Dangers of crying wolf at Cop 26

Wednesday October 20 2021
Cop pic
By Jonathan Power

There are 900 journalists and 700 people in the American delegation alone”, reported a London newspaper on the Kyoto climate conference, back in 1997, the first of the global warming jamborees. At the end of October, it will be Glasgow’s turn to host the next one. Expect even more journalists and more countries attending.

But the media and political fuss that will be made in Glasgow should remind us to keep climate change in proportion. Maybe the number of attendees will be in inverse proportion to the number of good decisions that are made. Let’s hope not.

Climate change moves relatively slowly but other very important, but too often overlooked, environmental issues are with us now: supplying pure water for every shanty town and village; making sewerage treatment universal; giving every girl a basic primary education and thus lowering population growth by a very significant amount; and the elimination or neutralising of the malaria-carrying mosquito. Then we might be getting somewhere with the most tangible pressing environmental needs of our age.

“I have only a modest proposal” said the esteemed Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, “it is to make the true state of affairs known”.

But one must be careful. Crying wolf can be counterproductive, particularly if one’s interpretation of the science is stretching the evidence or, out of ignorance or hubris, misinterpreting or shading the hard facts in front of you or downplaying or elbowing aside other problems, such as malaria eradication.

Thirty-five years ago, I wrote a column for the Washington Post, provocative enough to trigger an editorial leader alongside. Having talked to most of the world’s top climatologists I pronounced that the world was cooling, dangerously so. It could trigger an ice age.

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One of my sources, the late Stephen Schneider, professor of Environmental Biology at the University of Stanford and advisor on climate to successive presidents, pooh-poohed the evidence of the dangers of an increase in carbon dioxide. He told me that the problem was global cooling. He forecast a new ice age. Later he radically changed his mind. He became a fervent advocate of the dangers of the greenhouse effect and global warming and lambasted the press for equivocating. It is “journalistically irresponsible to present both sides,” he is reported to have said with a straight face at Vice-President Al Gore’s Global Climate Change Roundtable in Washington.

In fact, if we look through the well-publicized environmental causes of the 1970s, we can see how many false notes there were in the doom songs. There was the alleged destruction of the ozone layer by the newly introduced Concorde supersonic airliner. There was the pollution of ocean waters. There was DDT poisoning, the issue that made Rachel Carson and her book The Silent Spring famous.

Today we realize that DDT is safer for the people that use it, if used modestly, than the organo-phosphate insecticides that replaced it. As time has passed it has become clear that the breakdown of the ozone layer by supersonic aircraft had been grossly overstated. There is little pollution yet of the great oceans, and no evidence that it effects on a large-scale fish stock or marine life. Over-fishing and plastic pollution are real worries, but that only in certain parts of the seas and lakes that cover 70 percent of our planet.

At the World Food Conference- as important then as Cop 26 is today- called by a worried US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, in 1974, which I attended, the headlines read, “The world is running out of food.” Indeed, the evidence of failed harvests all over the place pointed that way. One third of humanity was said by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization to have “inadequate access to food.” But these days, the figure is down to one in ten although, meanwhile, the world’s population has increased from 4 billion to nearer 8 billion.

In the case of dangerous climate change we know it is true, and we must work out a way to change the thinking of those who are not convinced. But the environmentalists must be careful and rational as they present their case. They must demonstrate that there are other environmental needs that should be given priority over climate change.