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Warm words are not enough

dfykDavid Nowell* fears that official and media ignorance and hypocrisy over climate change are in danger of turning him into a curmudgeon…

In March 2015 The Guardian launched a climate change campaign, and started tagging many of its features and reports with a ‘Keep it in the ground’ tag.  Such a divisive approach is utterly counterproductive in a society addicted to hydrocarbons, and which needs fresh resources to replace them.  Geologists are assumed by many campaigners to be on the ‘wrong’ side of this debate.  Nothing could be further from the truth.     


The 2°C  - or even 1.5°C - warming figure, of which we heard so much during the Paris summit, is the most dangerously misleading target humanity has ever set – and worryingly complacent, when we have no way of knowing what levels of greenhouse gases will trigger irreversible global heating over the next few hundred thousand years. 

The IPCC ignores a wealth of geological evidence, including similar events during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum ~56Ma, or the Cenomanian-Turonian ocean anoxic event at ~93.5Ma.  We should not flatter ourselves that a mass extinction is required to wipe us out!  Pliocene climatic conditions, when we last had similar CO2 levels, are ignored.  Worse still, the nonsensical 40% increase over pre-industrial levels is calculated from zero, rather than from 170ppm during the most intense Quaternary glaciations.  Already this rise is greater than during the end of the last ice age over many thousands of years. This would be just as stupid as converting the 0.81°C rise in global atmospheric temperatures (above the 20th Century 15.8°C July average) into degrees Kelvin, which would be only 0.28%!  

Rather than interview geologists like Maureen Raymo, the first female Wollaston Medallist who did not even get reported, contributors persistently misunderstand key scientific evidence. Having twigged that Bill McKibben (10 March) had got confused, Guardian readers’ editor directed me to a paper in Science, which confirmed that he had mixed up groundwater depletion across the western United States with California, while uplift in the Sierra Nevada was caused by loss of snowpack. A trivial mistake (over Oxford PPE degrees!) was given a lengthy printed correction on the very next day (26 August), yet a gross geological blunder like this remained uncorrected. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then misplaced expertise will result in fatally ill-informed policies.   


Protesting about Arctic drilling (to assuage our guilt over driving and flying abroad for too many holidays) won’t resolve anything. What about insulating homes?  Or campaigning for anaerobic biogas digesters, and against overconsumption (including ‘two for the price of one’ offers, which also hinder fair price comparisons)?  ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ hardly merits a mention, alongside the environmental impact of supposed parental choice in schooling: suburban kids are increasingly driven around, adding greatly to lethal diesel-fuelled congestion, discouraging walking and contributing to obesity in the young.

The Guardian itself could self-sacrificingly ban pointless double-page adverts, always skipped without reading, in favour of quarter-page ones which catch the eye.  Why pay more for less impact? 

It is wise to remember an old Spanish proverb:  ‘Take what you want, says God, but pay’.

* David Nowell is a freelance geologist whose publications include over 120 geological map and book reviews.