Beyond Despair And Denial: The Global Warming Debate

Posted by Nikhil Kumar in Environment, Society
April 13, 2018

If one has lived through the last decade, one can attest to experiencing warmer temperatures and extreme weather conditions, no matter where one lives – be it the floods in Mumbai, the hurricanes in the Americas, the heat waves in north India or the melting glaciers in Alaska. The controversy arises in the explanation of these events. While some attribute these changes to anthropogenic factors (about which we can do something), others find the same events to be a part of natural activities that have happened for long (over which we have no control). These extremes preach ‘doomsday’ and ‘all-is-well’ respectively while agreeing on the final outcome – global warming.

The mechanism of the greenhouse effect – that greenhouse gases (GHGs) trap some heat in the earth’s atmosphere while letting the rest out – is beyond dispute. What is contested is whether the current trend of rising temperatures is attributable to the rise in GHGs (primarily CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere or not. While many scientists diagnose that rising CO2 concentrations due to human activities have led to global warming, others attribute the cause to solar activity (as a part of nature), unrelated to human activities. This debate, between despair and denial, on the harmful effects of human activities on earth’s atmosphere is a fix we need to get ourselves out of. It is neither helpful in ameliorating out present condition nor that of the future. We need to accept that there are both human and non-human causes that lead to global warming.

The ‘facts’ provided in the documentaries, “An Inconvenient Truth” and “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, presented as causations, are mere correlations that seek to justify the respective beliefs that each documentary portrays. Rather than present a cause-effect relationship between the factors (CO2 concentrations or solar effect and global warming), both documentaries present more of a narrative, picking and choosing instances to refute the other’s claim.

An open-minded observer would certainly concur that rising CO2 concentrations due to human activities has certainly played a role in global warming, At the same time, they will also agree that solar activities also play a role in this. I find no reason to claim that the two have to be incongruous. While accepting this, we can be sure that we cannot have any control over solar activities the way we do, over human activities. Nonetheless, it would be disingenuous of us not to see the correlation between industrial activities and extreme temperatures.

The last two decades have seen some of the hottest years of human existence. Heat waves, typhoons, hurricanes, floods, droughts etc. are no longer rare; they are common phenomena now. There have been severe changes in precipitation patterns in various places with disastrous consequences. The thinning of Arctic ice-caps and the melting of ice-caps in Greenland have also accelerated recently. There has been a rise in the number of invasive ecological species with fewer cold winter days and more hot summer days. Vectors of diseases and mosquitoes are expanding to newer regions, and coral reefs are getting bleached catastrophically for the aquatic species.

If these outcomes are solely a result of some distant solar activity, then we are definitely doomed. However, the correlations between rising CO2 concentrations and rising temperatures should give us hope as much as it should concern us. While it shows that we have contributed to the plight we find ourselves in, it also means that we can do something about it. Since population explosion, widespread deforestation, resource exploitation, etc. have had some hand in global warming, slowing down these activities or reversing them may slow down or reverse the trend of rising temperatures.

The implications of accepting our culpability – and then acting accordingly – are huge. The demands of the developing world for energy infrastructure will have to be met by alternative and cleaner sources. The developed world will also have to scale back its dependence on conventional energy sources while aiding the developing world in its endeavour. We will also have to revisit the incessant growth of consumerism to pull back the pressures of demand on industries. New technologies would need to be designed that are better suited to ameliorate the reality of global warming.

However, this should not lead us to blindly reject the sceptics who are concerned about the unreliability and inefficiency of the emerging alternative technologies, or those who think that the developing world might be forced to bear the brunt of this scale-down or those who fear a romanticisation of ‘peasant life’. The certainty with which the catastrophic climate-model forecasts are presented should give us as much reason for pause as those that preach a future of bliss.

Also, we should not consider any new alternative technology to be clean just because it seems so. For example, solar panels while causing no overt pollution can affect the environment catastrophically in the way they are manufactured. Silicon needs to be mined from the earth’s crust which changes its surface characteristics – and it’s not a helpful outcome. Similarly, nuclear energy cannot be seen as an easy solution because the handling of nuclear waste and safety standards are always issues of concern, especially in underdeveloped countries.

Whether the two narratives about global warming seem plausible or not, we cannot be certain about the precise cause of it. What if future research shows that rising CO2 concentrations compound the temperature-increasing effects of global warming? Will we then have the time to blame one another for framing the debate improperly? The dichotomy in which the issue of global warming is presented is a false one. We need to look beyond that for our own sake.

Policymakers in the world’s capital cities strongly influence public participation and perception. While ministries and departments have been created in almost all countries that have the mandate to regulate environmental issues, it can also be an illusion. Sometimes, they do not have the expertise to investigate, sometimes they do not have the authority to overrule other departments, and at other times, they just rubber-stamp policies that contradict their mandate. This will change only with public awareness and understanding of the complexities of global warming. We certainly have a long way to go. Hopefully!

“What we can’t bring about in no way changes what we must bring about, for it’s not the world that needs saving – it’s us.”

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