Climate change or global warning – or neither?

Hands up those of you who have been asked over the last week, ‘So where’s your global warming now?’ Two successive Decembers with long-lasting snow have, it seems, emboldened even the most timid climate-sceptics.

In reply I patiently point out that my oldest son was seven years old before he had a chance to try out a sledge last year. Two snowy spells no more prove Jeremy Clarkson right than the same number of swallows make a summer.

Moreover, who talks of ‘global-warming’ anyway now? That was the language of the late 1980s, used literally to describe the impact on average global temperatures of increased carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere. Averages are funny things though. I could lie in my kitchen with my head in the fridge and my feet in the oven. On ‘average’ I would be comfortable but I don’t think that’s how I’d feel. So if excessive heat and drought in Africa is succeeded by cold in the UK is that any cause for celebration?

That, of course, is why the scientists talk quite purposefully of ‘climate change’ now: increased instability, volatility, unpredictability. 

For myself, I confess to be something of a heretic. Having joined the Scottish Greens in 1990 I was around when ‘global warming’ was common language. But quite early on I shied away from playing it as an ace card. This is not because I disagree with the science. Like the Stern Review I agree that climate change is the most significant challenge facing humankind. It is real. But it is also, too often, an abstract one. I applaud those who are doing their utmost to demonstrate that climate change is here and now – from South Uist to agricultural communities in rural India – but for too many of us, I fear, climate change is something we neither see nor feel, or, at least, not yet.

When I joined the Greens twenty years ago I was enormously affected by Bill McKibben’s book ‘The End of Nature’. His quite chilling thesis was not that humans would fail to react to the challenge of climate change but that we now possessed the technical means to deal with it. But only in ways offensive to everyone who values connection to the natural world and some semblance of social solidarity.  And that we might slide into this world unseeing, simply because climate change happens, quite literally, by degrees.

In the Hollywood film, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, climate change comes as an event – a sudden apocalyptic switch in temperatures. In that way it is like the nuclear war that hovers over the horizon. It is like the cholera epidemics in the 1840s and 1850s which persuaded the powerful that public health investment was not such a bad idea. Or even the threat of fascism which gave rise variously to the Marshall Plan and the UK welfare state.

My own epiphany was that global warming or climate change was not like that. It is not an ‘event’. But so what? Do we like a world where services are centralized and remote because oil is cheap (at least for now)? Do we like efficient public transport and planning for pedestrians and cyclists or do we want more urban space given over to cars? Do we want to construct and maintain structures – homes, shops, public spaces – that last for decades and around which we can build social interaction or are we content to demolish and rebuild every 20 years? Do we conceive of a food production future dominated by faceless agri-business or do we want to support our family farms with deep roots in rural communities?

In other words, the imperatives posed by climate change are consistent with genuine social progress anyway. Take away climate science and these imperatives remain.  Throw in a host of other environmental challenges – and remember that Rachel Carson’s seminal book ‘Silent Spring’ on environmental pollution is almost 50 years ago now – then we have a pretty compelling challenge to face up to, with or without climate change.

For myself, I am enough of a rationalist to be aligned with the 99% of scientific opinion that considers climate change to be real and significantly caused by human activity. But even if your will is weakening as the mercury in the thermometer plunges, think about what a world looks like continually dominated by Big Oil.