by Piet Coetzer

Climate debate dramatically changing

Global consensus on climate change fast unraveling

We may have gotten climate change fundamentally wrong
Hans von Storch.jpg

For quite some time climate experts across the world have predicted that temperatures would rise on the back of, and in proportion to human-driven so-called “greenhouse gas”. It now transpires that this prediction has been off the mark for the past 15 years and is forcing scientists to revisit their models, with some admitting that they might have gotten it "fundamentally wrong".

In a recent interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel the renowned meteorologist Hans von Storch said people no longer reflexively attribute every severe weather event to global warming as much as they once did.

My impression is that there is less hysteria over the climate. There are certainly still people who almost ritualistically cry, ‘Stop thief! Climate change is at fault!’ over any natural disaster. But people are now talking much more about the likely causes of flooding, such as land being paved over or the disappearance of natural flood zones -- and that's a good thing,” he said.

With the momentum of climate change apparently having slowed down during the last decade and a half, he advocates a more nuanced approach to the issue and accused some scientists of behaving “like preachers, delivering sermons to people.

What this approach ignores is the fact that there are many threats in our world that must be weighed against one another. If I'm driving my car and find myself speeding toward an obstacle, I can't simple yank the wheel to the side without first checking to see if I'll instead be driving straight into a crowd of people.

Climate researchers cannot and should not take this process of weighing different factors out of the hands of politicians and society.”

The state of the global economy, and specifically in Europe, is one factor that seems to be starting to impact on the approach and response to climate change that has developed over recent years.

Reports emanating from Europe last week indicate that the European system of carbon trading, one of the cornerstones of the existing efforts to contain greenhouse gas emissions, has practically collapsed as politicians under socio-economic pressures have started prioritising the economy over the environment. 

Under the weight of other pressing spending needs the value of so-called “emission certificates” has fallen to a level where they do not offer any real incentive for businesses to invest in alternative energy solutions to fossil fuels.

And in Africa where economic hardships have been at the root of much social turmoil  and political upheaval over recent years, as well as in other developing regions of the world, the fossil-fuel energy sector is still heavily subsidised by governments and has in fact tripled since 2009.

The governments typically use these subsidies as a tool for achieving their political ends, like promoting and/or accelerating economic development, growth and job creation. As illustrated by a just-announced initiative by US President Barack Obama to boost Africa’s energy sector, energy generation is a top priority for development on the continent.

In a research paper released last week by Consultancy Africa it is argued that “the artificially low prices created by the subsidies give rise to an incentive to use more energy. In total, the global energy demand would be reduced by around 5% if subsidies were removed.”

However the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had to correct a 2007 report that exaggerated the pace of melt of the Himalayan glaciers and wrongly said they could all vanish by 2035.

Von Storch said that if “things continue as they have been, in five years at the latest we will need to acknowledge that something is fundamentally wrong with our climate models. A 20-year pause in global warming does not occur in a single modeled scenario. But even today, we are finding it very difficult to reconcile actual temperature trends with our expectations”.

In light of the diminished scientific consensus about the role of various factors and drivers of, the “avoidability” of climate change, perhaps more attention should be given to how much effort and monetary resources should go into avoidance efforts and how much into adaption to what might be the inevitability of climate change.

As Von Stroch put it, “it is no longer possible in any case to completely prevent further warming, and thus it would be wise of us to prepare for the inevitable, for example by building higher ocean dikes. And I have the impression that I'm no longer quite as alone in having this opinion as I was ... the climate debate is no longer an all-or-nothing debate...”. 

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