Editorial: The Old Rock 03.12.10

It is clearly tempting for some people to look out the window at all the snow or walk in the freezing air and conclude that global warming is a myth. Tempting, but foolish. As anyone with even a basic understanding of science knows, impressions often conceal the underlying reality. If science was still based on impressions, rather than the testing of carefully thought-out hypotheses, we’d probably still be at the pre-Copernican stage of thinking the earth goes round the sun, or even assuming it is flat. (Explaining why objects pick up speed as they fall, Aristotle concluded that they proceed more “jubilantly” the closer they come to their natural place of rest!) Similarly with statistics. It is not the temperature on any given day that matters, but the trend over a year, a decade, the centuries, and not just the air temperature but the sea surface temperature, humidity, snow cover. In a report last week the Met Office confirmed that the rate of warming in the past decade was slower than the 0.16C per decade trend since the 1970s, but according to the World Meteorological Organisation 2010 is still likely to be one of the hottest years on record. Sea ice melted much more quickly during the decade.

The trouble is, and this delights the flat-earthers who are happy to delude themselves about what is happening because it suits their lifestyles, politicians have been unable to come to any meaningful agreement on cutting carbon dioxide emissions, in Copenhagen last year and in Cancun this year. As The Economist pointed out this week, “the world is still on an emissions trajectory that fits pretty easily into the ‘business as usual’ scenarios drawn up by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)”.

In other words, as well as trying to cut down on emissions, we are going to have to adapt to a warmer environment. In the rich world that will be relatively easy, but in poorer parts of the world it will be much more difficult. Two of the distinguishing qualities of our species are forward planning and empathy for people we don’t know. Will we embrace the challenge or hope with Candide that all turns out for the best in the best of all possible worlds?


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