Sometimes the truth will alarm you

25th Apr 2014
ENVIRONMENT Sometimes the truth will alarm you
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were wary of publishing an alarmist report on climate change this year


Sarah Sakeena Marshall

When it comes to scientific discussions about climate change, there always seems to be controversy over how the data is interpreted. Currently, the UN’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is due to publish their updated study on climate change, but are having a difficult time deciding what is appropriate to publish and what may sound “too alarmist.” Meanwhile, a peer-reviewed study, partially funded by NASA, was recently released and points to the dire consequences of climate change inaction, actually projecting the potential for total social collapse.

In comparing the two pieces, it is essential to delve into the motives behind what suggestions are made in terms of responding to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Hundreds of scientists, engineers, and economists have volunteered for the IPCC to unveil the trajectory of climate change action or inaction and suggest practical solutions on realistic time scales; yet based on the track record of many COPs (Conference of Parties), the world would prefer to do ‘business as usual’ and simply hope for the best. In fact, the new report has been largely criticised for suggesting mitigation strategies that may actually worsen climate change, such as the largely untested CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) which pumps carbon back into the ground or another geological formation so that it will not enter the atmosphere.

The BBC has said that this report has been put “under the microscope” because of flaws published in previous reports that damaged the credibility of the organisation.

According to The Guardian, “The leaked draft concludes that ‘essentially any’ emissions target can be achieved ‘regardless of the near‐term path’ of overshoot ‘by shifting emissions reductions to the future’.”

This makes it seem as though as long as action is taken at some point, everything will be fine; whereas in reality, there is a point of no return where we will experience runaway warming. COP 21 has been anticipated as the conference where countries will finally commit to strict targets to reduce carbon emissions.

Though the IPCC does take into account socioeconomic circumstances, it does not deeply elaborate on the root causes of the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, but only acknowledges that developing countries and the poor will be disproportionately affected by the consequences of climate change.

Food security issues are a major factor in both reports that could lead to social unrest, as crop yields are expected to lessen by 2%, leaving less available for consumption and increasing food prices.

In contrast, the HANDY (Human and Nature Dynamics) study ties ecological destruction to social stratification. The study “advances beyond existing biological dynamic population models by simultaneously modeling two separate important features which seem to appear across societies that have collapsed: (1) the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, (2) the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses (or ‘Commoners’).”

By delving into social as well as ecological issues, the study gives a more complete view of social collapse due to environmental destruction and references many historical examples, including the Roman Empire, Mayans, and Easter Island; all technologically advanced societies.

An interesting and necessary point that the HANDY study makes refers to technological efficiency, stating, “Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, increase in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”

The HANDY model suggests a major rethink combined with immediate action, whereas the IPCC is still suggesting softer fixes that would avoid majorly affecting a nation’s economy.

The point of view of both studies is starkly different, as the IPCC is concerned with cost-benefit analyses, while the HANDY study discusses the planet’s carrying capacity, or the number of people able to be sustained in the current system. The IPCC has an obligation to be somewhat idealistic, as to report ‘doom and gloom’ would only cause more disagreements among nations regarding practical solutions, but to avoid the dire truth of the matter allows for perpetual complacency and inaction.

The HANDY study does leave room for hope as well, stating that, “Collapse can be avoided, and population can reach a steady state at maximum carrying capacity if the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level and if resources are distributed equitably.”

What both studies expose is that the planet is reaching a point of no return in terms of runaway climate change. We will have to find ways to adapt, and be ready to take in masses of people whose homes will be underwater in the near future. The most important aspect to take away from these studies is that we as humans are not immune to repeating history.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

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