Climate Change – Who Do You Believe?

This article was originally published on the Sustainable Business Toolkit website in January 2013

It’s a tough call. On the one hand, there was an editorial in the Observer last Sunday that proclaimed “Now No One Can Deny that the World is Getting Warmer”

On the other hand, the Mail on Sunday, admittedly not a publication that has ever been accused of harbouring tree hugging tendencies in its newsroom, declared on the same day: “Global Warming Stopped 16 Years Ago, Met Office Report Reveals: Mail on Sunday Got it Right About Warming… So Who Are the ‘Deniers’ Now?”

That two UK newspapers published on the same day can carry such contradictory stories on the same subject of such global importance illustrates the problems faced by those who seek to communicate the facts about climate change to both political leaders and the general public and expect them to take rational decisions based on those facts.

The Observer editorial concerns the publication, in draft form at present, of the US Government’s National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee’s Climate Assessment Report.
The introduction to the report is presented in the form of a ‘Letter to the American People’ and the first sentences leave the reader in no doubt about what is to come:

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. This report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee concludes that the evidence for a changing climate has strengthened considerably since the last National Climate Assessment report, written in 2009. Many more impacts of human-caused climate change have now been observed.”

The report extends to 1,146 pages of assessment compiled by a team of 240 scientists and will be subject to a review by the US National Academy of Sciences alongside the public consultation process before the final version is published later this year. There is no doubt that the content of the report is deeply disturbing but one thing that is really striking is the uncompromising, unequivocal way in which the report’s authors – representing some of the leading thinking in the field with access to the widest and deepest sets of data in existence – spell out their message: man-made climate change is real and it is affecting real people in the real world now. It is hard to believe that this report has originated in the same country that recently held a Presidential election in which the issues that 240 leading scientists describe as presenting “a major challenge for society” barely received a mention from either of the candidates, including the one who is now responsible for leading the world’s largest economy’s response.

On the other hand, the Mail on Sunday appears to have reverted to the belief that climate change is a leftwing conspiracy designed to undermine Western capitalist society, or at least house prices in the Home Counties. More particularly, the paper has seized on the fact that a report by the UK Met Office appears to suggest that there has been a slowdown in the rate of increase in global average temperatures. The facts, inevitably, are not so clear cut: the Met Office’s new projections, generated by a new computer model that the agency itself heavily caveats, are that temperatures over the period 2012-16 will be 0.43 degrees C above the average for the period 1971-2000 as opposed to the previous prediction of 0.54 degrees. Hardly dramatic or conclusive, especially when one considers that the confidence ranges for the new and old predictions are 0.28-0.59 and 0.36-0.72 degrees respectively. In addition to the fact that an increase in temperatures above the previously forecast level is well within these parameters, the model compares future temperatures to a 30-year average that itself shows a significant warming trend compared to previous decades.
An overwhelming majority of respected scientific thinking agrees that anthropogenic (man-made) climate change is a reality and has done for quite some time but, to read the popular press, one could be forgiven for thinking that the issue is still in doubt and that there is no need for politicians to take difficult decisions or for people to make changes to their lifestyles.
One of the coalition government’s new, and much applauded, initiatives on taking office was to establish an independent Office for Budget Responsibility to ensure that economic forecasting and the collation and publishing of data regarding key economic indicators are kept separate from policy-making. Perhaps it is time for an independent Office for Climate Responsibility.

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