How Much is Enough?

How long do we want to live here? By which I mean, for how long do we want the Earth, and from where I sit Australia, to be congenial to our civilisation? Based on some recent political decisions, the answer appears to be ‘just long enough for our Prime Minister to have a happy retirement’ because clearly he is not planning for the long haul, not even for his own childrens’ future.

I would like some help in understanding how such attitudes can be held. We are clearly in for a world of pain in the next century. Climate change is clearly real and we are clearly the cause. It may be possible to argue that these conclusions are not ‘certain’, but I ask you: If your doctor tells you there’s an 80% chance you’ve got cancer, are you going to act? I would have thought so. If something like 97% of the people who are actually qualified to know say climate change is happening, then do we dare believe it is not? If I went to 30 doctors before I found one who would reassure me that I did not have cancer, would I then disregard the other 29? Only if I was a complete idiot. Especially since the one who says I’m OK is probably wearing a copper bracelet and believes in the healing power of fridge magnets, especially ones with pictures of cheese.

Yet people, smart, successful people, seem to think the problem is some kind of left wing conspiracy. Can someone explain to me why? I have kids who could be alive in 80 years. Some of the scenarios I have read are scarifying. And the worse ones are beginning to seem increasingly likely. Surely if we combat climate change the worst thing that happens in we clean up our planet (at great economic cost, true), while the best thing that could happen (I guess this is good) is we save civilisation as we know it. Why not act? The evidence says we must act, common sense says we must act, concern for our kids says we must act, and economic arguments suggest acting might not be such a bad idea either — the cost of action now versus mitigation later, the opportunities of developing new industries, the difficult-to-quantify benefits of having better air, cleaner soil, and so on.

I do not understand the hostility to climate science. Do we like ignorance? Are we so afraid it might be real we have to pretend it can’t be? Or are we worried that dealing with it will cost too much and ruin our retirement plans? I cannot see a single reason for not acting that reflects well on current generations.

When I was in single digits, we were told about the Greenhouse Effect and the Hole in the Ozone Layer. Various chemicals were banned and the ozone layer is recovering — the science was right. Yet 30 years on we are still not acting on the Greenhouse effect.

Is it religion? Genesis says:

And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.

You can interpret this as we are the custodians, but also that we can do as we please. Do we all on some level still believe that we can flog the Earth, take from it, and it will magically replenish itself? As if trees will suddenly spring forth from the rocks in their billions and save the atmosphere? As if the jelly fish will just decide to strangle themselves with their own tentacles and give the ocean back to the fish?

Or is it all just too horrible to be true? We deny climate change because ‘it can’t be true’. Maybe we can wish away the Holocaust, Stalin and the bombing of Nagasaki too, then?

Or is there a deep lack of understanding of what science means? Is there some underlying belief current that science is just another system of opinion? If enough people believe we don’t have to act, does that become true? Well, no.

Tell me it’s not just greed. Fighting climate change will reduce our profits, devalue our shares and our superannuation, make jet fuel too expensive for us to travel to Greece for our holidays. Let our kids worry about it.

“Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”

Groucho Marx

Science is tested against the world we can measure. Some tests are unequivocal — a lump of iron is harder than your foot — some need subtle statistics to be evaluated, and consequently need to be explained carefully. But the tests are there. Scientists argue over the validity of the tests and over the interpretation, but consensus emerges and at each step we get a little closer to being right.

I think we’re close enough to being right in the climate debate to act on what we know. The null hypothesis has to change from ‘nothing will go wrong’ to ‘something is going wrong’. I think the weight of evidence is such that it is up to the deniers to find the evidence of their own that all is well, rather than the climate scientists to keep proving that we need to act.

I don’t understand why anyone would want to disregard the weight of evidence and risk the enormous consequences, yet plenty do.

Explaining that is a bigger challenge than battling climate change, I suspect.

So how long is enough? Is another 50 years OK, then we can allow ourselves to go to th wall? Or would we as a civilisation like to persist for longer than that? ‘Indefinitely’? If the latter, then what we say is currently not well aligned with our actions, and we all know what we’ll be judged on.

Now, I have to decide what I am going to do.

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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