Layman's guide to the climate debate


'Climate slaves' by Chris JohnstonAt a party you find yourself squeezed between two old friends, both scientists. Uncharacteristically they start to bait each other. Facts explode and temperatures rise. One is a climate change denier, the other a believer and they argue over the biochemical cycle, MMTCO2Eq, thermohaline circulation, mixing ratios, flux adjustments and halocarbons. Hot numbers and mathematical equations fly, but to you its gobbledegook on speed.

Both of them look down. 'So what do you believe?'

You may have read some science delivered by the celebrity climate change posse like Flannery and Monbiot, which left you thinking that the best thing you could do for the planet was swallow cyanide and slip off to die under a tree. You may have read the sceptics and felt relief that the status quo would continue and your children had a chance at the good life. You looked at the Garnaut report, saw Al Gore's movie, and have been unable to grow anything colourful in your garden for three years.

You might be suspicious of how the Carbon Emissions Scheme is appearing in convoluted layers over an already questionable economic system. You might wonder at how living simply now seems rather complicated. You may have felt the weather change: down at your place, up at your folks' by the Murray, and you have lived through a few heatwaves.

You have engaged as much as you can and, especially if you're sitting between scientists, honesty demands you admit that white noise appears every time graphs and calculations are shoved in your face. You also might believe that science is another human endeavour, as fallible as we are.

You note that your friends have not asked about facts. They have couched their question in terms of faith.

At the base of the climate change debate lies a rousing giant. A massive question demanding an examination of not only the particles that comprise daily life but also what we believe, how we relate and find meaning in the place we find ourselves, and to explore this issue doesn't require a science degree. The scientific debate has encouraged many to question and rediscover their relationship with the dirt upon which, despite our best efforts to run away to places like the moon, we all stand.

Perhaps we are getting closer to collectively exploring what Judith Wright called a 'poetics of place' where through story telling, for many of us a more accessible medium than scientific facts, our vision expands and we see that the environment is not mere matter given to us to play with as we wish.

The French philosopher, Michel Serres, talks about the motor of human history being driven by wars. We have fought great muddy battles all over the earth's surface, and when one is vanquished, both sides retreat to lick their wounds, turning their back on the equally wounded battleground, muddied and embedded with deadly shrapnel. Serres calls for a Natural Contract, a new way for those under the jurisdiction of western legal systems, to establish something similar, though not as advanced, to an indigenous understanding of place.

He calls for us to recognise that the place on which we fight our wars has as much right to exist and be respected as we have towards one another. He advocates a new contract containing our rights and responsibilities to the earth and most importantly, the inalienable rights of the earth. The Natural Contract may become like the Social Contract: a strange idea we now take for granted.

When the rights of man expanded, slavery came to be viewed in a new light — as a moral abomination. Perhaps our progeny will view us as we regard those who remained silent about slavery. Perhaps they will be abhorred at the immorality of slaying rainforests, lining the planet with carbon and bleaching coral.

When we see slave owners in history books we shake our heads at their moral naiveté, but how would we feel if we knew our descendants might do the very same thing?

From a Natural Contract there is slim hope that the motor of human history will cease to war over the earth as if it didn't exist and enshrine the truth that we all stand on the same dirt and, like us, the dirt is not necessarily indestructible, permanent and omniscient — neither noble savage nor plaything for our pleasure.

I confessed to my friends that I have hedged my bets to the wagon of those who believe in global warming, not only because their scientific explanations have convinced me, but also because if there is any possibility that earth suffers due to my behaviour, I have a responsibility to pull my head in and look at how I live with it.

There is no opting out of the scientific debate. It has to be followed and understood by the layman because power seems to be setting up shop at its heart, but there are many other reasons to live respectfully with our environment, and to remain fixated with one discipline will lead us up a narrow path. The possibility of 'all being rooned' cannot be the sole motivation to live ethically on the earth. Who wants their descendants to hang their heads in shame? Not me.

Bronwyn LayBronwyn Lay lives with her family in rural France, over the border from Geneva. She is currently enrolled in a Masters of English Literature at the University of Geneva and is working on her first novel. Previously she worked as a legal aid lawyer in Australia with post-graduate qualifications in political theory. 

Topic tags: bronwyn lay, immorality, cliamte change, slave trade, garnaut



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Existing comments

Bronwyn Lay says: "One is a climate change denier, the other a believer..."
I think she actually means Anthropogenic Global Warming sceptic (realist) and believer (alarmist). If she asked any of the realists, they would tell her that they agree that climate changes, that climate has always changed.

So, both sides of the argument should be described as climate change believers.

The confusion came about when the alarmists realised warming had stalled and had to find an alternate term to global warming.
Taluka Byvalnian | 21 September 2009

Climate varies, and may be currently more or less stable, but the greenhouse effect is not debatable, and when whatever is keeping us stable at the moment goes away we'll be in big trouble. It is immoral to rely on concepts of current stability and let the greenhouse effect grow on our descendants, who may not exist yet but are part of our community.
Michael Grounds | 21 September 2009

A brilliant and moving essay. Bronwyn Lay has put her finger on the crux of the issue. It is about ethics: about the possibility of humanity moving before it is too late to a deeper understanding of our generation's ethical obligations to coming generations of humanity - to our children - and to our surrounding environment, which we hold in trust for all living species. The stupidity and dogmatism of climate change deniers continues to amaze and appal me. I have tried to analyse in my new book where these dangerous delusions originate.

tony kevin | 21 September 2009

"the greenhouse effect is not debatable"

No-one debates the greenhouse effect of CO2 and other gases like methane and water. (By the way, water is a far more significant greenhouse gas than CO2. Why isn't it called a "pollutant"?)

What's debatable is whether the observed warming over the past century is substantially anthropogenic or not, exactly how big it is anyway, whether it's a good or bad thing in terms of rearranging climates (remember, we had a similarly hot climate in the Medieval Warming Period and earlier than that - somehow polar bears survived, and coastal Greenland was a prosperous farming community), and what are the best ways to respond - if indeed any response is called for at all.

Bronwyn Lay is right: the scientific debate (yes it's still a debate, not a "consensus") should be followed by the layman. There are forces lined up on both sides, I'll bet, eager to pull the wool over our eyes.
Hugh | 21 September 2009

climate change is not about belief, it is about observtion. Glaciers are retreating, north sea ice is disappearing, records are breaking for high temperature, and still there is an astonishing claim that the earth is cooling.

The changes in the atmosphere are invisible, being in the proportion of certain gases that are by definition invisible. yet a 50% rise in the concentration of a heat-trapping gas could be considered equivalent in impact to the highly visible accumulation of garbage in a public space (a commons). This covers a proportion of the surface of the space thereby unbalancing the ecological variables that make the commons function as a biologically active and sustainable system (ecosystem), be it turf, shrubs, forest or lake. Such a commons is quite local however, affecting only those nearby, whereas carnbon loading of the atmosphere, a global commons, impacts on all life, not just the visual amenity of a few.
Mike Foale | 21 September 2009

A thought provoking essay Bronwyn. What I can't get my head around is how we expect the planet to continue to support our exploitative habits. I am a believer in Gaia. The earth is one vast living organism and we are a tiny weeny bit of it all! Yet we think we are just it! Oh dear...
Gavin | 21 September 2009

Serres's ideas about our responsibility to the very soil that sustains us are worth discussing. As in any good debate, agreement all around isn't the goal, just that we are open to consider possibilities and apply our rationality, intuition, humility and courage in the process. We do have a relationship with this planet. The nature of that relationship is explained in a myriad of ways by us humans, today and in ages past. I suppose it's fair to assume that our progeny will continue the tradition of exploring that relationship, hopefully with wisdom and insight gained from the places where we've messed things up and where we've gotten things right.

Being concerned about our impact on the world around us is important. We need to think about. We should consider what we are doing. Sound science is needed in trying to understand what's going on and our human ingenuity will be needed in closing the gaps we've created.

I enjoyed your essay. I follow Serres's work closely so his name showed up in a Google Alert.
Milton Friesen | 22 September 2009

Tony Kevin says; "The stupidity and dogmatism of climate change deniers continues to amaze and appal me."

If Tony had read my post above his, I wonder to whom are the "Climate Change Deniers" he is referring.

Certainly it is not any of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) sceptics, who, as I said, agree that climate changes, that climate has always changed.

Does Tony know anyone who denies that climate changes? Such a person (Climate change denier) would be a fool after millenia of history of climate change.

Now, all we have to deal with are those who have been taken in by the AGW scam.
Taluka Byvalnian | 22 September 2009

Taluka, thank you so much for both your posts. You remain unfailingly courteous in the face of confusion (Bronwyn Lay) and misapprehension (Tony Kevin).
Rosemary | 22 September 2009

Great article Bronwyn. I like the idea of the Natural Contract - why not head on down the road towards a cleaner sustainable future! It's a great idea - a more engaged/evolved relationship with our environment. We need to adopt a new approach to how we walk on this planet, irrespective of how or who warmed the climate. It’s a natural progression for a species that continues to grow and learn.

Disappointing to see great article followed by some posts about the pedantic semantics of climate change.
Kirsten | 24 September 2009

Taluka, you should check your sources. There are three groups estimating global average temperatures, and only one of them shows 1998 as the warmest ever. More important, all three show the five-year moving average has been increasing steadily since 1998.

The reason is 1999 was relatively cool, a fact commonly overlooked. Furthermore 1998 was an El Nino year, and El Nino is known to temporarily raise global temperature. Likewise there was a La Nina in 2007-8 a factor that temporarily cools the Earth,

The claim the Earth has been cooling since 1998 is a selective misreading of the evidence.

And Taluka, what about all the other ways in which we are trashing the planet? Can you lift out of your micro-focus and glimpse what this article is about?
Geoff Davies | 25 September 2009

You are probably right, Geoff Davies, about 1998.

(Although, why did you bring it up, I didn't mention 1998!)

I know that for the US, NASA says 1934 was the warmest year in recorded history. UAH's satellite record which only stated in 1979 shows 1998 to be the warmest and also shows 2008 down very close to your 1999.

In Bronwyn Lay's home country, Australia, the Climate Change Minister and her Chief Scientist, when questioned by another Senator, agreed that temperature rise had stalled but could not explain why when atmospheric CO2 was still rising.

We have letters from the IPCC saying that they have no proof that CO2 is causing AGW, that they are relying on the EPA who are to call CO2 a pollutant.

Mr Al MCGartland from the EPA says he is relying on the computer models which have been shown to be flawed. GIGO.

Remove Carbon monoxide and sulphur particulates, by all means. I agree that we should attend to any way we are trashing the planet, however, CO2 is innocent until proven guilty.
Taluka Byvalnian | 26 September 2009

Thank you for a well-written article, Bronwyn. Our children and our successors are the beneficiaries of whatever our legacy may prove to be.

My layman's guide to the climate was given to me in Year 9 science. The earth and the moon are warmed by the sun, which radiates energy primarily as visible light. Temperatures on earth and moon are maintained by re-radiation of energy, primarily as long-wavelength infra-red light. The difference between earth and moon is the earth's atmosphere; it acts as a blanket by absorbing and recycling some of that energy back to the earth's surface, and explains why nights are warmer here on earth.

A necessary consequence is that, as the atmosphere's composition changes, the amount of absorbed and recycled energy changes, and the climate changes.

My layman's guide to the climate debate, on the other hand, is that some people seem to have not attended Year 9 science.
David Arthur | 26 September 2009

Difficult to see how a Natural Contract will save us - bit too take it or leave it for me, like our ethical consumer purchases which choose to ignore social issues when it suits us.

Taluka is saying that "climate is always changing". The end of the ice age happened due to a 6C temp rise over many thousands of years - the interglacial age has lasted many tens of thousands of years - moving out of the interglacial age (ie a 6C rise) will take us around 50-100 years at current CO2 emissions rates - and leading to extinction of over 50% of biodiversity (including likely some indigenous human species) - HARDLY a case of stability and certainty that Taluka implies
Alex in Gex | 28 September 2009

Bronwyn, having read your piece, I am now a sceptic.
Terry Rowlings | 13 October 2009

Bronwyn identifies the uncertainty that your average layman (me) feels about this debate.

Some climate change science skeptics fall to a sense of frustration and subsequently fail in courtesy and genteel discourse, and hold on dearly to some very limited aspects of the debate.
Likewise, the 'believers' act like evangelists and doomsayers, upholding the principles of righteousness as unassailable.
Neither are useful in the debate.
3 Facts :
CO2 is a green house gas
Humans dig fossil fuels out of the ground and burn it into the atmosphere, largely as CO2
Humans cut down trees that sequester CO2
These Facts, and modelling I have seen moves me to decide it would be prudent to act now to mitigate our impact, regardless of how imperfect the model is. The world is a very complex feedback system. Oscillating feedback systems means the climate on a yearly view will not appear sensible in terms of 'Global Warming'.
Facts worth considering :
We are past 'peak oil', fuel/energy is going to become more expensive.
We will eventually have to find alternatives. Alternatives in the immediate future will employ more people upon development.
Alternative energy sources will become cheaper the more prolific they become.
Andy | 09 September 2011


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