Serious scientific and media debate about climate change began in the 1950’s, after it was discovered that global average temperature had risen since the beginning of the century.
Background to the debate
However, things really began to take off in 1988, after NASA scientist James Hansen said in a speech to the US Congress that he was 99% sure that global warming was taking place, and that it was most likely human induced. A year later the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up to consolidate climate research from thousands of scientists around the world.
The IPCC’s most recent report states that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level” (IPCC 2007). In addition, “most of the observed increase in globally-averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [human induced] GHG concentrations.” (IPCC 2007)
In a nutshell, the IPCC has found that the earth as a whole is indeed getting warmer, and humans are very likely responsible. Bear in mind that this is based on the findings of thousands of reputable climate scientists from around the world, and is not just the voice of one fringe organisation.
Who is debating?
The media tries to represent both sides of a debate to appear objective and unbiased. While the aim may be admirable, having an equal number of speakers on both sides does however implicitly convey the idea that the debate is a 50-50 affair, where half of individuals agree and the other half disagrees. However, this may not actually be the case.
The climate change debate is a good example. Whereas it seems from media coverage that 50% of scientists agree that climate change is real, and 50% don’t, this is simply not true. The vast majority of climate scientists do agree, and only a very small number of climate scientists don’t.
Other vocal sceptics are not climate scientists at all, but scientists from other disciplines representing the oil, coal and gas industry. The anti climate change lobby is backed by powerful political and business interests, giving them more significance than they actually represent, and casting doubt on their motives.
What is the actual debate?
Many people still think that the debate is about whether or not global warming is taking place. It’s not. Climate change scientists on both sides of the debate have accepted the evidence that global average temperatures are on the increase.
The main issue still raised (at least by the anti lobby) is whether or not this changing climate is induced by humans. Their argument is that, since global climate has gone through times of cooling (e.g. the ice ages) and times of warming in the past, how can we know for certain that it’s us who are warming up the earth now?
In answer to this, the IPCC has concluded from a multitude of independent studies that the warming of the last century is above and beyond what we would expect from a natural process. However, greenhouse gas emissions from human activity have grown significantly since pre-industrial times (increasing by 70% between 1970 and 2004) which strongly suggests that the climate is indeed changing because of human activity.
So the real debate is no longer whether climate is changing, or whether humans are responsible. The real debate is how we are going to implement wide-scale, effective reductions in carbon emissions quickly. There is not much time, perhaps less than a decade, before our window of opportunity passes and positive-feedback processes amplify the rate of warming beyond our control.
Attempts at making reductions into global policy have so far failed, though we have both the knowledge and the technology to physically reduce our emissions. What is still lacking is the political and social will, which has perhaps been derailed to some extent by undue media attention on the wrong debate.
If governments are not taking the lead, then our hope must be in the collective power of individuals and grassroots organisations to stimulate a rapid transition to energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.
IPCC (2007) 4th Assessment Report: Summary for Policy Makers.
Henson, R. (2006) The Rough Guide to Climate Change. Rough Guides Limited, London.
Published on Jacaranda FM’s website on 29 March 2012