Why Am I Confused About Climate Change?

Last September, the UN’s IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] released a report which Ko Barrett, vice-chair of the IPCC said highlighted “the urgency of timely, ambitious, coordinated, and enduring actions. What’s at stake is the health of ecosystems, wildlife, and importantly, the world we leave our children.”

To be clear, it was a 900-page report that compiled data from thousands of studies conducted by hundreds of scientists from around the globe. Their conclusion? We need to act on global warming – and fast.

And it’s not just the IPCC – here is a list of over 200 scientific organisations from around the world who hold the position that climate change has been caused by human actions.

Now – if the science is so clear, why have I been getting confused? I’ve found myself wondering if all the fuss is just because of some noisy hippies and kids that want a day off school.

My confusion was partly because I’d lost sight of what ‘climate change’ really is. I’ve condensed it down to this:

  1. Oil, coal and natural gas are fossil fuels.
  2. Burning fossil fuels gives off pollution.
  3. That pollution contains greenhouse gases.
  4. Those greenhouse gases make the planet warmer.
  5. This sounds quite nice, but is actually really, really bad.
  6. [If you’re interested, details of my research on climate change are at the end of the post]

Once I started understanding that climate change is a consequence of pollution, things started to get a lot clearer.

The other reason I was getting confused is because it’s hard to know who to trust any more. Like everyone else, I am constantly bombarded with information, and the simple truth is that less and less of it is subject to any sort of fact-checking. Almost anyone can say almost anything – without having to prove a word of it. We tend to react most to sensationalist stories – particularly if they provoke outrage – and Internet algorithms are designed to promote the stories that get a reaction. Say something outrageous enough, and the chances are that your story will get amplified.

And when there are well-funded organisations running campaigns of confusion and deliberate disinformation, it’s no wonder we end up overwhelmed. It’s not the scientists spending tens of millions of pounds to get their message across. In the words of Hannah Arendt, this onslaught conditions us to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”

Faced with this, it’s hardly surprising that our response is often to throw our hands up in the air and say “well, it’s such a big problem anyway – what possible difference can I make?”

Believe me, I’ve been there. However, I do think there are reasons to be optimistic.

BP, the global energy business that produces 3.7m barrels of oil a day, appointed a new CEO last week. In his introduction on BP’s website, Bernard Looney says: “We know the world is not on a sustainable path. We want a rapid transition. Society has to deliver the Paris goals.” There are also indications that Shell is understanding the need for a different approach. (It’s worth noting here that both CEO’s speak of climate change as scientific fact: they aren’t making any attempt to pretend the problem doesn’t exist). As I write that, I can hear Greta shouting at me – “we don’t have time for words, Joe, we need action!” She’s right, of course, but I do think there are promising signs. Hopefully, $10bn from Jeff Bezos will help.

Side Note: A word of caution here … If we simply switch our fossil fuel addiction from making energy to producing plastic, the problem doesn’t go away – but that’s a post for another day!

Another reason for optimism came from Andrew McAfee on a Long Now podcast. Essentially, he points out that as human beings, we have historically been very good at getting ‘more from less’. As an example, our phones now fit in our hands, and for most of us have replaced some or all of the following: telephone, fax machine, still camera, video camera, games console, diary, calendar, music player, etc etc. If we put our minds to it, McAfee believes human ingenuity and inventiveness will be part of the solution. Recent progress with electric vehicle technology and solar panels suggest he might be on to something. Technology needs to be a big part of the solution.

But I think the biggest reason doing something small makes a difference is because of this:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations

All ideas that take off start with the Innovators. When we think about it, it’s obvious – everything starts small. Everything starts with a few people saying, “here, have you seen this? I think it’s worth looking at.” Even something as ubiquitous as the iPhone. In the beginning, there were plenty of people who thought it was a terrible idea [including Steve Ballmer, then CEO of Microsoft, who said: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share”] … but the Innovators bought one anyway, and their Early Adopter friends saw how amazing it was … and now around half the smartphones sold in the UK are iPhones.

It always starts small.

As Gabby Reece would say, “Go first. Someone has to go first.” Carry a reusable water bottle. Use a bamboo toothbrush. Try to cut down on your car journeys. Take three pieces of plastic off the beach next time you visit. You’ll probably feel like a bit of a hypocrite next time you unpack your shopping and notice all the single-use plastic – that’s OK. With something this big, we’re all hypocrites to some extent – but as Jonathan Pie says, that’s better than the alternative, which is doing nothing.

Compared to the industrial waste spewing out of vast factories in India these actions may seem insignificant – but that’s not the point. The point is the example you set to the people around you. When you decide to be an Innovator – and make no mistake, it is your decision – the people behind you in the Costa queue will notice when you hand over your reusable cup. Your friends might ask why you’ve started to reduce your meat consumption. Even big companies will pay attention if you DM them on social media asking questions about how they make their jeans (you know those big Indian factories creating tonnes of pollution? Many of them are making ‘stuff’ for us).

History tells us that small actions can have an effect. Rosa Parks sitting on a bus. Gandhi going for a long walk. Greta Thunberg skipping school.

Climate change is a massive, messy, scary thing, but we can’t let that put us off – it mustn’t be our excuse. The planet needs us to be Innovators.

We can make a difference. We really can.


If you want to learn more about climate change, here are some of the resources I used:

This collection of TED talks gives a really solid overview.

What NASA thinks. What some atomic scientists think. What National Geographic has to say.

How the science is being attacked, and hidden.

And if Greta winds you up, read this!