Climate change is happening, so how should we deal with it?

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 5 September 2006.

Environmental scientists all too often fail to get their message across to the public in terms that will have a positive and lasting impact. The language scientists and lobby groups use can be either opaque, with decontextualised numbers flying all over the place, blinding an insufficiently numerate audience with data they cannot make sense of, or they appeal to the lowest common denominator, and use text and images intended to scare their audiences into taking action on climate change that is sometimes ill-defined and lacking in scientific credibility.

Scientists are now beginning to address these problems, and the results of their deliberations are filtering through to the work of public outreach organisations such as the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), whose annual Festival of Science is currently underway in Norwich.

There is a consensus among experts on climate science, and that is that climate change is happening now, and is likely to increase markedly. We can and must reduce our environmental impact, but should also accept that climate change is inevitable, and deal with it as best we can.

This is the message of Frances Cairncross, President of the BAAS, in her address to the organisation’s annual conference. Cairncross – a scientifically-literate economist – argues that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions alone will not save us; we need instead a combination of technical, social and economic policies that will enable communities to adapt to the climate change that will occur even if we were to stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow. Cairncross refers, for example, to crops better suited to changed conditions, new flood defences to protect coastal communities from rising sea levels, and planning restrictions on new building near to sea level.

Also required is a more scientifically-literate and numerate population, better able to assess the data they are presented with in the media, and help devise solutions to problems brought about by climate change. To that end, we have to look at science education for all, and not just for those studying science and engineering with a view to establishing careers in these fields.

One practical suggestion made by Frances Cairncross is for cash awards to be made to students who achieve an A grade in A-level maths. But why should maths be singled out for such special treatment? One could equally well argue that physics and chemistry students be awarded for high achievement. Another problem is that changes to the education system do not address shorter-term challenges such as climate change and environmental degredation. Scientists and policymakers must therefore improve their communication with existing populations, whatever their levels of technical understanding.

Perhaps the most controversial comment from Frances Cairncross is her acknowledgement that reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the Kyoto Protocol will not work. This is particularly significant as serious criticism of Kyoto has so far come largely from environmental economists associated with the Copenhagen Consensus project. Now that support for the Kyoto Protocol is diminishing within the wider scientific and political communities, we need urgently to find new ways of addressing the global problem of atmospheric carbon emissions, and the debate is once again wide open.