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Are Climate Scientists A Bigger Problem Than The Sceptics?

What's needed is local solutions for global benefits.

10/12/2016 1:12 AM IST | Updated 15/12/2016 10:18 AM IST
Babu Babu / Reuters

A Saudi Arabian minister apparently said in a meeting that the Stone Age did not come to an end because they ran out of stones. He was referring to the need to curtail the use of fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions—his implication was that fossil fuels will automatically be replaced when other sources are invented. We can extend the same paradigm to the entire business of climate change—that climate change will not stop because humans will change their ways but because they will adopt the solutions we develop for carbon-neutral energy and food production.

Climate scientists are better off worrying less about climate deniers and public scepticism about science, and should simply focus on developing solutions before we run out of fossil fuels.

Climate scientists are in a tizzy over many issues relating to human activities and global warming. The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and the potential retraction of the US from international agreements is certainly a matter of consternation. A number of petitions are already being circulated and they are bound to garner an impressive number of signatures. But as the President of the richest country in the world, Trump will continue to make choices just as his predecessors did. This headline shows that even the most passionate and climate-friendly President has limitations on what choices he can really make to lead climate action. Despite his personal interest and passion in climate action, President Obama made a number of choices that are not climate friendly.

Then there is the general tendency of climate scientists to reach for the standard placebos on how the dark forces are seeding doubts about climate change and creating impediments to climate action or how science communication is not being effective in reducing laypeople's doubts about science and scientists. This constant complaining is especially unhealthy since science itself is founded on scepticism!

In all honesty, climate deniers and the science-ignorance of the general public may not be the biggest impediments to climate action. The bigger hurdle may be that climate scientists and climate aficionados are not really leading by example, in terms of changing their lifestyles in all ways needed to reduce their own carbon footprints. In fact, it is not even possible for us mere mortals to change our consumption patterns sufficiently to be a major part of climate action. Local, regional and global solutions are needed to meet the resource needs of all humans without increasing greenhouse gases or affecting the environment negatively in any other way. This is especially important considering that real life will always force us to prioritise a billion things over climate action.

For example, developing countries like China and India cannot afford to leave their coal languishing in the ground considering their energy needs to not only continue their economic growth but to provide for the basic needs of their citizens. This forces these countries to make some choices that are in fact unhealthy in a real sense of deadly air pollution . The blanket of smog in north India following Diwali celebrations last month, for one, is still fresh in our memory.

Coal use will not end because we will run out of coal. There is just too much coal on earth. We must find alternative energy sources to make coal obsolete. Climate action will never be immune to the vagaries of politics. Or be resilient to natural disasters like the tsunami that hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant and forced Japan to reconsider its commitment to climate action. Unless, of course, climate-friendly food, energy, water and carbon-capture-and-sequestration solutions make climate action completely independent of politics.

Climate scientists are better off worrying less about climate deniers and public scepticism about science, and should simply focus on developing solutions before we run out of fossil fuels. Even if 99% of all humanity miraculously agreed that humans are causing global warming, we will not be able to have much additional impact on mitigating the warming since large-scale solutions are not yet in place. For example, if a reasonable number of people wanted to give up their cars and rely on public transportation and the politicians agreed to offer reliable public transportation to all, then, implementing efficient public transportation will take many more years even for the richest of countries.

Local actions allow people to steer their own destinies instead of resenting environmental regulations as top-down impositions.

In other words, if the strategy to respond even in the face of a miraculous epiphany among humans to tackle climate change is to just create more regulations curtailing energy-hungry lifestyles, then that may also backfire if climate change impacts don't become obvious for many years in many places. Especially since remote effects such as starving polar bears have become too routine—just like the bad news from the war in Syria. On the other hand, if the focus for action is developed based upon local environmental issues people care about—like the quality of air and water they depend upon—then measurable metrics can be set up. People can then see the benefits of their environmental stewardship pay dividends over time by dealing with the issues in their own backyards. Sustainable strategies can emerge from such local approaches for long-term engagement in climate action. All global warming is local but all local actions will have global impacts. Local actions also allow people to steer their own destinies instead of resenting environmental regulations as top-down impositions.

To repeat my favourite mantra: we want the children of the future to dream about reaching the far ends of the universe(s) instead of living in fear of the world coming to an end because we want to eat well and travel to see all the beautiful places on earth. We must hope that the ingenious human mind is capable of saving the planet from itself without having to starve or stay at home for the fear of polluting the environment.

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