The Confusion Over Climate Change

Changing Perceptions

Written by Neil McCabe

Without a doubt, perception is the fundamental problem with mitigating climate change. People can’t digest the figures, are dismayed by info-graphs and ultimately can’t separate global warming and climate change. I find that my own research and the conversations I have had with people about climate change over the last nine years, has yielded the following comments:

- Isn’t there always someone going on about global warming? I have no idea what they are talking about!

- It’s going to happen anyway – sure what could we do to stop it.

- I won’t be around and my kids won’t either – someone will have sorted something out by then.

- It’s all a spin, those tree huggers, it’s always something with them.

- If it’s true, there is nothing we can do – those oil companies have the world in their hands.

- What’s the point, America will just do what it wants anyway.

- Isn’t there a new power plant in China every day?

It is easy for people to want to believe these myths and comments. I really hope that in some way I can explain that this thought process is normal. We are talking about a new subject as if we are supposed to know about it already. Our leaders have let us down. When we are talking about climate change we are not talking about the weather on any given day or for the next few days as with a forecast. We are talking about the average weather predicted for and actually over a long period of time. Climate and weather are definitely linked but are not the same thing.

The Earth’s atmosphere is ever changing and that’s why a forecast is only achievable for a few days where as climate change is a long-term projection of future average weather based on known physical behaviour of air and water on our spinning planet with its arrangement of oceans and land. Physical models of the climate have proven to be skillful in matching past observations from recent temperature records and even in showing the changes in Earth’s orbit that led to the pattern of past ice ages. The Earth’s climate system includes all the combining effects on average, of the different factors we have on earth such as humans, snow, ice, volcanoes, atmosphere, and  our oceans. This is why there has been so much skepticism and misunderstanding about global warming. Climate means “average weather” over 30 years or more.

It’s really simple, the more waste greenhouse gases we throw up into the atmosphere, the more warming will occur as a result of the additional solar energy trapped by them over a longer period of time. That same prediction has offered an insight into the potential for serious global health risks and cultural tension from the impacts of climate change due to global warming.

From my own studies I regularly notice that a major snag in understanding climate change at ordinary citizen level is the idea that Earth will overheat anyway and we will all become fossils waiting to be discovered in 75 million years from now. I have often heard that ‘the climate has always changed because of natural orbital changes leading to changes in the amount of solar energy Earth received. This idea comes from climate change deniers that need to protect their interests (and assets). However, when climate change deniers say this they want to divert us from the fact that today’s global warming is very different as it is caused by human activities that emit greenhouse gases or increase the amount of them in the atmosphere. It’s always easier to scaremonger than to take the time to educate people that yes, Earth had has cycles of natural climate change but the burning of fossil fuels has changed / tilted the playing field.

It is now recognised that CO 2 can be tracked as rising and falling in keeping with the Earth’s temperature but, CO 2 and methane levels have always changed in the atmosphere responding to Earth’s orbital changes during all of the last ice ages. Today though, humans have changed the natural balance, increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by over 40% since industrialization started about 250 years ago. After the last ice age it took over ten thousand years to warm the Earth’s surface about four degrees. In only a century, human activity has caused a warming of one degree and unless serious action is taken very quickly, the current course will add another three degrees this century – a rate of warming fifty times faster than after the ice age.

How to engage ordinary people at ordinary levels in thinking that we have to maintain less polluted air by producing cleaner energy, has not been handled effectively yet. So it is that climate change deniers have the largest stage to speak from because continuing to use fossil fuels seems a cheap and easy option. Explaining that the average weather is getting warmer due to emissions from fossil fuels and food is the best place to start. There is no harm in the development of our nations, improving the quality of our lives at present and in the future. It is vital to our futures, economies and world stability. During the industrial revolution there was a lust for development and progress. It is fair to say that although many new forms of pollution and the world divide increased more than any time before, the fact is that this exciting period in our history was one of pioneering the unknown and dealing with the endless positive possibilities and outcomes. It just seems odd that traditionally each generation learns from the generation before it, yet for the time being at least, this is not the case. We have opportunities to not follow the mistakes made during the industrial revolution and we can reduce the gases being sent needlessly into the atmosphere right now. This shift in thinking is a positive step forward as it increases economic standing, creates long term employment, and improves health. However, the take up is far too slow.

This is a bigger story than ice melting in the arctic; it affects all of us. Before all the previous ice ages there were less greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere than there are now, worse still is that mankind has put those additional gases there! Earth is a delicate system and only a small heating up can stimulate major changes. But climate change is not just about air in the atmosphere that we can’t see and power plants, there is so much more to it. Land use, agriculture, over farming, soil erosion, water pollution, deforestation, growth of cities, transport, toxins and all forms of manufacturing are all key players in this saga.