If someone is fearmongering about global warming, they are dead wrong.
This book challenged my own deeply-held views about the world and myself. Rosling, step by careful step, demonstrated why I needed to rely on facts and reason rather than emotion and prejudice.
I mean, I already knew this, but when I discovered that chimpanzees picking random bananas scored better on a simple test about global facts than I did, I was forced to confront the fact that there was obviously something wrong with my thinking.
Don’t get me wrong
Hans Rosling urges immediate and coordinated global action against climate change. He identifies the main cause as emissions of greenhouse gases, notably CO2, he advocates for a swift reduction in these levels, and he identifies the culprits. Most likely you and I, Dear Reader. We are amongst the richest quarter of the world’s population, and people like us produce the lion’s share of emissions.
We need to act, and we need to convince everyone like us to do the same. Like, starting right now. We need to elect representatives and governments who will work together with other nations to plan and implement a global response. Nothing less will work. This is a challenge confronting our planet, all of humanity, our agriculture, and our many environments, from the disappearing ice of the poles to the burning rainforests and the acidifying oceans.
It’s not the science
The science is reasonably solid. We can see the effects of global warming — like the melting ice caps and glaciers, hello? — and the changes in weather brought about by this. Some regions are much hotter than before, the winds and ocean currents change their patterns, and if the Gulf Stream that warms Europe stops flowing, or worse, reverses direction, there will be massive disruption and hardship.
I think that the very few scientists pushing for an alternate view are wrong. It’s not that climate science is something we can vote on, or our own personal opinions are going to influence the clouds and the winds and the storms.
It’s that I personally find their arguments unconvincing. Global warming is not some vast conspiracy of the Left, or the Russians, or pinko latte lovers. It’s not some faked weather readings — like how would anybody even do this? — and it’s not a matter of misinterpreting the data. The glaciers are retreating and disappearing. We can see it for ourselves.
Whether it’s us as a species causing it or it’s part of some natural cycle is a little harder to pin down, but I’m convinced that we are producing enough greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels to have a major impact, and the sheer number of us heating our cities in winter and airconditioning them in summer, not to mention all the other things we do in our advanced state of civilisation, cannot be ignored.
It’s the fear
Hans Rosling mentions the words of Al Gore in connection with climate change. “We need to create fear!” Gore stressed, and although he had a major impact in raising awareness, his fear-inducing tactics have had an unfortunate side effect.
Fear of the effects of climate change, panic at the need to get things happening right now, and the religious fervour of the advocates for immediate change are not positive factors.
For every zealot who points to a hurricane and cries “climate change!”, for every evangelist who cries out that the sky is falling, the oceans are rising, and the forests are burning, there are sober, responsible, level-headed listeners who remember the story of the boy who cried wolf and recognise the call of the conman.
If someone shows me a gaunt polar bear and claims that climate change is starving the beast, I say, well maybe, but how can you be sure? Polar bears are not immortal, and surely they die of natural causes, and undoubtedly they don’t look their best in their last days.
But the zealot is unmoved. With their climate change hammer, everything looks like a climate change nail. They urge immediate action, they exaggerate anything that appears out of the ordinary, they claim every disaster is sent by their climate change god. Repent and be saved, ignore my message and be consigned to a fiery hell.
One example that gets my pedantic goat. Climate change evangelists love to present a graph showing global warming over the past hundred years or so.
As with any graph, pay attention to the scales. Rather than show the mean average global temperature in a daily range of (say) 0° to 50°, a range of two degrees Celsius is shown. This exaggerates any increase or decrease in temperature. The truth is that the average global temperature is around 14°, and if the graph showed that in a normal daily range of temperatures, the result would essentially be a flat line. Not quite so impressive.
And why start in 1880? Well, in 1883 Krakatoa erupted, sending a huge plume of volcanic gas and dust into the sky, and the resulting changes in the atmosphere depressed the global temperature for years afterwards. A change of about half a degree downwards.
So, if you were wanting to present the most dramatic possible graph of temperature change, the example above is exactly how you would do it. Yes, the data is reliable, but it doesn’t quite present the complete picture.
And what about the credibility?
The effect of false or misleading claims is as clear now as it was when the boy cried wolf. When the wolf actually did show up, nobody believed the cry, because they had heard the falsehoods too many times before.
Every time some climate change zealot stretches the truth a little, every time they present the worst-case scenario as if it were the only possibility, every time they claim a hurricane or a bushfire or a species extinction is directly caused by global warming, a little bit of trust dies.
Because of course these climate crusaders claim the mandate of science and data and truth. Every time they claim some dire effect and it doesn’t show up, their audience loses trust in them, which isn’t so bad, and in science itself, which is a disaster.
Rosling is particularly scornful of the spectre of “climate refugees”, who we are told would flee uninhabitable zones and invade more temperate regions. Presumably, the same regions we inhabit and not only would we have to deal with a changing climate, but we’d also have to handle millions of foreigners.
Yeah, that’s a wonderful fear-mongering idea. Take climate action because we are worried about our fellow human beings coming and stealing our stuff. The Third Reich would have gobbled that one up.
But how do we get things done if the end does not justify the means?
Now, I’m not asking anybody to stop believing in global warming. Nor am I calling for panic to get corrective measures in place.
One possible measure is to pump sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, mimicking the effect of a super volcano. This solution would work, be relatively cheap — certainly a great deal cheaper than having to relocate trillions of dollars of infrastructure and billions of people away from a rising coastline — and it could be implemented unilaterally. Perhaps by China, with their vast coastal cities and their keen interest in the artificial islands of the South China Sea.
This would be a quick and dirty way to cool the planet. We could continue to generate power by burning coal and fuel our cars and ships and planes by burning petroleum products.
I haven’t met anybody who thinks this is a great idea. But it would work. The ice would stop melting, the planet would stop heating up — possibly even cooling down a bit; that’s got to be a good thing, yeah? — and we wouldn’t have to rebuild every port city a kilometre inland and abandon places like Venice and the Netherlands.
But my head spins at the notion of not just turning the atmosphere into a murky fog of acid but continuing to pump out CO2 and all the other byproducts of fossil fuel. And whatever other side effects the scheme might bring.
Is there a way forward?
As Rosling points out, about 80% of people are on board with global warming. The world is heating up. We know this already. We don’t need to be preached at. 80% is enough in any democracy to install representatives who will act towards reducing emissions and steer the world away from disaster.
That doesn’t mean we can afford to do nothing. But it does mean that we can afford to tell all the zealots who are busily painting the worst possible scenario to shut up and get their facts right and stop scaring us. We’re onto it.
And we don’t need to do something anything right now. Massive changes in the global economy caused by ending fossil fuel production and burning could have dire consequences in themselves. War and economic collapse, for example. If we are busy fighting World War Three, what are the chances that the warring nations will be mindful of the environment?
And don’t discount the possibility. So many nations have large military forces and every day there are new weapons developed. Hypersonic missiles. Cyber attacks. Space lasers. It wouldn’t take more than an unstable climate change sceptic ruler with an itchy trigger finger to start a nuclear war, and once one of those things get going, nobody will be able to control it.
The answer is that we don’t need to take sudden and drastic action. The world is warming, but it’s not warming so suddenly and catastrophically that we need to scramble to get ahead. We can take our time — not centuries, but years rather than days or months — and get things right so that everyone is looked after including the very poorest, not to mention the animals of the world who are possibly most at risk from both natural disasters and ham-fisted attempts at geo-engineering.
The answer is simple. Elect representatives who believe in the need to combat climate change through global action. I won’t say that every nation is on track with this, but it’s not something that is out of our reach.
And in the meantime
Reduce your emissions. Find ways of cutting back on your environmental footprint. Even if it’s just notching your thermostat a degree down in winter and a degree up in summer, that will have a tiny effect multiplied by millions of people who think as you do.
Walk to the shops or ride a bike instead of driving the SUV down for a litre of milk. Your body and your wallet will thank you for it.
Be mindful. Read up on the subject. Engage in dialogue. Call out the extremists in the debate. Ask them to show you what informs their thinking.
We’ll get through this.
- Hans Rosling was not a climate scientist. A scientist, certainly, and he knew how to cite his sources. Everything he claims can be found in the detailed notes available online. The page includes a search function.
- Whether it’s us as a species causing it or it’s part of some natural cycle is a little harder to pin down… NASA notes a 3-5% gap between the certainty of global warming and who or what is to blame.
- Climate change evangelists love to present a graph… How you draw a graph can have a big effect. See the classic text How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff.