Calibrating climate concerns

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SummaryOur understanding of climate change could be inexact but acting on what we have is necessary

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 Emmott’s 10 Billion (Penguin). It is a book in praise of smallness—billions more carbon footprints implies the need for smaller footprints—and 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

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