Whilst hopes for the Copenhagen summit were never high, the result falls short of reasonable expectation. Any meeting of the minds amongst a group of 192 nations inevitably tends towards the lowest common denominator. In this case an accord rather than a treaty, one which recognises a need to keep global temperature rise within 2oC, but fails to set any targets for emissions cuts. Such commitments as were made must be enacted ‘as soon as possible’ – a phrase with such latitude as to be almost without meaning.
The developing world, understandably, is reluctant to slow its economic growth in view of the benefits that such growth can be seen to have offered the people of developed nations. Developed nations are wary of any impediment to economic recovery and mindful of an increasingly skeptical electorate. The email leaks from the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia have fed a public mood of mistrust and doubt.
In the US belief that climate change is happening has slumped, and amongst those who recognise climate change the numbers who think it is human induced is falling. In the UK, although much more convinced by climate science, poll figures have also dropped. The inability to reach international agreement will fuel ‘apocalypse fatigue’, as it has been called.
No one is to blame and everyone is to blame for this state of affairs. Climate science has been pushed by political forces to become a polemic, at its extremes represented by ‘climate messiahs’ and ‘climate deniers’. In between these extremes there is pressure on science to provide definitive answers – politics doesn’t like ‘maybes’ and ‘probabilities’.
Equally scientists often fail to recognise that science is culturally and politically situated. There is real tension between fulfilling basic human needs and aspirations for the good life in developing countries, and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK behavioral change is more complex and social norms more intransigent that we may wish to admit.
In reality climate science is complex and uncertain. It doesn’t predict the future; it models a number of possible futures with associated probabilities. Those models are based on millions of possible interactions between a myriad of biological, physical, cultural and social factors. Even then they are a gross simplification of reality. The only thing certain about the output from these models is that none of them will be ‘right’.
This doesn’t undermine their value, it just misunderstands their purpose. To say the future is uncertain is to state the painfully obvious. But if we expect the future to be both uncertain and unstable in ways which might be damaging, then a reasonable person might take steps to reduce that uncertainly or guard against the instability. This is what the models of climate change are saying; the future is uncertain and potentially very unstable in ways which may be counter to our wellbeing and that of other life on Earth.
There are actions which might be taken to mitigate against change or adapt to change which may, by now, be inevitable. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions (which has benefits well beyond any climate change effect) and adapting to possible climate change (with similar advantages) should be informed by the models of climate science, but cognisant of cultural and political realities.
In the absence of international agreement we must focus on those measures which we as a nation and as communities, can take. These are more likely to be framed around issues of energy and food security, ensuring adequate clean water, reducing flood risk, and ensuring health and wellbeing, as they are around climate change. The latter may be a key, possibly the key constituent of these other issues but for most people it simply doesn’t have any daily relevance.
Unless you have an interest in climate science the chances are you care about climate change for the impacts it might have, not as a phenomena in its own right. We should use the climate models to understand the risks associated with the issues that matter to people, and address these risks through mitigation and, increasingly, adaptation. This we can do now, leaving the Copenhagen circus and its entourage to travel onward towards its next inconclusive jamboree.