A sombre milestone for humanity

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By Laurence Mee, SAMS, Scottish Marine Institute, laurence.mee [at] sams.ac.uk

Ralph Keeling runs the Mauna Loa observatory where his father began CO2 measurements 55 years ago. He recently had the unenviable responsibility to tell the world that CO2 levels have passed the 400ppm mark for the first time, the highest level for about 4 million years. The news fleetingly passed through the front page of some newspapers; others steadfastly ignored it. Disbelief and overt scepticism maybe, but also the denial of an alcoholic diagnosed with the early stages of cirrhosis.

Of course, 400 is just a number, just as a blood serum glutamate pyruvate transaminase level of 100 is meaningless to most people; though it would tell a doctor that you could be about to suffer liver failure. Whether or not you believe the doctor’s gobbledegook only depends on one word: trust. And whether or not you take action depends on a more complex balance of assessing personal and collective risk, trading the cost of action and immediate rewards of risky behaviour against future benefits, and all of this filtered through individual and collective values. Right now, it would probably be easier to win an election by lowering fuel prices and opening coal mines than campaigning to curb CO2 emissions. Mission suicide? What is going wrong? Pour yourself a drink and read on…

Let’s start with the evidence that people really are losing interest in climate change (if you are wondering what this has to do with the sea, be patient, I’ll get there eventually). According to the UK Foresight programme, “Recent polling suggests that scepticism about climate change has increased, alongside diminished concern for its effects. In 2006, 81% of surveyed UK citizens were fairly or very concerned about climate change compared with 76% in 2009 in an identical tracking survey”. Our own surveys, conducted in 2010 by ICM for the KnowSeas project that I direct, indicate that just under 40% of UK citizens are ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about climate change, the lowest percentage of the seven countries we surveyed (France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Poland, UK). You shouldn’t read too much into this difference because the terms ‘concerned’ and ’very concerned’ are culturally sensitive but the results are further evidence of a serious problem. Across Europe, the attitude of the younger generation (18-24 year old) was particularly worrying as less than 50% of those interviewed in France, Germany, Poland and the UK were concerned or very concerned. An even stronger result has emerged for a recent YouGov survey in the UK that suggests a swing from 2008 - when 55% of those interviewed thought human activity was making the world warmer, 25% thought the world was getting warmer but not because of humanity, and 7% thought the world was not getting warmer - to the current (2013) situation when 39% think human activity is making the world warmer, 16% think the world is getting warmer but not because of humanity, and 28% think the world is not getting warmer.

So it is clear that interest is waning. In part this may be due to the lack of tangible evidence for most people; it doesn’t feel warmer and the reality is that we have had a few awful summers. Coupled with that, like the Titanic, the economy seems to have hit an iceberg and the crew appear to be running around reorganising deck chairs and telling everyone that the ship is fundamentally sound. It isn’t easy for the incredulous passengers to think about long-term issues like their pension plans or what lies on the horizon when the supply of lifejackets is short. We need to find simpler explanatory language that most people can understand. Imagine a bowl of water with some ice cubes for example; if we gently warm the water, the ice cubes will begin to melt but the change in temperature in the water will be hardly noticeable… until the ice cubes melt completely. Most people can understand that. And we can explain that by the time the temperature starts to soar, all kind of change will have occurred with strange climate shifts, sea level rise and fundamental changes in the chemistry and biology of our waters.

In some senses it is remarkable that given the lack of tangible evidence for most people, so much public interest has been attracted to climate change issues. It reveals considerable trust in scientists and we must not descend into hubris and betray this trust (maybe this is already happening). Personally speaking, as a marine scientist, I find several aspects of global change not directly or indirectly related to warming equally deeply scary:

  • Sea level is rising incredibly fast; even a very conservative half metre in 100 years would make a huge difference in places like Bangladesh; even in the UK, the 2007 North Sea storm surge was only 10 cm below a level that would have caused catastrophic damage. Twenty five years of current sea level rise would make a huge difference.
  • The oceans are acidifying, particularly in polar regions, and this is changing their geochemistry and biology. We do not understand the full meaning of this change but it is directly related to CO2 levels and the link is unequivocal and not a target of militant climate sceptics discussing hockey sticks.
  • There are changes in ocean oxygen levels happening already and oxygen minima appear to be intensifying. We really do not fully understand what this will mean for life in the oceans in the longer term but it is part of a process of accelerating change.
  • We are beginning to see evidence of changes in ocean circulation and heat transport that will have implications for regional climate but may also affect the fertility of our seas, the distribution of plants and animals, and our food security. Scientists are struggling to separate natural cycles and human-induced change because our observations have been for such a short period but the evidence is mounting.
  • The quest for more and more fossil fuels to feed our addiction means that we are taking greater risks: drilling in deeper waters and more hostile environments and pursuing riskier transport routes. And oil transportation has had the unexpected outcome of moving plants and animals across the planet in a way that has not happened in millennia through natural processes.

Are we getting this message across? I don’t think so, partly because of locked horns on the details of ‘hockey sticks’; and the symbolic 3 degrees C warming (that now seems inevitable) continues to be denied but isn’t really the central issue in the debate.

In 2008, I was asked to participate in a live broadcast on BBC Radio 5 from a ship off the Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland (allegedly the glacier that calved the iceberg that sunk the Titanic) during a period of major sea ice retreat. Some journalists on board warned that I was being set up against a recalcitrant climate sceptic in the studio in London and sure enough, he spouted the usual rhetoric. “Let’s be honest,” I commented. “Science is not 100% certain. Imagine if we are only 50% right (and I think we are much better than that). Would you get on a plane if you were told there was a 50% chance of it crashing? You would be demanding action, wouldn’t you?”

This essay was originally published in Laurence Mee's Musings from the Crow's Nest blog on 13 May 2013.

Professor Laurence Mee is the director of SAMS (Scottish Association for Marine Science), leading a team of ~150 staff and 120 students passionate about marine science.