Stop telling the public we’re not doomed, says climate change scientist

By Emad Ahmed

We all know that the global climate is changing, raising the terrifying prospect of floods, famines and migration crises galore. The latest installment of depressing news is the delightful prediction that dozens of American cities are at risk of drowning before the century is out, turning places like New Orleans and Miami into the lost kingdom of Atlantis.

This is pretty extreme stuff – so everyone is probably just exaggerating, right? Isn’t it time for the scientific community to change the bloody record?

Ha, ha, no. In fact, a paper published this week in Nature Geoscience actually says we’re not being hysterical enough. In fact, it warns climate scientists to avoid sugar-coating the scale of the catastrophe that climate change poses.

The author, Professor Kevin Anderson of Manchester University, says scientists shouldn’t shape their findings optimistically, “however politically uncomfortable the conclusions”. If anything, he argues, researchers are censoring themselves, worrying too much about the opinions of others or whether they’ll be liked or not after publishing their studies.

So far, the report notes, research based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios has shown that level of greenhouse gas emissions are actually above previous predictions. As a result

“If the IPCC’s up-beat headlines are to be believed, reducing emissions in line with a reasonable-to-good chance of meeting the 2 °C target requires an accelerated, but still evolutionary, move away from fossil fuels.”

Anderson blames the media as well as the IPCC for phrasing news and press releases too optimistically: in order to change the public’s behaviour, scientists need to be much blunter about the consequences.

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The good news is that even the drastic and immediate action necessary to avoid a  2°C  increase in global temperature – widely seen as the threshold between us and devestating climate change – would cost less than 0.1 per cent of global economic growth. That’s nothing. Anderson concludes:

“If we are to meet the 2°C target, us wealthier high emitting individuals, whether in industrial or industrialising nations, will have to accept radical changes to how we live our lives – that or we’ll fail on 2°C.”

The report coincides with the installation of a new IPCC chairman, weeks before the major UN climate change conference in Paris. Let’s be optimistic once more and delude ourselves that the world’s nations will finally get serious about taking major action to prevent the death of our planet.

Emad Ahmed is a science report for our sister site, the New Statesman.

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