Calibrating climate concerns

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: Nov 21 2013, 11:23am hrs
Typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged the Philippines, also caused extensive damage in distant Warsaw, at the 19th session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The representative from the Philippines fasted, island nations prepared to meet their doom like Atlantis, and the South spoke anew of compensation for bearing the brunt of a disaster not of its making. But a reparation calculus cannot be contemplated. Scientists agree that human activity is contributing to global warming, but a sectoral P&L account remains elusive.

Haiyan was the latest in a series of extreme weather events, violent spikes highlighting a slower trend established over 15 years. The warmest year on record was 1998. And the 10 warmest years on record came after that. But the record only extends back to the late 19th century and so, for want of an adequate data spread, climate change remains as uncertain and as polarising as Narendra Modi. Recently, both cheerleaders and sceptics were exasperated when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that while the danger of warming may have been overstated, it was now more certain that humans were stoking the fire. Everyone wanted them to cut the crap and tell us, in a crisp headline, if it was good news or bad.

But climate science is run by scientists. Responsible scientists work with probabilities, not certainties, because human knowledge is constantly evolving. This gets on the nerves of the laity, who just want to be told what to believe. And they are outraged when they find, as when conversations between climate scientists was leaked in 2009, that climate science is quite hedgy.

But sometimes, responsible researchers feel compelled to go bare-knuckles. The latest persuader of the general readership is Stephen Emmotts 10 Billion (Penguin). It is a book in praise of smallnessbillions more carbon footprints implies the need for smaller footprintsand warns that the alternative is hunger and political unrest. On a scale of climate polemic from illiterate pooh-pooh to paranoiac alarmist, one would place it away from the midline towards alarmist.

Emmott heads computational science at Microsoft Research and is interested in complex systems in general, not climate in particular. His focus is living systems and the biosphere, and he approaches the problem of climate from that direction. The first page of 10 Billion says: Earth is home to millions of species. The second page says: Just one dominates it. Us.

Alarm signals and all, the book is within the limits of the credible, stressing social and political effects that the IPCC has discussed. However, it trashes the Green Revolution as a chemical marvel and looks forward to a real food revolution, driven by a new kind of science. Which, perhaps, is already here, though it may not be to Emmotts taste. Funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, a team at Maastricht University has just produced the worlds first stem cell burger.

Among the possible threats posed by global warming, the food crisis finds play because journalists and politicians grasp the significance of hunger quite readily. The sea level rising by a couple of inches isnt half as exciting. Not exactly a tsunami, is it Though Emmott predicts that by the end of the century, no matter what, Bangladesh will be under the Bay of Bengal.

The climate wars are so heated because though science has a consensus, politics doesnt. But in The Change Book, the European communicators Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschppeler write of high school teacher Greg Craven, who has become an influential green thinker by sidestepping the controversy to make action possible. Craven offers a matrix of choices by intercutting two questions. One, is a climate catastrophe imminent Two, should we do something about it

Or, if a catastrophe is possible but not certain, what are the costs and benefits of action Fable equivalent: if a chicken is about to cross an empty road but knows that roads are built for cars, should it look left and right just in case Unless this is a game of chicken, the answer is obvious. If a climate catastrophe strikes, doing something about it would save humanity. If its a myth, reacting to it would still create new needs, new sciences and technologies and new markets. Not altogether a bleak prospect.

But isnt it interesting, how a call to action against the backdrop of an imponderable threat can appear to be decisive, intelligent and the obvious thing to do, even when you know that the main issue, the uncertainty of climate science, remains unaddressed Narendra Modi knows this trick. Wisely, he only promises the certainty of muscular action. Though, like the rest of us, he has no idea if the world is going to pot.