Monday, July 6, 2009

Is man-made climate change just hot air?

It appears, as a species, that humans are prone to ignoring problems rather than dealing with them. Take for example the recent claim by Northern Ireland Minister of the Environment Sammy Wilson* that the hubbub about global warming is exaggerated.

Mr Wilson is “not of the opinion that climate change is happening at the rate that some would tell us it is” and he does “not believe that it is within the power of humans to change the climate of the planet through reducing CO2 emissions”.

Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Review on climate change commissioned by the British government in 2006, laughs off such claims. In his recent book, A Blueprint For a Safer Planet, he notes that what astounds him about the denial of man-made climate change and what needs to be done by humans to stop it, is that deniers are generally non-scientists. Mr Wilson is a case in point: he is a Politics and Economics graduate, and qualified teacher.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their point of view, and Mr Wilson is not an idiot and has no doubt studied the subject. We should also not squash dissenting voices as they can move debates forward. I also agree with Mr Wilson that the green debate can get a bit hysterical at times. But surely all us non-scientists can rely on are rational and scientific voices on certain issues.

Stern, who the Guardian describes as “soberly suited” and “grey”, does not fit the caricature of an alarmist green radical. Yet Stern remains adamant that given the robust nature of the science on the human effects of emissions, arguments by those that deny it are akin to denying an association between HIV and Aids or smoking and cancer.

Interestingly Stern goes on to analyse why some people deny climate change or paint those that talk about it as over-the-top. He concludes most of the naysayers do so for political reasons.

From Stern’s perspective some right wing thinkers want to deny climate change because they see it as a Trojan Horse for greater regulation of the free market. Some left wing thinkers tend to see environmentalism as a middle class preoccupation that diverts attention from the urgent need for economic growth in the developing world.

In Mr Wilson’s case he clearly holds the Trojan Horse theory, trashing the idea of green taxes which he sees as over-regulation and part of a raft of unnecessary “intrusive policies” around the environment.

But Mr Wilson aside, what is most interesting about Professor Stern’s analysis is how it applies to so many issues.

In Northern Ireland, for example, when it comes to integrated education between Catholics and Protestants, those with a right leaning disposition tend see any attempts to regulate and force integration as an imposition, and an attempt at regulating the social and cultural lives of children and communities. Some from the left rubbish the idea of integration as a middle class fancy. But in their actions both fail to face up to the truth—only 6% of children go to mixed schools and solid research overwhelmingly shows that sectarian attitudes from both sides are alive and well, and that contact between groups, under certain conditions, reduces prejudice.

Of course, everything is political. And those for and against integrated schooling, as well as those pro and anti the environmental lobby, have something to gain from different outcomes to the issues they feel passionate about. But surely common sense, at very least, should inform our perspective, especially if we are in a position of power.

As I have written before in this column, it does not take a scientist to know that spewing gases into the atmosphere that in certain doses can kill humans and animals is obviously problematic. But then again who would want logic dictating how we should live.

* In June 2009, Mr Wilson was moved from the Department of the Environment to become Minister of Finance and Personnel. This article was written prior to the reshuffle.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, April 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 10 April 2009.