Under my byline

Cool head in Eden

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 5 December 2009


As with all the bad news from Iraq and Af-Pak, sooner or later the bad news on the climate acquires a stultifying sameness. Only when a surge is in sight — troop surge, storm surge — does one’s news radar jolt awake momentarily.

The cause of this deadened state is not too much information, rather, it is not enough of the right sort of information. Despite the barrage of news and opinion, we don’t know enough to figure out what the right questions are. Without that foundation, our knowledge rests on a bog, into which it is liable to settle with a gentle burp or two of greenhouse gas (or, hot air).

As far as geopolitics goes, I can’t think of any solution other than giving your inner sceptic a good workout. To clear your head on climate change, however, I recommend John Houghton’s book, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing (Cambridge University Press, 1997, now in a fourth edition). The book was in turn recommended to me by Mahua Acharya, a friend who has worked for years in the sustainable business field and helped set up the international carbon trading mechanism.

Houghton was a professor of atmospheric physics at Oxford, has worked for NASA, and headed the UK’s Meteorological Office as well as the Scientific Assessment Working Group of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which shared the 1997 Nobel peace prize. Here are the questions he poses:

[A]re human activities altering the climate? Is global warming a reality? How big are the changes likely to be? Will there be more serious disasters; will they be more frequent? Can we adapt to climate change or can we change the way we do things so that we can slow down the change or even prevent it occurring?

Later he repeats and amplifies:

In the year 2060 my grandchildren [the book is dedicated to them] will be approaching seventy; what will their world be like? Indeed, what will it be like during the seventy years or so of their normal life span? … Will the increasing scale of human activities affect the environment? In particular, will the world be warmer? How is its climate likely to change? Before studying future climate changes, what can be said about climate changes in the past?

Those are good questions, practical and universal, yet personal. In the contentious environment of climate negotiations — nobody expects serene harmony in Copenhagen next week — every constituency has its own version of the facts. To read Houghton is to sail through these tricky shoals without running aground.

Nor will the average reader feel lost at sea, because Houghton starts from first principles and writes clearly and simply (sample chapter headings: “Is the Climate Changing?”, “How the Earth Keeps Warm”, “How Stable has Past Climate Been?”, “Is the Climate Chaotic?”, “The Impact on Human Health”). There are diagrams and numbers, but nothing you can’t handle. He is judicious but firm: to the best of our knowledge, science is not on the side of the climate-change deniers.

But Houghton is also a practising Christian. Thus, in this scientific book, with some trepidation, he says, he included a chapter titled “Why Should We Be Concerned?”. It tackles “the question of the responsibility of humans for the Earth and for looking after the environment”, applying a resonant metaphor. “How well do we humans match up to the description of ourselves as gardeners caring for the Earth?” Houghton asks. “Not very well, it must be said; we are more often exploiters and spoilers than cultivators. Some blame science and technology for the problems, although the fault must lie with the craftsman rather than with the tools!” God may have given humans rule over creation, but, says the author, to tend it, not drain it dry.

It’s a refreshing approach, short-changing not science, nor politics, nor ethics, and it is the right one.


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