Saturday, March 2, 2013

Climate change comprehension

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has rightly urged US President Barack Obama to raise awareness of the science behind climate change (see here). However, we all need to learn about much more than the science. We need to learn about why we have been reacting to the problem in the way we have been. Climate change is rated as a very serious and large scale problem. So why has action not been correspondingly large scale and urgent?

Visibility: human-caused climate change has, so far, been relatively gradual for us. Changes have happened over decades or more. Many people don’t notice changes or have become accustomed to them. Compare them with day to day and other environmental problems, say, a toxic chemical spillage. Nevertheless climate change is very serious and needs large scale and urgent action (see stories on climate here).
Historical precedent: Earth’s climate cycles through warmer and colder periods but here is no historical precedent for the current human-caused global climatic change. Having no previous cases to draw experience from adds to uncertainty, hesitancy and delay about action. But act, now and on a large scale, science says we must.
Immediacy: many the threats posed by human-caused climate change are far less immediate than many. But the extent and severity is nevertheless potentially huge.
Complexity: many varied and interacting factors result in human-caused climate change, including emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other pollutants, deforestation…feedback effects such as ice and permafrost melting…Public and political appreciation of  and action on the science is less than straightforward - and there is very active politically motivated campaigning against action on climate. It’s not like Hooke’s Law or test-tube chemistry.
Blame : it’s easy to say it’s the fault of someone else such as, ultra-consumerist Americans, the rapidly growing Chinese economy, highly populated and growing India, the rich, the poor, industrialists, car drivers...some other ‘tribe’. We all, in fact, share some responsibility.
Personal impacts: these are often indirect/less direct for climate change. Consider impacts due to displaced people, higher rates of infectious disease, the spread of disruption due to flooding, socio-economic effects such as on food prices.
Human-caused climate change is very serious – but urgent action is lacking because to date because: problems are relatively less visible; there is little/no historical precedent; the threat is less immediate than many; its causality is complex; blame is passed around; personal impacts are often indirect/less direct. This is a challenge for all of us - our ethics, economics, politics, science, leadership…I see that USA Today is playing a good part in climate change awareness raising here. There is a lot to learn and a lot to do.

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