Like a bad disaster film, the naysayers have been in charge over climate change. It’s not too late to rewrite the final scenes.
Every disaster movie has a stock character – the person who tells everyone else that there’s nothing to worry about. Shark? There’s no shark. What could possibly go wrong with that tower block, ship, plane, volcano, dinosaur safari park or paramilitary robot cop with a slightly psychopathic glint in its eye?
Such “don’t worry” confidence is always bullish and reassuring. The motives are mostly financial: to open in time for the holiday season or launch the product ahead of a few safety checks. People fall for it, of course, because they want to believe that things will be OK, that their plans won’t have to change. It always ends badly. In the battered landscapes as the final credits roll, there is little doubt that a false-negative diagnosis costs vastly more than a little healthy caution.
So, how lucky do we feel about the climate threat to civilisation? With a few important exceptions, the media swallowed spin and insinuation from peddlers of doubt about its seriousness, without ever holding them to remotely the same standard of evidence demanded of climate scientists. As a result, he time for meaningful action is shrinking just as fewer appear convinced of the need to act.
There is a fine line between noble self-interrogation (generally a good thing) and liberal self-flagellation (generally pointless, painful and scarring). Why is it that so many avowedly progressive people are drawn anxiously, like moths to the flames of even their most wild-eyed critics? Meanwhile, the latter sail on, blithely unconcerned by doubt or evidence.
And yet what has really changed since the strange convulsion of “sceptics’ hour”? It allowed a peculiar release of tension after the relative failure of much-hyped international negotiations. Then, it slowly dawned on the media that science always was about probabilities, not certainties, and decisions still had to be made on these. A huge, obfuscating dust cloud of doubt was kicked up, but now that it has settled, the landscape is the same, the basic science unaltered. There’s just a lot of grit in people’s eyes. Climate change is still real, happening and without radical action could, in a few short years, move into a phase whereby it becomes very difficult to reverse.
At least, and modestly reassuring, the world is already moving on. For, example, could there be a more symbolic act than GM’s decision to close its factory making the petrol-hungry Hummer, especially after China, rising economic power and its last hope for rescue, pulled out of the deal?
Elsewhere, business as usual no longer goes unquestioned. American web giant Facebook recently announced plans for a massive, energy-intensive new data centre in Prineville, Oregon. When it became clear that coal power plants would help provide its electricity, around 20,000 people formed a group on Facebook, calling on the company to use 100% clean energy with the strapline “We want Facebook to use 100% renewable energy“.
Whatever people may say to pollsters, at a deeper level, the need for change is altering expectations for people, companies and governments. The fact that public attitudes seemed to change quickly in the wrong direction also means that they are volatile and could flip again. Perversely, we maybe in the last hurrah of the sceptics, and closer to a positive tipping point in attitude than it seems. Even with plenty on his plate, President Barack Obama took time out to explain the difference between weather and climate systems after heavy snowfall in North America (but melting ice at the winter Olympics).
Students of the disaster film genre won’t be surprised. Generally they adhere to a reliable story arc. In the first act, all seems well until a prescient few stumble across evidence of impending disaster. In the second act they get ignored. False reassurance (often with dubious motives) wins the day. Then, bad things happen. In the final act, with all hell breaking loose, the siren voices are either silenced or left quivering in the face of their own foolhardiness. Some kind of sense wins out.
Real life, though, is a movie whose script we have to write for ourselves. And here we are, stuck in the second act, with the bad things just beginning to happen. Quick, grab the keyboard, the floor’s beginning to shake, we’ve got 81 months, and counting…