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Global Warming: FAQs

Global warming – climate change – is surely the most famous and possibly the most serious environmental issue of our time. We aim to throw a sceptical light on it. (By the way, we are not “deniers”.)

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What’s the big question here?
It is now widely assumed that mankind is dangerously warming his planet, and we want to know what if anything we can do about it.

Is Global Warming really happening?
Almost everyone accepts that the globally averaged world temperature has risen in the past century. But almost everything which flows from that “fact” is disputed. World Climate Report is a very good site trawling information which challenges the consensus. Real Climate is a very good website defending it.

If something is happening, shouldn’t we act to head it off?
It seems obvious that mankind ought to be careful with future emissions of Greenhouse gases which may “cause” warming. But unless there is a “linear” (a proportionate) connection between our emissions and warming, it may turn out that any plausibe reductions in greenhouse gases might produce only a small reduction in warming. That is why one might read the call to arms by people like James Hansen and wonder whether anyone seriously believes the kind of action which he thinks is absolutely necessary is anywhere near happening. We posted an interesting piece which touched on this problem. (It is also the main point of a 2007 piece in the Evening Standard by the editor of these sites and of a 2004 piece for the Financial Times online edition.)

So livingissues doesn’t care about this issue?
livingissues is as worried by climate change as the next website. But we’re not here to campaign for action or wind our audience up. We exist to help people understand issues and make up their own mind what they want to do. If that makes us sound sceptical, contrarian or even cynical, so be it.

Do we know what to do to reduce the problem?
This is perhaps the most curious bit. The big change in the debate recently has been a view that the public as individuals need to change their behaviour. Previously, it was discussed mostly as though this was a problem for industry. This is a good shift of emphasis but reminds us of how difficult the politics will now be.

Is there an argument for doing nothing?
Well yes. Quite a lot of “sceptics” think that it will be cheaper and cleverer to respond to whatever climate change turns out to be. Trying to avoiding it might be more trouble than it’s worth. “Mitigation” is the posh word for action aimed at stopping climate change happening. “Adaptation” is the posh word for handling it when it comes. Here’s the most interesting work on the issues, from a House of Lords report. Bjorn Lomborg is the most famous voice arguing for “adaptation”. (His name often crops up: don’t forget to do a search of his name, see the top of this page.)

But what should governments do?
Governments are trying to work out what the right instruments are (they have to choose, for instance, between taxing fossil fuels more, or setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions and letting firms trade them in a system generally called “cap and trade”). But in the end, what governments do will probably cost voters more, and politicians are trying to work out how that will play at the ballot box.

Do we know what we should do?
We are spoiled for choice, but none are easy. Do we want nuclear power? Will we pay to convert to a solar-driven economy? Will we give up flying? Driving? Should we be taxed and fined until we do the right thing? Would that be fair on the poor? How much better will the climate actually be for each bit of self-denial?

Is GW a big phenomenon?
The world’s temperature has often shifted by much bigger amounts than we have experienced in the past century, but not in the last millennium. The swiftness of this change is regarded by some as very sudden (and as pretty normal by some others). In any case, we may be watching the beginning of a long-running or pronounced change (or we may not). The past is not necessarily a good guide to the future. Here is a popular account of one very respected and alarming (alarmist?) view. And here is the original scientific paper which sparked it.

Is GW a bad thing?
Barring catastrophe, there would be winners as well as losers from most expected levels of global warming. It is generally assumed that adjusting to any big change is expensive and may be much harder in poor, crowded countries.

Is GW caused by mankind?
It is pretty easy to argue that we have contributed a generally warming tendency to the plant’s climate, but the processes by which this general tendency is converted into actual weather is much harder to predict.

Can man doing anything about GW?

Almost certainly not quickly, and maybe not much at all. Some of the gases which are warming the planet have very long lifetimes, and some of the practices which lead to them are vital to human life. All in all, it is hard to believe that we will quickly (or hugely) reduce the amount of the pollutants we will produce. And yet the task may not be as daunting as is sometimes supposed.

Are oil companies to blame for global warming?
They certainly profit from selling us some the fuel which powers our world. But we, the public, are the real customers and “polluters”. Arguably, switching from coal to oil would help slow global warming. And so would switching from coal (and oil) to gas, which oil companies also produce. So addressing global warming may benefit many oil companies.

Shouldn’t oil companies be made to invest in renewable energy?
Their shareholders and employees want them to have a secure future, and that may mean investing in, say, solar power. But it isn’t clear why an existing oil company will be any better at this entrepreneurial gamble than, say, a utility company – or a chain of supermarkets, or firms which don’t yet exist. Besides, oil companies have got good at producing oil, and we’re going to need that for a long time yet.

Is Kyoto a good treaty?
There are many enthusiasts for the Kyoto protocol’s demands that rich countries reduce their emissions of “greenhouse” gases by around 5 percent over the next few years. There is some scepticism as to whether Kyoto is all it’s cracked up to be. The US administration dislikes the treaty because, it says, meeting these targets happens to be harder for its economy than it has been for, say, the Europeans. It also says that the treaty doesn’t take enough account of the role poor countries already pay in causing global warming, and will increasingly play.

Can we trust the scientists?
Many climate scientists have been a part of a UN-inspired process, the IPCC, and that has produced what looks like a consensus that global warming is real, big, bad, mankind’s fault and merits concerted action. But the “consensus” is not as strong as you might suppose. Firstly, the scientists agree that various scenarios are possible, and the difference between the scenarios is so great that this agreement amounts to rather little in policy-making terms. Secondly, the scientists agree that there are big uncertainties about many aspects of the science. In short, as usual, there is plenty of opportunity for an optimist to think global warming relatively insignificant, and plenty of opportunity, too, for pessimists to believe this is a deeply severe situation. There is also a good deal of argument about whether the IPCC process is as open-minded as it ought to be. In particular, there is a widespread belief that the summaries of the IPCC process don’t capture the uncertainties of the bulk of the work.

What about the GW “sceptics”?
There has been a lot of mud-throwing from the “consensus” camp at those who dispute that GW is quite what they say. Some of the sceptics are accused of taking industry money, of not taking the idea of the “precautionary principle” seriously, of not being proper climate scientists. What is surprising is that many sceptics accept much of the “consensus” view about global warming. Some of these stress, however, that the effects may be at the low end of the “consensus” predictions, or that it is cheaper to adjust to global warming than to try to stop it.

Should the rich world accept all the blame for GW?
Historically, the story so far is one of rich world emissions of Greenhouse gases. But the “Third World” – especially India and China are catching up. Whatever action the West may take may well be in large part undone by “Third World” energy growth. But maybe we should at least avoid piling “new world” emissions on top of “old world” ones?

Is global warming like other environmental issues?
Yes, if you think it is something mankind has imposed on his planet, and that economic growth has caused it. But there is a big difference between this and most other issues. In most environmental issues (chemicals production, incineration of waste, perhaps even genetically modified organisms) the majority of specialist scientists tend to be more relaxed than the general public or the environmental groups. In global warming, the specialists and the environmentalists tend to be on the same side, and the public has yet to be persuaded. What is more, on most other issues, industry is perceived (probably wrongly) to be the problem: with global warming, it’s citizens who more obviously do the actual polluting (cars, planes, homes, products…).

Will this generation Save the Planet?
No chance. We may make some tentative steps in the right direction. Provided it’s cheap and convenient.

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