The Emerging Climate Emergency?

Updated: Jan 14

Victor Luca, 13-Nov-19.

The Beacon 3-Dec-19


In a previous article in this publication I loudly proclaimed my accord with one of the greatest philosophers of science of the modern age, Carl Popper (28-Jul-1902 - 17-Sep-94). Popper stated that scientific knowledge is the best knowledge we have. Through science we have so far harnessed the power of the atom to provide electricity to entire cities and used that same power to make the most horrific weapons. We have made global communication virtually instantaneous. We have figured out how to mass produce food and synthetic meat will reach our plates sometime soon. An abundance of food and medical science have resulted in a significant increase in life expectancy at least in the developed world. And medicine has evolved to the point where we have figured how to fix people once they are broken. We have managed to map the human genome and tamper with it through gene editing technology such as CRISPR which allows existing genes to be removed and/or new ones added at will. We are developing artificial intelligence, and are on the verge of producing ‘thinking’ machines of which self-driving cars are just the start. We can build sophisticated tools and quantum computers look set to overtake the speed of conventional computers.


As scientific knowledge accumulates at an ever increasing rate, it may be outstripping our ability to fully adapt to the pace of this change. You get the idea. Powerful forces are reshaping our lives and our planet. In some cases this change is for the better but extreme care is warranted.


As a result of scientific advancement, many of us today live lives that the Kings and Queens of the previous century or two could only have dreamed of. We humans, with our large brains, have become highly successful animals. We have dominated every niche of our planet, the only planet that we currently know of that supports human life. But are we smart enough to avert our own destruction?


Today, scientists, and in particular scientists that have dedicated their lives to the study of physical, biological, and natural sciences are in unanimous agreement that we humans are mostly responsible for changing the climate of the earth in the post-industrial age. Yes, I know the climate has changed over periods of tens and hundreds of thousands of years and so does every climate scientist. However, here we are talking about an abrupt change. Among climate scientists, the degree of unanimity that it is us that are changing the climate in the post-industrial era is greater than 97%. The unanimity among scientists is not a number I have just plucked from the air. This number is the result of careful analysis of the scientific literature. For instance, to arrive at this number, Cook and colleagues [1] analyzed the abstracts of 11,944 articles matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’ that were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals over the period 1991 - 2011. Cook and colleagues found that of the articles taking a position on the subject of climate change, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position of anthropogenic global warming i.e. human-induced global warming. Many other researchers have also investigated this consensus and come up with a similar number. It has been clearly established that as the level of expertise of a surveyed group of people increases, so too does the degree of consensus on climate change. That is, if one surveys the general public, support for the consensus view drops to about 60%. For scientists that are non-publishing, non-climatologists the consensus value is about 75%. Finally, for publishing climate scientists the consensus is >97%. Now, the value of 97% is not 100% but it is pretty damn close. Therefore, of the many thousands of scientists that accept the evidence on anthropogenic climate change, 3% might be contrarians or our and out deniers. That means that although it may be difficult to find such scientists, whilst the consensus is not 100%, it is always possible to find the odd denier. Some of these deniers even seem to make a habit of opposing consensus views. While it is the job of a scientist to be skeptical, deniers can play a useful role because they challenge the rest. The important point that I am trying to make is that the number of deniers is very small and in fact decreasing as the evidence continues to pile up. There was a time in human history when the theory that the earth was flat had some validity. Today, most of us have accepted the preponderance of evidence that the world is spherical. Having said that, there are flat earth societies in the United States and other places.


The other important point I have been trying to make here is that of the relevance of expertise in helping us decide on the actions that we take. When I need my car fixed, I reach out to a mechanic, and I don’t start to tell the mechanic how they should do their job or how they should think. When we get sick and want help to get well, to whom do we reach out? We go to a doctor or directly to a hospital and there we rely on the knowledge accumulated through decades, if not centuries, of painstaking medical research, much of it funded by the public sector. When we need a road or bridge built we go to an engineer. When we need specialist knowledge we consult EXPERTS! So when we need to know what the climate or ecosystem is doing we should listen to scientists who are experts in the relevant branch of science.


The consensus view at present is that we are not just changing the climate but we also wreaking terrible destruction on the ecosystems systems of the earth. These are the ecosystems that support our very existence. The scientific community is warning us that the preponderance of evidence suggests that we are overstepping the mark. The warnings from the science community have been flowing thick and fast for decades. A stark warning was issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992 [2]. This letter was signed by 17,000 of the best minds in the business of climate science and almost all of the living Nobel Laureates of the time. That first warning was followed by the warning from Ripple and colleagues published in 2017 [3]. This publication had 15,364 scientist signatories from 184 countries. Most recently, the authors of the second warning have issued a third warning [4]. This latest warning has 11,000 signatories from some of the world’s most prestigious research institutions. Scientists are usually timid, self-effacing creatures that inhabit laboratories and offices. They are creatures that are seldom comfortable in the limelight. They are usually very careful in the words they use and their writings don’t often enter the realm of the ‘average punter’.


Today scientists are singing with one voice and we would all do well to listen if we care about what happens to mother earth and consequently the well-being of our children and the most vulnerable of the global citizenry. Even the US Pentagon has been taking climate change seriously for more than a decade. That alone should be a wakeup call to us all.


Source: Doran et al., Examining the scientific consensus on climate change. Eos2009,90, 22.


As those of us with a consciences become increasingly concerned, and even frightened, climate deniers and the proponents of the business-as-usual paradigm are using their resources to provide deniers with disproportionately large megaphones [5]. Here I caution to listen to the scientists not the pseudo-scientists and arm-chair scientists that tend to proliferate on social networks and in certain right-wing media. Nor should anyone of course listen to the likes of Donald Trump, who as far as I am aware is no scientist.


I would urge readers to obtain a copy of the articles I have cited here, especially the most recent warning by Ripple and colleagues [4] entitled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency”. Please read this short article carefully and do not despair, because while there is life there is hope. Until we find another earth somewhere, this is the only one we have so let’s get cracking and change the paradigm because the existing one is not working.


All the articles I have cited here are freely available on the internet. The warnings to humanity are written in language that anyone should be able to comprehend.


References


[1] Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D. Green, S.A. Richardson, M., Winkler, B. Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P., Skuce, A. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters 2013, 8(2), 024024. http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024

https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024024


[2] World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, 1992. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/1992-world-scientists-warning-humanity


[3] Ripple, W.J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T.M., Galetti, M., Almagir, M., Crist, E., Mahmoud, M.I. Lawrence, W.F. World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. BioScience, Volume 67, Issue 12, December 2017, Pages 1026–1028. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/bix125.

https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/12/1026/4605229


[4] Ripple, W.J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T.M., Barnard, P., Moomaw, W.R. World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency. Bioscience, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz088.

https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/biz088/5610806


[5] Petersen, A.M., Vincent, E.M., Westerling, A.L. Discrepancy in scientific authority and media visibility of climate change scientists and contrarians. Nature Communications. 2019, 10, 3502. doi:10.1038/s41467-019-09959-4. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09959-4.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-09959-4#citeas

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