Friday, November 13, 2009

Hitting back at the deniers

Last week I had a letter published in the West Sussex County Times. It was in response to an article in support of a second runway at Gatwick Airport, written by Philip Circus, a Conservative councillor in Horsham District.

He opened his article as follows:-

"When I returned recently from an extensive overseas trip, I thought to myself how fortunate I am that I do not believe in the global warming bandwagon. No anxiety for me about 'carbon footprints'.

"Quite the contrary in fact. Far from being the kiss of death to civilisation, I rejoice in the knowledge that carbon dioxide is vital to our survival for without it life on this planet would cease."

After lauding the potential benefits of airport expansion, he says:-

"Nationally, we need to stop the persecution of airlines through higher taxes in the name of the bad science of global warming."

My response was:-

"So Philip Circus does 'not believe in the global warming bandwagon' ('Gatwick Airport expansion is key to our business prosperity', October 30th) and he refers to 'the bad science of global warming'.

"There is much scientific evidence that global warming is potentially a serious problem and that human activity is a major cause. There may well be room for honest, scientific debate about the strength of that evidence. I do not presume to take sides in that debate but Mr Circus evidently does. It would be interesting to know what his credentials are for doing so.

"This is, of course, a field where nothing is certain. What would happen if we passed certain 'tipping points' and the global mean surface temperature increased by 4 degrees celsius or more? Can we be confident that James Lovelock, FRS, is wrong in suggesting that global warming could wipe out 80% or more of the human population? Presumably Mr Circus thinks that we will not experience catastrophic climate change however much carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere. How should we rate the probability that he is right and how should we respond to that probability?

"For example, suppose we define climate catastrophe as change so severe and abrupt that by the end of this century it kills off a billion or more people through drought, starvation, flood, disease and resulting wars - perhaps a modest catastrophe compared with James Lovelock's 80% cull.

Suppose the mainstream science were to indicate a one-in-three chance of such a catastrophe if we allowed greenhouse gas emissions to go on rising for the next few decades.

Suppose also that we think Mr Circus has a one-in-two chance of being correct in his rubbishing of the mainstream science. That implies a one-in-six chance that we would be killing off a billion people by the end of this century. It is as if Mr Circus is inviting us to play Russian roulette with our grandchildren.

"Mr Circus's arguments for Gatwick Airport expansion fall at the first hurdle. Whatever the economic benefits of airport expansion, the risks of catastrophic climate change look substantial and imply that we should fly less, not more."

My letter was published under headline in large type that read: Playing Russian roulette with the lives of our grandchildren.

I find it relatively easy to confront non-scientists who "don't believe in" human-induced global warming. After questioning the credentials of someone taking sides in an essentially scientific debate, it is largely a matter of painting a picture of the risks we face. In any case, the voices of the deniers seem to be weakening. Mr Circus comes over as one of the last specimens of a dying breed.

Much more difficult is motivating people to make a substantial personal contribution to reducing the risks, even if they accept that there is a problem to be dealt with. So far, it has taken a recession to halt the rise in greenhouse gas emissions and that halt seems likely to be only temporary. Again, my hat goes off to Franny Armstrong and her 10:10 campaign - she and her team may do more than anyone to get us on the path to a low-carbon future.