We’re all experts on climate change now… or are we?

Dr Emma Fieldhouse, Environmental Manager, University of Leicester:

Dr Emma FieldhouseActually we’re not. I’m certainly not.  However, people presume I should understand all aspects of climate science because of my active role in environmental management. The science of climate change is for scientists to debate, not for me to debate when I’m no climate specialist. How humans should respond to climate change is a different matter. I can be quite opinionated on that – just ask anyone who works with me.

It seems that everyone – i.e. ‘Joe Public’ – has an opinion on climate change which in most cases is formed by the choice of newspaper furnishing their desk/home/pub table (delete as applicable) or the TV they watch. Of course those newspapers with a larger readership can form popular public opinion and we know which have the greatest readership in the UK. You can just hear the roar from public houses across the country: “climate change – it’s a load of old rubbish” (said with crisp packet and pint in hand).

I’ve found a more positive way of considering climate change. How about if all of ‘us’ unqualified millions (apart from the qualified climate change scientists) stop asking “is it caused by humans?” or “is it happening at all?” and start asking a more pragmatic and risk-based question instead, such as “what’s the most sensible thing to do?”.

Before I continue there is an important thing to consider. As any scientist worth their salt knows (and that includes social as well as hard scientists), the very nature of science means that it is never completed or certain. So if you are waiting for a definitive answer about whether human-induced climate change is real or not, then you will be waiting a very long time.

We are in a post-Copenhagen and -Climategate lull. By waiting for the scientific ‘facts’ to be agreed before we choose to respond to potential climatic changes, we are removing any element of choice as we’ve automatically chosen inaction over action. Is that the most sensible thing to do?

Greg Craven (a geeky American high school science teacher – his description not mine) has shown through his far reaching U-tube exploits that we literally need to frame the debate differently by risk assessing whether it is more or less sensible to positively act on climate change whilst we’re still debating the science. There are also strategies emerging for how to tackle climate change and decarbonise the economy. Who knows we might even create a better world whilst the scientific debate continues. In the meantime you can start by switching things off before you leave work. Opinionated? Me?

Dr Emma Fieldhouse is the Environmental Manager at the University of Leicester.

For more information about the university’s carbon footprint go to www.le.ac.uk/environment.

10 Comments

  1. Vic
    Posted 03/10/2011 at 08:29 | Permalink

    Has anyone watched The Age of Stupid? Just wondering what people thought?

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    Alison Moody Reply:

    It was a good film that made interesting observations but fell into the climate change porn category. Gratifying to watch but does not tell you how to solve the underlying problem. Even, the producer flew to New Zealand after completing the film – to stand as a candidate for the Green Party. The good news is that once we have killed a large proportion of our species, the planet will settle down again fo a while before the sun expands and boils off the atmosphere. Of course, mankind may crack the nuclear fusion problems in the next 20 years and we will have unlimited carbon free power. Deus ex machina – with one bound he was free.

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  2. Yonca Ersen
    Posted 30/03/2011 at 14:25 | Permalink

    As we continue to scientifically develop our understanding of all things, invent new technologies and so on, the infrastructure of urbanising must be encouraged to keep up with the current times. Not on the basis that we have x amount of time to save the planet but simply because we know better than to slowly change the balance of the very planet we are dependent upon for survival. From energy production, to controlled consumption of all things, recycling waste, green transportation to minimise pollution, controlling over population…none of these subjects (along with many others) should be viewed separately. Each topic offers a variety of different solutions which may be more or less applicable to different cultures and nations.

    All societies have different interests and values which are reflected in their politics. Perhaps prior to governments representing us vote and/or present views on behalf of all of us, we should be able to have a way of expressing general public view of the planet in masses in order to shape the conclusion.

    But even this will require a well informed human race which we don’t currently have.

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  3. Peter
    Posted 29/03/2011 at 11:23 | Permalink

    Climate change is the biggest pr disaster of modern times its been hijacked by government as a tax raising measure,by the media as a scare mongering measure,by business to promote dubious’plant saving measures’,and by self interested parties or fundamentalists that just want to impose their ideals. Climate changes – has done always will,the point is that irrespective of whether its good or bad,common sense(often in short supply) would dictate that on a variety of levels something has to be done not token action(low energy light bulbs-mercury disposal,small windmills- see warwick study,feed in tariffs-do not solve the issue just present a symptom,carbon trading-guilt management).

    When you talk to people and demonstrate about how they can save they respond( I have experienced this), in the Uk this does not mean deploying the often ridiculous green technologies that cost thousands and have no direct economic pay back. I love cars, but I also understand that driving is no more a pleasure, but then public transport is not designed to encourage use, in fact its the very opposite – its expensive,overcrowded and generally un user friendly,enough so that people will endure using their cars instead.The point here is that if people see a benefit to them directly – now,they respond. Forcing them to change based on a distant benefit- ie stopping the planet going to hell in a handcart sometime in the future- does not square with their here and now priorities, and most people are forced to see the here and now. The media and government action ,combined with climate fundamentalists has also meant that people can defer their choice as they can rationalise that ‘green taxes’,dubious European legislation,and attacking drivers of ‘chelsea tractors’ and ‘aga’ users – are reinforcing their view that climate change is a scam. A recent example is a Midlands LA announced a £150k ‘ investment’in solar panels, and ‘investment’ that will save £3k per year( their figures), that does not make any economic sense at all especially when its an LA making severe cutbacks and imposing job losses. Climate change 1 people Nil. Its that kind of thinking that enables people to see the whole thing as a scam.

    For myself I am neither for or against climate change , but on a balance of probabilities it makes sense that we change ‘just in case’. But I cannot see that it is made easy.

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  4. Posted 22/03/2011 at 10:31 | Permalink

    It’s not the scientists that make people sceptical, it is the pseudo-scientific commentators who interject themselves manufacturing scare stories about the likely effects of global warming.

    Here are some examples:

    ‘There are five years left to save the planet’. That is what the World Wildlife Fund said – four years ago – so by 2012, it is all over. Some people were a bit more optimistic. Volcanologist Bill McGuire, of the UK Government’s Natural Hazard Working Group gave us seven years to save the planet, and that was back in 2008, so we have till 2015. The New Economic Foundation’s Andrew Simm gives us one more year, till 2016, when we will face ‘irreversible climate change’ that will be ‘catastrophic’. 2016 is also the date named by Gaby Hinsliff, of the Guardian newspaper, as the tipping point, covering Sir Nicholas Stern’s 2006 report into climate change. Hinsliff’s colleague George Monbiot was more alarmist, still, saying in 2008 that we have almost certainly left it too late to avoid catastrophic climate change.

    So far the measured change in global warming is less than two degrees degree. There is no scientific basis to the views that we are facing ‘catastrophic climate change’ in the next twenty years, or even a tipping point beyond which catastrophic climate change becomes inevitable. But these views are regularly repeated as if they were scientific fact.

    The most sensible thing to do is to go down the pub and have a drink and a packet of crisps, and not to upset yourself about catastrophes that are not going to happen. And the conversation there seems a bit better informed than here…

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  5. marsCubed
    Posted 18/03/2011 at 17:52 | Permalink

    Big Heat engine Power.
    Locating generator turbines directly into strong ocean currents.

    Moon Power.
    Like Dubai’s palm tree shaped islands but with real utility.
    Long dams at an angle to certain coastlines, like a huge harbor constantly refilled by the tides, with turbines at one end. Although ambitious, Such projects would be relatively easy to construct & exploit existing geological features.. once oceanic surveys had established environmental impact (putting things into the sea is often very beneficial to sea life & variety as it provides new shelter), trucks could just drive up to the beach and dump rocks (spoil from mining) into the sea.. & keep repeating, with turbines lowered in at intervals. Islands could even be constructed to generate power & surfing waves as part of the attraction. Concrete used could be of the C02 absorbing kind. The land and energy could pay for themselves quickly as habitation/use of new (island) land was established..

    Sun power.
    We could put solar panels on pillars in desert areas. these could be designed to act as moisture collectors, provide some stability and shade to the soil below. This may be enough for new agricultural development.

    Evaporation power.
    A canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead-sea in Israel(for instance) with a turbines along the way, the water would evaporate along the route and in the sea itself thus this is actually Sun and Gravity power too.
    Putting all that extra moisture above the land would probably bring much needed rain to nearby areas too.
    The salt could be dumped in the Dead sea itself?

    Tower Power.
    Building large towers like those above power stations, which can generate their own weather.
    We can make bigger towers which produce a constant updraft, particularly in desert areas.. like a mini constant tornado. this can be tapped for energy too.. and even produce ice in the form of hail.. rain.. ie it can collect moisture from the air too.

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    Alison Moody Reply:

    You did not include waves. Much more powerful than wind and without the unsightly turbines.

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  6. Jonny A
    Posted 15/03/2011 at 08:47 | Permalink

    If having a packet of crisps and a pint in hand precludes a valid opinion, then it is a sad day indeed. And who is to choose what is the best pragmatic response?

    Perhaps a pragmatic thing to do would be to build more nuclear power stations – as has been argued for in this country…but then again…

    Why not go for the pragmatic view of creating more carbon sinks and investing in carbon capture technology (and even scrubbing the air of CO2) – for example, the Rodale Institute says that regenerative agriculture, introduced world-wide, would absorb 40% of all CO2 emissions. Given a third of all human CO2 emissions are currently absorbed by the oceans, this would be a huge step in mitigating any potential impact of increased CO2 in the atmosphere – and would do away with the need for the finger-wagging CO2 police.

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  7. Posted 15/03/2011 at 01:41 | Permalink

    climate change. ummmm, not rocket science, oil is not everlasting. we are growing in population every second of the day, the oil pit will dry up eventually 20 30 40 100 yrs from now no one knows . BUT IT WILL. its up to us as decent human beings to try and educate everyone around us to understand the problem of oil. { greed & must have commodity} and to look what we are supposed to use natural resources ie. light, wind, sun, and sea.

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  8. Stephen Graham
    Posted 14/03/2011 at 14:47 | Permalink

    Climate change or not, mass fuel supply’s are going to run out therefore the conservation is necessary,this would have a desirable effect against the ‘debated’ Climate Change as well as the pollution which most people know exists and are affected by it to various degrees.As far as transport fuel and pollution is concerned there is new solution coming from ENGLAND(where else)it’s called the VORTEX Rotary (asHHere)being an ‘inexpensive’ Hybrid engine which achieves 51-70% thermal efficiency in a wide range of applications and will utilize a wide range of fuels including ethanol=problem solved= Rule Britannia! Britannia rules- -(if you know the words-sing along!’

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  9. David Morrey
    Posted 10/03/2011 at 16:30 | Permalink

    Is the man in the pub (pint in hand) qualified to opine on climate science? Easy answer, almost certainly not. Let’s tackle a bigger question: are ‘climate scientists’ qualified to opine on climate science? Indeed what is a climate scientist? Is it someone whose skills are predominantly in computer modelling? That covers a lot of people who are being paid as climate scientists. Is it the authors of the IPCC Summary (the definitive, consensus view of the scientific community etc etc)? That’s civil servants and an overwhelming number of economists. Is it Al Gore, a C- science student?

    Is it someone who does basic research on climate archeology, or someone who studies atmospheric physics? Or someone who studies the oceans, or solar scientists or geologists? Seriously, climate science is all of the above (and more I expect I’ve forgotten). I actually believe it is possible for an educated man in the pub, with time on his hands, to get a better collective general knowledge of all of these subjects than any expert deeply immersed in a single sub-field will be able to have. It is precisely because there are so many aspects of this work, and forces that interact in ways we don’t yet fully understand that I would welcome more hubris in the definitive opinions one hears from those who self-label themselves as climate scientists. And if they stopped calling themselves climate scientists and started calling themselves ‘scientists in what they are actually expert in’ then the man in the pub might get a better perspective on the credibility of what they are hearing.

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  10. John Rowe
    Posted 10/03/2011 at 09:08 | Permalink

    Firstly, how does one analyse expert? Perhaps Ex means “Has Been” while “spert” (spurt)is nothing greater than a leaking hose pipe.

    I only have secondary school education but I do, at 69 years of age, have a memory and experience of sorts.
    My memory of schooling in geography reminds me that we emerged from the Ice Age, therefore, global warming was happening at that time. So where were the greenhouse gases then and more importantly where did they come from in that period of time?
    My experiences over 69 years reminds me of floods and fires in most countries that suffer them today albeit perhaps more frequently now than previous decades have seen. I have not had the forethought to record the details. I remember the warnings, which appear to be ignored or not given the required attention,of destroying the rain forests that would (and probably have) been attributing to global warming.
    It is my experience and memory that show Dr. David Bellamy as being probably more in-tune with reality on global warming. Perhaps also it is just the continuing evolutionism that we are witnessing, or of course like our former Chancellor/Prime Minister people use global warming in order to make money through scaremongering. One other point is perhaps people like Dr. David Bellamy and myself included are living in denial.

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    John Harfield Reply:

    Your comment about geological history is, I believe, more relevant than you realise. over 10,000 years ago northern Europe sat under 2 miles of ice, the weight of which was enough to tilt Scotland down and London up and to exert enough pressure at its base to squeeze the ice out like toothpaste scraping all before it. This all melted very quickly so as you say, there must have been global warming on a huge scale to cause that amount of ice to melt so quickly. We are still recovering geologically from it, with London steadily sinking and Scotland steadily rising.

    Why should this process not still be continuing. i.e. why do we believe that the warming that started then has ceased? if what we see is the tail-end of a process that peaked 10,000 years ago, then it will decrease over hundreds of years but not necessarily within the short period of modern 0bservational science.

    Whatever we believe about man’s contribution to global warming, we know definitely that ice ages like the last one are periodic and start not overywhere at once but at an identifiable centre such as Rannoch Moor in Scotland. The next ice age will occur about 40,000 years from now and every single thing that man has built in northern Europe will be scraped away by the ice wall. Every church, bridge, house and monument will be gone as if it had never been there.

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