world we occupy here in Oxford. We need to think seriously about climate change, and act accordingly. We must not take ‘it’s fine’ for an answer.

The report summarises the impact of global warming on all aspects of human life around the globe and, as expected, it does not make for especially comforting reading. Yet reactionaries abound in the forum of climate change debate and anything that recommends serious action to prevent potentially grave consequences is likely to be snarled at. Such snarling is a mistake.

Climate change is a topic that lends itself to sceptical attack. The problems created by global warming are incremental, diffuse and often indirect.  It is quite simply preferable, in the short run, to reap profit from potentially damaging methods of generating energy (fracking) and, through continued high emissions, to avoid costs to businesses. Therefore pressure groups and cynical voices are guaranteed to spring up in protest when it looks like we might have to take the harder option. Worried UN reports which advise policy-makers are prime targets for such groups.

However, the whole purpose of these reports is to draw our attention to a serious issue using scientific evidence. Until general recognition of the problem is reached, as well as action upon that recognition, they are fighting an uphill struggle – sometimes the consequences we might have to face due to our contribution to climate change feel wholly intangible. This does not mean that the risk is absent. It is well known that managing the level of emissions on a global scale is exceptionally difficult, because each nation stands to gain after any agreement by cheating and not reducing its own levels of pollution. So long as every other state keeps its word, then all will be fine, right? So goes the sad tale of our failure to bring our abuse of the planet under control.

If the new report seems alarmist, it is because there seems little other way to convey genuine damage that our influence on climate change could have in the long run.  For instance, it states that ‘the impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability.’ This is true; we need only look at the UK’s experience with flooding at the end of 2013 and in January this year. The report also mentions typical problems such as the effects on human livelihoods and societal security.

Moreover, such problems are, of course, disproportionately felt in poor regions which are the most ill-equipped to deal with them. For instance, dependence on agricultural exports will lead to greater suffering from reduced crop yields. Fragile and poorly maintained infrastructure cannot cope well with floods and droughts.

Some of the facts about our treatment of the environment are genuinely staggering. Is there any reason why we shouldn’t be alarmed by the news that, as the WWF claims, the equivalent of 36 football fields of forest are lost every minute, for the purposes of cattle ranching and obtaining luxury resources like gold and mahogany? There will surely come a point when we realise that these statistics are more than just bewildering figures, and we will feel them as hugely unpleasant realities.

In fact, the report states an inconvenient truth, but provides policy-makers with a serious framework with which to think about reducing our pernicious impact on the planet. This is where the idea of ‘adaptation’ comes in. We need to face up to the possibilities represented by climate change, and make difficult decisions based on long run projections. ‘Adaptation’ roughly means accepting what is happening and altering our industries to deal with it, without panicking and wastefully pouring money into expensive and imperfectly designed renewable options, for example.

Last May, Oxford University engaged in a deal with the oil, gas and chemicals company Shell to receive £5.9m of funding for a new lab in the Earth Sciences department. Later in the year, it was revealed that the University has ‘strong ties’ to fossil fuel companies. I sincerely hope that these deals will serve as mediums for an improvement in the way energy companies go about their activities, and that Oxford uses its influence and research to better our approach to the climate. It would be a tragedy if these choices and the University’s defence of them were characterised by a complete absence of consideration over the harsh truths about the future of climate change.

Oxford is not necessarily in a position to shape the adaptation that needs to take place at a governmental level to deal with the problems we face. It is, however, an institution with a very impressive intellectual reputation, and of hefty lobbying clout because of it. To see the academics here shy away from an opportunity to pressure these companies would be greatly disappointing. Shell and other such energy companies are exactly those which need to be targeted to change their approach to the environment.

Alison Goligher of Shell said in May that ‘energy systems need to… become cleaner and more efficient.’ She stated that Shell needs to ‘make meaningful contributions to understand how our natural resources can continue to be safely and responsibly developed.’ Whether or not the academic interaction with Oxford can help with this goal remains to be seen, as does the degree of sincerity in the company’s stated intentions.

It is easy to imagine, however, that no improvement in the way Shell treats the environment will be seen. Again, the short run options of keeping costs low seem to outweigh long run considerations, because the latter are not yet fully palpable. So long as this continues, reports like that of the IPCC will seem ‘too alarmist’, and we will continue to abuse our climate. In reality, the long run benefits of adaptation will surely outweigh small costs now. Oxford, and major governments, must face up to this problem, or we will all suffer the consequences.

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PHOTO/David Brossard