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The power of language

With the COP21 negotiations in full swing in Paris, climate change is once more in the news. But it is no longer front-page news, whereas it regularly made headlines in the lead up to the ill-fated Copenhagen conference in 2009. Admittedly, Europe has other things on its collective mind at the moment, in the aftermath of terror attacks and with the continued influx of refugees and economic migrants, but there have been clear signs of a waning in public interest in climate change for some time.

It is difficult to keep a topic on the front page over a long period. Issues come and go, and editors are well aware of what their readers expect to see. As I pointed out last week, a survey conducted for the BBC in the lead up to Paris found COP21: Public support for tough climate deal 'declines'. And, in a separate survey in Germany by YouGov, less than half of respondents were in favour of raising oil and coal prices, despite 87% seeing climate change as a threat to humans and the environment. And in other areas, “Just 39 percent of Germans make an effort to save electricity, the survey found - while just 22 percent of respondents said they have reduced their car travel to lessen their impact on the climate.”

A remarkably similar picture is found in the UK, in a further poll conducted for Sky News (Poll: Growing doubts over climate change causes). The headline refers to the finding that nearly one in five respondents believed that natural processes were the main driver of climate change, compared to just one in 14 only two years ago. But it also showed that “…54% of the public oppose green taxes on petrol, electricity and imported food.”

And from another YouGov poll for the Independent, we see that UK public more concerned about climate change’s impact on bees than humans, survey shows. 30% of those questioned were fairly or very doubtful that manmade climate change exists. Of course, there are plenty of people who are seriously concerned about rising temperatures and their impact on future generations, but the reality is that those who favour the kind of policies that could produce the radical reduction in emissions campaigners are demanding are in the minority, even in the EU.

Against this background, politicians, negotiators and campaigners are struggling to keep the show on the road and maintain momentum. On one hand, the juggernaut grinds on – in 12 months’ time, everyone will reassemble in Morocco and venues for COP23 and 24 are being proposed soon – but at the same time public enthusiasm for action which might increase the cost of living or reduce energy security has ebbed.

A tactic which has been used for many years is the use of exaggerated language to make an impact and get people on-side. The fact that this has demonstrably failed to convince the majority of people either that there is a real and present danger or that we must make sacrifices now for the sake of future generations, counts for little. In the absence of anything better, emotive language is the order of the day (in a similar way to the insistence on installing more and more wind and solar farms, in the absence of anything really effective).

So, it is not surprising that President Hollande told the conference that “this is about the future of the planet, the future of life”. This is fully in line with the rhetoric about ‘saving’ the planet. In fact, the natural world has evolved and developed through both Ice Ages and periods where temperatures have been significantly higher than today. That’s not to say that the geographical spread of some species will not change or that some very specialised, fragile species may not be pushed into extinction, but the natural world will adapt.

There may well be some changes which are deeply uncomfortable for our own species but, since we are the only creatures to be able to adapt to almost any environment and inhabit all continents, we are likely to cope with this. Our main problem is having built towns and cities over the past few thousand years in areas that have been desirable but may well be swamped as the long-term rise in sea level continues. Higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide may accelerate this process by a few decades, but it seems inevitable until the Earth enters the next cooling phase (now overdue, according to some reckoning).

Another thing we hear frequently is that the Earth is getting ‘hotter’. This is judged to have more impact than simply saying that there is modest warming. In practice, the average temperature increase –1° this year compared to pre-industrial times, according to some data sets – hides some significant variations. The increase is greater at the Poles than at the Equator, for example, although these regions are still by most standards extremely cold and inhospitable.

The land masses of the Northern hemisphere have warmed considerably more than south of the Equator and much of the increase is because of warmer nights (compounded, as we well know, by the urban heat island effect). So, already hot parts of the world have become very slightly hotter, while cooler parts have seen modest warming. Can the Earth truly be said to be getting ‘hotter’?

In similar vein, ocean ‘acidification’ is often used as the next looming threat to justify emissions cuts even if temperature rises turn out to be lower and less damaging than forecast. In practice, seawater is slightly alkaline and highly buffered; even quite large increases in dissolved carbon dioxide serve just to nudge the pH closer to neutral. There may well be some impact on shell formation, but the current array of sea life has evolved over periods when CO2 levels were much higher.

Perhaps the most pervasive misuse of language is the labelling of carbon dioxide as a ‘pollutant’, and confounding CO2 emissions with sulphur dioxide, soot and harmful air pollution. Carbon dioxide is a trace gas which is absolutely vital for life. This is not to say that its presence in the air does not help trap heat from the Sun (life would be very different were that not the case) but it is misleading to lump it with things we know to cause real harm.

Last but not least, we are told that such and such an observation is ‘consistent with’ the projections of climate models; given the wide range of outputs they produce, this is hardly surprising. Nor should this in any way be construed as ‘proof’ that burning fossil fuels is the dominant driver of changing climate patterns.

Much is made by those engaged in this debate of the fact that arguments are based on sound science. But science should be objective and scientists dispassionate. To hype the language in an effort to sway the argument is not the right route to take. Apart from anything else, it clearly doesn’t work.