When Is Good News Bad News?

When is good news bad news? When the good news is about climate change.

Some leaked reports obtained by the Associated Press indicate that the rate of global warming has slowed down in the past fifteen years, even though greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere have continued to rise. The rate of warming from 1998 to 2012 was only about half the rate of the years since 1951. That’s good news, right? Well, not if it gives climate change deniers yet another opportunity to attack the science and encourage everyone to keep burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow.

Friday September 27, 2013 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will begin to present its latest update, and as scientists have gathered in Stockholm to prepare, there has been disagreement on how to deal with the awkward fact of the slower warming rate, and whether or not to even exclude it from the report. Countries have objected to the short 15-year length of the measurement. Others say 1998 was an exceptionally warm year, and a bad starting point. The U.S. is pushing the favourite explanation: that the deep ocean is absorbing more heat than originally expected. But it would be a mistake to hide or obscure any findings. The deep pockets of the oil companies and other industrial interests will ensure that there are lots of voices willing to twist the truth, hide it, or outright deny it. Climate scientists must show that they’re above that and adhere to the strictest standards of full disclosure. The coming report will likely assert that scientists are 95% certain that humans are mostly to blame for the rise in global temperatures over the past sixty years. In science 95% is huge.

Let’s not forget that, in spite of a slower warming rate, the past decade was still the warmest on record and this decade is on track to beat it. Let’s not forget the shocking number of extreme weather events of the past few years, especially massive storms and devastating flooding, even though the rate of warming was slower than expected. Climate science has to be among the most complex of all areas of study, with an unthinkable number of variables to account for. So predictions are bound to have a margin of error. If the rate of warming was an error, at least we’ve come out on the good side so far, but it is no excuse to discount the rest of the science and stay complacent about climate change, doing nothing. (And believe me, as a citizen of Canada, a country that’s gone from having one of the best environmental reputations in the world to one of the worst in the span of one administration, I’m not pointing fingers.)

I’m struck by the fact that millions of people have sacrificed their lives in wars to stop oppressive forms of government—fascism, Nazism, communism, and other –isms—for the sake of future generations. Yet we’re not even willing to make sacrifices to our lifestyle to save our children and their children from a global climate that no form of government will be able to alleviate.

Science fiction writers and fans imagine apocalypses for fun, but when faced with real threats we turn to our faith that science will provide a solution. Well, sometimes science can only offer a warning.

The rest is up to us.