Previously published in Church Times.
Why don’t we talk about climate change? More than nine-tenths of the UK population agree that the climate is changing. Many are uneasily aware that something unusual seems to be happening. We have just experienced one of the UK’s hottest-ever summers. And, globally, the warmest years ever recorded have all occurred since 2010.
But it is a hard issue to face up to, and it is easy to find simple-sounding reasons that we don’t have to think about it. Here is my top-five list of the suggestions that I hear most often — and what the scientific evidence says about them.
1. It might not be human activity
Yes, it is. Scientists are very, very sure that humans are causing global warming. The physics is fairly simple: dead plants and animals containing carbon were buried for millions of years, forming coal and oil underground. When we started digging the coal and oil out and burning it, we also started releasing carbon back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.
More carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere means higher temperatures — and carbon dioxide levels are currently at their highest level in 800,000 years. Natural effects like variations in the sun’s rays or volcanic eruptions do influence the planet’s temperature. But, right now, these are easily outweighed by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities.
2. The climate has changed in the past, and we’ve coped
Not while civilisation has existed. The world’s temperatures have fluctuated over its history. But, during the past 12,000 years — the period during which humanity has started farming, settled down in villages and towns, and built civilisations — we’ve had a pretty steady climate.
The global average temperature has varied up and down by only about a degree. Now it has risen by half a degree in about 25 years. On our current track, it could rise by 4ºC by the end of this century.
3. It will be a problem for poorer people, but not the rich world
It will affect all of us. Climate change is likely to hit poorer countries harder than richer countries, particularly in the tropics. This is unjust — but it doesn’t give wealthier people a get-out clause.
An airport flooded in Osaka, Japan. Parts of Manhattan were underwater during Hurricane Sandy. Cape Town, in South Africa, is coming perilously close to running out of water. All of these recent events show that rich countries, too, are unable to ignore extreme weather.
And the evidence shows that we are already experiencing more, and in some cases more severe, extreme-weather events. Project forwards 80 years — to a time only as distant from us as now as from the Second World War — and the climate could be “incompatible with any reasonable characterisation of an organised, equitable, and civilised global community”, as one scientist has put it.
4. We cannot tackle climate change and poverty at the same time
We cannot do it separately. Rising temperatures have the potential to reverse development gains in the poorer parts of the world, driving 122 million people into poverty over the next decade alone.
At the same time, renewable technologies such as wind and solar power are now cheaper than coal and gas in many places, and often the most realistic way of getting electricity to people living in rural areas without electricity. Women’s education is also one of the most important ways of reducing population growth and tackling climate change.
5. It is too late: we can’t do anything about it
We can do something, and what we do matters. Climate change is happening, and more climate change is certain. But the level of change, and the damage done, is up to us. Whichever outcome ensues will be affected profoundly by the choices that we make over the next five to ten years.
No one’s actions are insignificant, particularly because we all look to each other to guide our behaviour. What can you do? Do whatever you do: write, paint, preach, create a climate-change computer game, plant a wildflower meadow, join a campaign group, fix someone’s bike. Or read the list of options that Joe Ware, of Christian Aid, has contributed.