an emphasis on doubt

Public policy is generally implemented under circumstances where the risk of opposing choices is known (Resnik 1987:13). One of the major issues with climate change policy is that the exact extent of risks is not known. Across the globe Governments have successfully avoided action on climate change by focusing on this unknown risk. Boykoff and Boykoff (2004) believe that it is exactly this doubt that has prevented international action to curb practices contributing to global warming. Unfortunately when the associated risks of a decision are unknown society often turns to a ‘wait and see’ approach (Sterman and Booth-Sweeney 2007); regrettably this approach just doesn’t work with climate change, where further time without action means increasing accumulation of gases in the atmosphere locking us into future global change.

So where does the blame lay?… In 1998 a draft report of a proposal compiled by industry opponents of action regarding global warming was leaked to the press. Among the ideas in the proposal was a ‘campaign to recruit a cadre of scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science and train them in public relations so they can help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify’, with the major goal being to ‘raise questions about and undercut the prevailing scientific wisdom’ (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004:133). ARTICLE: Industrial Group Plans to Battle Climate Treaty. I have no doubt that this sort of deliberate manipulation occurred in many developed countries, persisting until very recent times.

The uncertainty and complexity surrounding climate change, its impacts and implications have long hampered efforts to raise its profile on the national and international agenda. Mixed messages, academic controversy and political scheming have frustrated a pubic who have a key role to play in any likely mitigation strategies (Lowe et al 2006:435).

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time lags and climate perception

The nature of climate change as a highly complex and globally elusive hazard makes it difficult to pinpoint, understand and manage. The time lags between release of the emissions of heat-trapping gases and subsequent impacts on the climate mean that the connections between actions today and their effects on climate is difficult to perceive (Moser and Dilling 2004 pp35). Global warming is a ‘creeping’ environmental problem – creeping environmental problems are particularly difficult to prevent or remedy, as the very nature of the problem combine with the nature of human behaviour and societal decision making work against early detection and action (Moser and Dilling 2004 pp35).

I think the public is also questioning about climate science because it is outside the realm of normal science (Kuhn 1962). They were measuring the levels, the data built up, then one day they concluded that they just weren’t normal results anymore. We don’t know the answer. It is not like a puzzle with a known solution and acceptable answers outlined by a paradigm (Kuhn 1962 pp36). We cannot conclude the extent of our influence or what the real results of climate change will be….

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management and change

Another factor which ensures the continuation of the climate controvery is that management solutions require extensive change on our part – change to our social routines and norms (Gross 2008 pp44). Individuals are not likely to welcome or tolerate policies that may lead to significant alterations to the current way of life (Lowe et al 2006 p439). As such we remain with no convinced action, a ‘wait and see’ approach.

And there is no quick fix… Seacrest et al (2000) claims that climate change would be more likely to become a major national issue if it can be blamed on a sinner, if we thing it is solvable, and if, despite their difference, attentive public agree that the impacts will be serious, certain, and soon (Seacrest et al 2000 pp253). As it is, mixed messages, academic controversy and political scheming (Lowe et al 2006) place policy at a stand-still, preventing the motivation necessary to inspire real change to standard social routines.

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controversy and ‘balanced’ reporting

Back in the begining I touched on why a climate of doubt had arisen in the general public. I’d like to revisit this now and really delve into the role of the press and goverment in creating uncertainty around climate change.

Media bias has significantly affected public understanding and action in the climate change controversy. The journalistic practice of balancing scientific consensus with a comparatively small number of contrarians has implied to the public that there is a high degree of academic disagreement around climate change (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004). This ‘balanced’ reporting has allowed a small group of global warming sceptics to have their views amplified (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004), undermining public confidence that the problem of global warming is a real (Seacrest et al 2000).

Large-scale under reporting and ‘balanced’ (biased) articles, plus frames that dwelled on uncertainty and controversy (often through the use of climate changes deniers as sources), have distorted public understanding of climate changes threats (Antilla 2010).

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back to the… animal kingdom

After reading some articles on conservation triage for my masters course I’ve decided to jump back a bit to when I was talking about species extinction… It is estimated that the world is currently losing species at up to 1000 times the natural rate*1. We can only assume that this rate will to increase as we force more and more ecological change through human induced global warming. In many cases of species extinction (and impacts on biodiversity) a process of ecological triage is enacted. Ecological triage refers to the conservation prioritisation of species that provide unique or necessary function to ecosystems, and the abandonment of those that do not have unique ecosystems roles*2. However as we often don’t know exactly how species interact with each other and the environment, and therefore may make mistakes when prioritising species conservation. Dr Joseph Alcamo, chief scientists of the UN Environment Program, says that it is too early to declare triage on these threatened species in the face of climate change and rapid biodiversity loss*3. Instead he believe we should focus on the key drivers of extinction (like deforestation) which have an impacts on the entire ecosystem, which will have the knock-on effect of conserving those species.

*1 Is conservation triage just smart decision making? By Bottrill, Joseph, Carwardine, Bode, Cook, Game, Grantham, Kark, Linke, McDonald-Madden, Pressey, Walker, Wilson and Possingham.

*2 Classics: Ecological Triage by Bradshaw on Conservation Bytes.

*3 Too early for nature ‘triage’: scientist by Arup from The Age.

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australia to pay the price for inaction

Over the last little bit I’ve mentioned just a few of the potential impacts of climate change. Generally all these impacts come with a high economic cost. In fact, the CSIRO has released a report estimating the exact economic costs, a figure which they predict far exceeds the cost of modifying our polluting societal practices and implementing carbon reduction policies now*1. We are starting to see now that not only will the impacts bring negative consequences, but if Australia’s refuses to switch to clean energies and reduce carbon emissions we will experience additional economic issues. Even the chief executive of BHP agrees. BHP is the world’s largest coal mining company, yet this week Marius Kloppers (CEO) said that Australia’s economy would suffer if it did not significantly reduce its carbon emissions in anticipation of a global carbon price. “Failure to do so will pace us at a competitive disadvantage in a future where carbon is priced globally” he said*2.

 *1 Climate Change Impacts, Risk and the Benefits of Mitigation by Jones and Preston of the CSIRO.

*2 BHP boss dumps on future of coal by Wen and Coorey of the Sydney Morning Herald.

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animal kingdom

I just wanted to chuck one more impact out there, something i read in the news this week. In Alaska we have just seen tens of thousands of Walruses come shore because the sea ice they normally rest on has melted. This massive move to shore by Walruses is unusual in the United States, but it has happened at least twice before, in 2007 and 2009, when Arctic ice was at or near record lows. Alaskan biologist Anthony Fischbach said it is likely we will see more summers like this, as there is no sign of recovery in Arctic*1.

Even if the sea ice is recovered in future years and the Walrus patterns return to normal, we must acknowledge that climate change is bound to affect the migration patterns and behaviours of many animal and insect species. And it is tough to predict the flow on effect of these changes on species extinction rates and our human populations. So I spoke with Nigel Andrew, an Entomologist and expert in insect-climate interactions to find out more:

“It’s the fact that they may go extinct and we don’t know why. We are putting very extreme pressure on these species. Species go extinct and evolve all the time but the fact that we are increasing the extinction rate so quickly over a short period of times means we could have an effect on our own health. Biodiversity is an indication of ecosystems health. Every time you lose a species you take e little resilience out o the ecosystem. You don’t necessarily miss it per se, but over time more and more go extinct and this could have a big effect in ways we don’t understand yet. We need to follow the precautionary principles; if you don’t understand what the negative impacts are, you have to minimise change.”

“It’s important we try to work out what species are out there and what function they play and then try to understand what linkage might or might not be lost”*2.

*1 Melting sea ice forces walruses shore in Alaska by an unknown source.

*2 One Minute With… Nigel Andrew by Katy Bairstow. Article available upon request.

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