Desperation Leads To Attribution!

 In Climate Change
Icicles at a beach near Chicago, as the city experienced its second day of below-zero temperatures
Icicles hang from a cable on a breakwater at a beach near Chicago as a deadly blast of arctic air shattered decades-old temperature records. Photograph: UPI/Landov/Barcroft Media

Over the past few weeks we have been bombarded with news about extreme weather events—the storms in the UK, the cold in the US, and the heat in Argentina. For many, these events are ‘proof’ that climate change is occurring. For others, extreme events, such as the ‘polar vortex’, prove that climate change is a big hoax. Whichever side of the fence you are on, the chances are your views on climate change are based on a misappropriation, or a misunderstanding, of the science. Unless, of course, you are a climate scientist! In this blog, I am going to focus on the reasons why some people feel compelled to attribute anomalous weather events to human-induced climate change.

There has been a tendency, amongst those concerned about our future on this planet—especially those in the environment and development community—to attribute human agency to all meteorological hazards. Every time the weather ‘misbehaves’, there are people who project human agency onto the catastrophe offering the event as ‘evidence’ of climate change. Notably, last week during his weekly questions in the Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron said that “he very much suspects” climate change was responsible for the extreme weather events that had impacted the UK over the last month. Like many others drawing this ‘causal’ link, he had no right to do so.

Unfortunately, David Cameron, like many others who are attributing the extreme weather to climate change, is jumping the gun. As the scientists keep telling us, it is impossible to attribute any single anomalous weather event to human-induced climate change. We must, therefore, conclude that people who are drawing causal links between climate change and extreme weather events are being forced to do so because, without this link, they feel no action will be taken to address the issue. This conclusion does not relate to David Cameron who, despite drawing this link, will do what most others in power are doing about climate change, little or nothing. So, let\’s ignore David Cameron and focus on those people who do care.

As an individual who does worry about the future of this planet, and wants humanity to stop trashing it for short-term economic gain, I wish I could get on my soapbox and start yelling at people to stop their resource-consuming behaviour because it is causing droughts in Kenya or floods in Pakistan. But knowing a little bit about the science, I feel gagged. I have to couch my statements about climate change in uncertainty and, in so doing, I give credence to the views of people who are sceptical about the issue; credence which is ill deserved. My uncertainty, based on a reasonable understanding of the science, provides them with certainty—a certainty underpinned by ignorance.

While I firmly believe that some of the changes in weather and climate witnessed around the world today are the result of human-induced climate change, I cannot condone the slipshod analysis of non-specialists who use received wisdom, as opposed to science, to draw links between human activity and climate change. There is, however, a simple and compelling reason why concerned individuals (excluding David Cameron of course) are being forced to make links that cannot be proved conclusively by science. They are desperate for change and frankly who can blame them? They have a choice between distorting the science or watching humanity destroy itself and most of the other species that share this fragile planet. Telling half-truths about climate change becomes a rational, and understandable, choice.

It would be nice to think that the science would speak for itself. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide far exceed the natural range over the last 650,000 years; they also state that warming of the climate system is unequivocal. In Africa, for example, this warming could reduce yields from rain-fed agriculture by up to 50% and expose 75 to 250 million people to an increase of water stress by 2020. Surely these ‘facts’ should be enough to engender action, but apparently they are not. According to some, these ‘facts’ are constructed by a group of scientists who derive huge benefits from the myth of climate change. If only this were true!

Unfortunately science does not stir people’s hearts and minds; scientific reason has not been a traditional basis for mass behavioural change and I doubt it ever will. So, if scientific reason is not enough to force behavioural change, then the only avenue open to those who want change—and know that change is necessary—is to do what I have criticised above: start linking human-induced climate change to the extreme weather events that we are currently witnessing. Perhaps the solution to this problem is to ignore the science and move the debate it into the realms of moral philosophy!

Climate change as a justice issue, rather than a purely scientific matter, becomes much easier for most of us to deal with. Moral philosophy allows us to move away from the uncertainties of science that preclude action and focus on human behaviour. We can focus on the agents of change and start to conceive of, and work towards, a more sustainable future. There are still barriers to progress though. Surprising as it may seem, most people (in the countries that caused the problem of climate change) are simply too busy, or too tired, to worry about the environment and how their actions impact upon it. Science or ethics? Who really cares?

It is this simple fact—people are too tired or busy to care—that forces those who are concerned about climate change to misappropriate the science: to draw as yet unsubstantiated links between human activity and specific changes in climate and, by extension, the weather. So, whilst I cannot condone false messaging about climate change, I understand why people do it. If facts do not work; if reason does not work; if moral philosophy does not work—what are you left with? You have to attribute in order to force action.

If we want to promote a more reasoned analysis of climate change and want to see ‘sound’ science underpin all aspects of the climate change debate, from local campaigning through to international negotiations, then we have to take action today. This will buy us time and will ensure that the ways we mitigate against, and adapt to, climate change are appropriate. In order to create space for sensible, reasoned, analysis we need politicians to take concerted action. Unfortunately, most politicians value the economy above nature and, therefore, actions to address climate change are perceived as secondary especially at a time of global recession.

Politicians are going to continue to debate whether or not concerted action to address climate change should be taken. Invariably, they are going to place a higher value on activities that promote economic growth compared to activities that protect the biophysical systems that make life on Earth possible. Until this behaviour changes, we are going to see people who are concerned about the future of our planet misappropriating the science of climate change. If we want this to stop, then we must heed the warnings of scientists—those who know what they are talking about and those who are warning that climate change could lead to an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like those we have witnessed over the past few weeks.

Mike Edwards

Showing 5 comments
  • Alan Hertz

    Agreed, Mike. One small suggestion. Maybe we can move politicians and other decision-makers toward strategies that both promote economic growth and protect biophysical systems. Maybe we should make a special effort to discover and publicize those strategies.

    • Mike Edwards

      Hi Alan,

      I’m actually not sure it is possible to both promote economic growth and, at the same time, protect biophysical systems. I wonder whether we actually need economic growth? We need biophysical systems – for without them we cannot survive; however, I’m not convinced we need economic growth, at least in the way it is currently defined. I know what I’m saying is heresy but I have seen very little evidence to suggest that economic growth can go hand-in-hand with measures to protect the environment. The challenge, therefore, is to think about an economic system that can allow human flourishing without having to physically grow. In this regard I find solace in the writings of Herman Daly, Manfred Max Neef and some of the recent work from the New Economics Foundation (NEF). I look forward to further discussions about economic growth!

      • Alan Hertz

        In the long term, Mike, you must be right. But in the short and medium term, there are opportunities for growth in the transition to true sustainability. We might be able to appeal to those with influence by making the case for investment in those areas.

  • Stephan Huerholz

    I agree with what you said Mike with one little exception. You make it seem (probably unintentionally) to me as if anyone who claims that there is a connection between the extreme weather events and human induced climate change is making scientifically unsound statements. Whilst you argue that this is understandable due to the desperation felt by many it is not entirely true. There is some sound science that can at least to extent explain why a change in the composition of the atmosphere can cause freak weather. I would have been grateful if you had just demonstrated this in your piece as well because in my eyes it would have bolstered your argument even more. And it may give more credibility to some people who can explain the link.

    • Mike Edwards

      Thanks for your comment Stephan!

      Your point is well made.

      I had hoped that I had made it clear in the first paragraph of the blog that climate scientists have a ‘right’ to make links between climate change and extreme weather events because they understand the science. Basically, I am not suggesting that links between climate change and all extreme weather events cannot be drawn; rather, I am saying that many of the people drawing these links are probably not qualified to do so. My interest is in why some non-specialists feel pressured into making statements about climate change and my conclusion is, especially relating to people who care about the future, that they are frustrated that no action is being taken to address the threat and therefore try to force action by drawing links between climate change and specific extreme weather events. Links that are difficult to prove.

      Thank you for engaging in the discussion!

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