Right now I'm reading Six Degrees, by Mark Lynas -- one of the best books on climate change I've ever read.
When climatologists say that global temperatures could rise six degrees, that doesn't sound like much to laymen like us -- it sounds like everything getting six degrees warmer, which sounds pretty good in Ireland. In the same way, sea levels rising ten meters doesn’t sound like much either – the beach itself is only ten meters across, isn’t it?
But such a rise in ocean levels would not be ten meters up the shore, but ten meters straight up – putting almost all of Dublin under water. In the same way, a rise of six degrees would not merely boost the temperature by that small-sounding amount; it would put the world and everything in it into a state of high fever.
Let’s put it this way: the last time the Earth’s climate was six degrees from what it is now, it was six degrees colder, creating an ice age.
As Lynas describes, a few steps in the opposite direction could create serious problems for the natural world. Pollution from our cars and factories has boosted the climate more than half a degree. At one degree the
At three degrees, the situation falls out of our hands, as the massive greenhouse gases locked in the tundra flood the atmosphere, as the Arctic disappears, as the middle of the world burns away, we would see “an entirely new planet comes into being - one unrecognisable from the Earth we know today.”
The last time the planet got six degrees hotter, geologists believe, was 250 million years ago, when early life on Earth was almost wiped out.
All of which makes the recent Channel 4 documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle” more tragic. The problem with the documentary is not that it relies on scientists who disagree with the other 99 percent, but on scientists who have been proven wrong again and again.
The film’s main contention is that the current increase in global temperatures is caused not by greenhouse gases, but by sunspots, based on a 1991 study that found agreement between temperatures on Earth and sunspot cycles. More scientists followed up on the study, however, and in 2004 found it completely wrong; sunspots have nothing to do with climate change.
The programme also used research that the researchers themselves have disavowed. Channel 4 used as evidence the work of Dr. John Christy, who initially found that temperatures were not rising. Dr. Christy followed up his own work and discovered he was mistaken, and now believes that climate change is real – but the film keeps using his old data, against his wishes. Oceanographer Carl Wunsch, also, says he was “completely misrepresented” by the programme, and “totally misled” by the people who made it.
Finally, let’s say for the sake of argument that the programme is right, and humans are not the ones causing the climate to change. If that were the case, shouldn’t that be cause for even greater concern? Human-caused climate change can be averted or solved by human action; unknown cosmic forces destroying our planet really would be a cause for panic.
If the century-old global expert consensus on climate change is completely overblown, we will gain by preparing anyway. The things we need to do to prepare for climate change -- restoring local communities, public transit, restoring a more traditional world -- are the same things that will help us with peak oil, with democracy, with family, with community.
And if all the experts are right by even a single percent, then everything in our lives -- literally --- depends on us taking the lives we live now and destroy them, and replace them with something that works.