Monday, 19 January 2009

Mind the gap...

Recently, there has been much talk in the media about the necessity of slashing carbon dioxide emissions by 80% relative to 1990 levels by 2050. At the same time, coal fired power stations and airport expansion have been promoted. We are seeing here a significant gap between the rhetoric and the reality of our policy makers' approach to tackling climate change.

There is a similar gap in the perception of environmental issues in the general population. On the one hand we have a radical element in the green movement which predicts the total collapse of industrial society and a return to a kind of neo-pleistocene existence, and on the other hand the climate change deniers and the "business as usual" or the "small cosmetic changes will be enough" believers. In between these two extremes, the rest of our population ranges from the genuinely well-informed to the frankly clueless, passing through the well-intentioned but ill-informed and the gullible on the way.

Are we really too late to stop the earth warming by 2 degrees centigrade? Are we really facing sea level rises of 12m? How will these and other changes affect food, water and energy security for us all? While answering these questions with absolute certainty may well be impossible, I would argue that our policies regarding all environmental issues should be strictly based on the most recent, properly peer-reviewed scientific evidence, with wider dissemination of data so that the information is easily available to all. Of course, information by itself is useless to those without the skills to interpret it accurately, so easy access to education in critical skills is an intrinsic part of the solution.

Faced with a generally well-educated population able to regard their pronouncements with a critical eye, extremists at either end of the spectrum would find it difficult to persuade many to believe their inflated claims. It would also be easier for a well-intentioned government to push through sorely needed environmental legislation: legislation which will inevitably make our lives less comfortable and which, in the face of a poorly-informed populace, would be a sure-fire recipe for a government's growing unpopularity and ultimately loss of power at the next election.

We all need to be able to seperate the reality from the rhetoric. A well-informed populace able to identify the difference between policies which are based on good science and those which are based on ideology or political expediency is a populace which can insist that its long-term interests and those of its descendents are prioritised. It is a populace which can be part of the solution, rather than just part of the problem.

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