11 Feb 2010

The real lesson of climate change: we can control the weather!

It has been staring us in the face all along, but nobody seems to have noticed. What is the real lesson of the climate change saga? Humanity is going to wipe itself out because of its greed? We're in for a long century of disasters, scarcities and upheaval? We have to reverse all the progress we've made since the industrial revolution and develop a non-growth based approach to economic and social organisation? None of the above actually, the real lesson is much more positive and encouraging.

Let us for a moment accept the mainstream interpretation of climate change, specifically the claims made by scientists, officials and 'activists'. Why? Well, it's not nice to be sceptical and we're hurting the feeling of lots of people who've invested a lot in this end-of-the-world scenario and it's not polite to go around criticising other people's doomsday scenarios. The causal link between levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and global warming seems to be universally agreed on. The response which advocates massive reductions in CO2 emissions and consequently dropping the levels of CO2 floating around also seems to be universally accepted. Like I said, let's be nice and quarrel not. But let's look closely at both aspects and analyse what are the some of the assumptions behind them?

Firstly, it is established beyond doubt that human beings can impact on climate patterns in significant ways, with the ability to alter them in a relatively short period of time. If you don't accept this, the mainstream interpretation of climate change would not stand. Secondly, it is clear that human beings, or at least the nerdy ones with high IQs and an inexplicable interest in pursuing a career of talking about the weather, have the ability and the technology to understand complex climate systems and can replicate and predict their behaviour over long periods of time through computer modelling. I hope environmentalists are still with me up to this point, because otherwise we can't justify the claims made for emissions reductions if we all don't accept the above.

So, to sum up, it is in our capacity to impact the climate and we can do that in a predictable and controlled way. Here's where the mainstream and I part ways. What the mainstream view advocates is that we use this power and knowledge to return the climate to the state that it was in a few hundred years ago, then call it a day on industrialisation and technological progress. But why not go a step forward instead of retreating? Why not take control of the climate and make it do what we want? We can transform desert areas into green fertile land, we can introduce moderate climate in Greenland, and we can make life in Scandinavia a bit more moderate and hopefully they will stop making really dark boring films and stop committing suicide.

Why not? Why not use this knowledge and power to their full potential and instead of limiting our horizons be ambitious about it and make life for everyone nicer? If the assumptions above do stand to scrutiny, then surely this is the right conclusion to be drawn rather asking me to to turn off the TV and stop travelling. Joking aside, the reactionary response to this potential knowledge and power is unjustifiable, it contradicts itself by proposing to use this potential merely to turn back time to a golden climate age.

I can hear the miserable sods in the back screaming: the low of unexpected consequences, and next to them, the bores who are about to deploy the precautionary principle. In other words, we don't know what side-effects such manipulation of the climate can cause, and if we can't prove in advance that this can't have adverse effects then we shouldn't do it. But I can simply deploy those objections against the current wisdom on climate change. Firstly, we don't really know what the effect of a massive reduction in CO2 levels will be and what consequences it might have, and how long it will take to kick a reduction in global temperatures. We're taking a gamble on that and hoping that it will work. Equally, the precautionary principle, not that I am a fan, will suggest that if there is a very tiny chance that global warming is not caused by green house gases, and the IPCC and all scientists accept that there is such a chance, then our effort to reduce CO2 might be more risky than it appears. We could spend decades on pursuing the wrong solution, and it might be too late when that become apparent to do anything about it.

The precautionary principle and the low of unintended consequences have been discounted as objections to the mainstream view on climate change mitigation, with good reason if our assumptions about our understanding and ability to impact the weather are correct, meaning that the proper deployment of this knowledge and ability should be put to the best use instead of the conservative option of reverting to a previous state of the climate. In other words, the hypothetical and speculative objections cancel themselves because they can equally be used against the mainstream view on climate change mitigation and the alternative which is to take total control of the climate and 'design' it, so to speak, to meet the needs of different societies.

Who gets to decide? If everyone has so much faith in the international community and the UN, why not carry that same faith forward? An international body can be established to decide on how the climate should be manipulated. But let's not get stuck in the details yet. The real problem with the climate change debate is that it is built on a paradox that is suppressed because climate change is being used to promote a reactionary view of humanity and development. Without both assumptions that we can both understand and manipulate the weather, there would be no case for all the initiatives being undertaken at the moment. But if we accept those assumptions, why not use them in a more productive way? The new-found faith in science is an instrumental and opportunistic attitude to force through a certain world view, not a faith that can sustain itself to ambitious projects. But it is worth asking the question and challenging the advocates of this view, environmentalists and opportunistic politicians in search of a cause, why not take their assumptions to their logical ends and let us assume total control of the climate? We can still have the odd unexpected rainy day here and there to spice things up, but we can let the climate work for us instead of being an unpredictable source of anxiety.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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