Saturday, 15 September 2012

Whatever Happened to Climate Change?

I guess the earth must no longer be warming, and that CO2 emissions have stopped, because while we hear much about money and political bickering on the news, one topic that used to fill the headlines has practically disappeared. We are back in the era where I need to justify getting a low-emission car, or buying green electricity. People give me that puzzled look when I explain that I switch off my engine at traffic lights to save petrol, and when I don’t accelerate like a mad person afterwards, only to stop again a minute later. What strange behaviour on a planet that is going through the anthropocene unscathed…of course. No, climate change is as real as ever. But everyone is calm – why bother reaching an international agreement on emission reduction, while they continue to grow every year, and what’s wrong with a few more hot days for us Central Europeans anyway. And is the whole story true in the first place? Polls show increasing scepticism towards man-made climate change, the sad result of a discourse created by the lack of media coverage and European government policy. In this post I want to investigate the causes of the disappearance of climate change from the news reports, highlighting however, that climate change presents a massive threat to continued human existence on earth, and that more needs to be done.

Areas affected by a 1m sea level rise
To me it is quite obvious why the German and European political discourse of the 2000s was permeated by environmental concerns: Europe is one of the most dependent regions of the planet when it comes to energy. Fossil fuel reserves are barely available, and the vast majority of European natural gas and crude oil requirements are met by imports from Russia and the Gulf states. Awareness of immanent ‘peak oil’ and of Europe’s vulnerability to price fluctuations, made references to climate change an essential aspect of the justifications of mega-investments in energy infrastructure, particularly if one has to keep the balance between the need of increased self-sufficiency and good diplomatic relations with one’s geographical neighbours. It is difficult if not impossible to currently answer the question whether the climate change discourse was intentionally started to justify the movement towards energy self-sufficiency, but one can certainly say that it helped. In Germany, the climate change discourse became unnecessary after Fukushima – public opinion widely supported the conservative government’s plans to quit nuclear power, in spite of the move’s inevitable outcome of the large-scale transformation of landscapes. Thousands of wind turbines have been and are being constructed both on and offshore and enormous power lines are needed to transport electricity to the continent. This argument however, offers only a partial and regional explanation for the disappearance of the climate change discourse, which is not unique to Germany.

Another obvious reason for the changing discourse is the decline in public support for action against climate change. While surveys do indeed show this trend throughout Europe, in some cases quite drastically, they often suggest somewhat impartial explanation, which is why I think that the true reasons lie in an interplay of all of them. Surveys thus often cite “climategate” or financial uncertainty due to the economic crisis as the highest ranking factors in determining this alteration. Indeed, there may be some truth to both arguments. The misleading IPCC report on 2009 revealed that there were those interested in producing particular results in climate research, placing an endeavour into doubt, that’s usefulness was seen sceptically anyway. When days got cold in two consecutive European winters, public belief in climate change decreased even further, although this causal connection is very difficult to establish using statistics. Petrol prices have risen dramatically since 2009, in some cases by up to 50%, and people have become less willing to pay extra taxes to fight a problem that they are not even sure exists. The time-scales used in global climate predictions appear to be a power too high to cause rational behaviour, and humanity falls back into the dilemma where it is believed that one’s own individual actions can’t change anything anyway. The result is that the majority (albeit a smaller majority) of Europeans continue to believe in man-made climate change, although they feel unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Fortunately, the world is organised into larger political units that can circumvent the aforementioned coordination problem, yet the public inertia is mirrored in the world of international relations, where China blames Europe, where Europe blames America, and where Americans don’t really care in the first place. So, everyone!, let’s carry on blasting CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere, because there just isn’t anything we can do. Let’s just wait and see what happens.

Webcam image of the melting North Pole, 22 August 2012
Well, I’ll tell you what happens. In the last couple of days, the Arctic ice cover has shrunk to the smallest extent ever recorded. While the average ice cover for the 1980s was something like 8 million km², it has now dropped to 3.4 million km², breaking the previous record of 2007 by over 500,000km²  - the size France. The 2000s were by far the warmest decade on record, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations have risen by 70% since the beginning of industrialisation. Climate change has by no means lost its relevance; it is happening, and foresters and farmers all over the world can already tell the difference. I am sceptical that globally coordinated action will really come about, although that would obviously be the only way to accomplish a change. I am somewhat more optimistic about Europe itself, which seems to be on track for reducing its own CO2 emissions, although perhaps with a rather non-altruistic motive. I’m going to end this post with a line from a song by Die Fantastischen Vier, which translates into this: “Put all the blame on us; you can keep all the other stuff!”

Harald Köpping

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