Despite Uncertain Data, Climate Change Should Remain a Concern
By Ipsita Agarwal '13
Post-Copenhagen, the climate change issue has once again been pushed into the background like an unwelcome bug that buzzes into the world’s visual field intermittently and is batted aside with an impatient wave of the hand.

It is easy to see why climate change is an issue that is convenient to put aside. It is true that thanks to innumerable awareness campaigns, more people believe it is a reality in the present and not some vaguely possible apocalyptic occurrence in the remote future. But all of these people are also aware that the real long-term damaging effects of climate change are unlikely to hit their generation or their children too hard, especially if they don’t live in Mauritius. And in times of economic stress and political confusion, it is not very hard to block out the occasional headline spelling out the much-heard refrain of “Climate change is a real problem with no easy solution.”

Who should lead the campaign against climate change? The starving millions of the developing world do not care if the whole planet goes up in smoke a 100 years from now, and frankly, they can’t be blamed. The tangle of intellectual debates, discussions and arguments over climate change is left to sufficiently well-fed people with a “social conscience” and a “sense of duty towards the future generations.” There has to be a trade-off between saving the earth (conservation) and choosing from millions of packaged consumer items in supermarkets, advertising on gazillions of paper pamphlets, lighting up our cities and flying across continents every week (development). Should the developed countries pay the price for their relative prosperity? Or should developing countries sacrifice better standards of living for their citizens at the altar of environmental sustainability? Obviously, there is no right answer.

The situation has been further complicated by recent revelations that climate scientists used data selectively from their studies to intensify the sense of urgency for climate reform. In another such incident, a group of U.N. scientists had to apologize for releasing faulty data on the impending glacier-meltdown crisis. In a world where we’re desperately looking for ways to postpone the moment when we have to deal with the consequences of economic development, the slightest slip-up by scientific authorities or media rumors of the same, are enough to ignite doubt and distrust in people regarding how much of a threat there really is. It raises the question, in a lot of quarters, of whether or not the threat is as big as the hype, and if it is, how economically and politically feasible it is to re-structure the way the world works because human activities are “possibly affecting weather” in indeterminate ways.

Contrary to the popular belief that science equals hard facts, in the post-relativity era, we change the world every time we look at it, and science is at least as much about the uncertainty as the data. The ambiguity inherent in all scientific analysis, however, is cleverly bypassed in politics and oversimplified in the media, where uncertainty is an inconvenient encumbrance. According to The New York Times in “British Ads Ignore Uncertainties of Climate Change, Watchdog Agency Finds,” the British government was recently chastised by an ad regulation agency for using nursery rhymes in their awareness campaigns. One poster read: “Rub a dub dub, three men in a tub — a necessary course of action due to flash flooding caused by climate change.” Another one speaks of how Jack and Jill go up a hill to fetch water but there isn’t any because of climate change induced droughts.

In my opinion, such oversimplified representations aren’t all bad. If they get the average person who doesn’t want to sift through masses of complicated analyses and obscure statements to waste less water, the result is a few more gallons of water saved. However, oversimplification, more often than not, distorts the picture. Exaggerating the short-term impacts of climate change and declaring these changes certain and exact, backfires when nature does not immediately deliver to match predictions and schedules. The public does not take kindly to what it sees as deceit, and the cause suffers in the long run.

Since you can’t fool all people all the time, even if it is for the greater good, maybe the full story, with its “if”s and “but”s is better after all. To say that the science is not uncertain would be a distortion of the truth, but to take that statement to imply that climate change is a scientific conspiracy would be nothing less than sheer absurdity. The threat of climate change is very real, with or without the uncertainty that things may be worse than what we know.

Issue 21, Submitted 2010-04-07 03:48:00