Nothing abusive about stating climate facts

This article originally appeared in the Gulf Islands Driftwood on January 7th, 2014

Elizabeth Nickson1 gets some things right: there is some good news about the Earth’s population. According to the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling2 we may have reached Peak Child — the number of people aged less than 15 may well never again be larger than it is today. And she may be correct that material consumption in rich countries may be reaching a plateau.

However, this is not the same as saying that the demand on the Earth’s resources has stopped growing. The population of the planet will continue to grow from the current seven billion to, about ten billion by the end of the century. That’s roughly 40 per cent more mouths to feed than now. More importantly, the six billion poorest people on the planet are quickly getting richer. While this is undoubtedly great news, nine billion people at the end of the century aspiring to live like the richest billion of us do today will place huge additional demands on the planet’s resources.

It is true that some pessimistic forecasts made in the past were wrong. There may well be future advances in technology that will allow prosperity to increase in a sustainable manner. But there is one area where we can no longer rely on recent experience to justify a rosy view of the future and that is climate change. Humans have dramatically and permanently changed the chemistry of the atmosphere by increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide by forty percent above the levels that prevailed before the industrial revolution and throughout human history.

Although the broad consequences of our fossil-fuel emissions are agreed upon by the overwhelming majority of scientists3—increasing temperatures, acidifying oceans, rising sea levels, disruptions to precipitation patterns—the manifestation of these effects will vary in different regions of the Earth and they will be obscured by natural variations, particularly by the multi-year cycles in ocean circulation. This makes it easy for people who would prefer not to accept that the climate is changing to highlight short term trends and isolated occurrences to deflect attention from the real changes that are undoubtedly underway.

For example, the long-term trend in Arctic is undeniably one of rapid decline in extent and volume of sea ice. But when a summer with a record decline such as 2012 is followed by a less extreme year, it is an error to claim immediately that sea ice is on a recovering upswing4. Certainly, the oil companies are not falling for the idea of a newly cooling Arctic: their plans to explore for oil there depend on the sea ice declining over the longer term and they are not about to hesitate because of one slightly cooler Arctic summer.

Contrary to Ms Nickson’s claim, the New York Times article she cited5 did not report that “there has been no warming for 17 years.” The NYT  journalist argued that, despite the slowdown in the rate of increase in surface temperatures in recent years compared to trends in the 1980s and 1990s, global warming has continued, with measurements showing more heat  going into the deep ocean. Subsequent recent research has shown that the rising temperature trends in this century have been underestimated, because previous estimates did not properly account for the warming in the Arctic6.

Raising concerns about global warming is hardly the exclusive domain of environmental activists. Bastions of global capitalism such as the World Bank7, the International Monetary Fund8 and the International Energy Agency9 have all expressed alarm that the world is doing too little and too late to address the problem. Concern about climate change is mainstream; it is the people who deny that there is a problem who occupy the fringe on this issue.

To claim that it is abusive to children to state the facts about global change is to get things backwards. It would actually be abusive to tell them that all is well with the world, despite what the experts say. After all, it is the young people who will have to deal with the consequences of a warming planet, and if we adults can’t fix the problem that we have created for them, the very least we can do is to warn them about it.

The writer is President of the Salt Spring Island Climate Action Council Society, a contributor to the website Skeptical Science and a former oil company executive.