On Friday, in Stockholm, the climate scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented the latest report on climate science. And this is only the first in a parade of events. On Monday, the IPCC will release the full report of 1,000 pages or so. In the spring of 2014 there will be another report on climate change impacts, and then another one on mitigation and adaptation. By October next year, when the final synthesis report is scheduled to appear, packed with facts and figures, to document what we know about climate change, what we know about the consequences, and how we might deal with them.
Frankly, we have been here before. Every five or six years, the IPCC tries to shake us up with another avalanche of paper. There have been four assessment reports since the first one appeared in 1990, and this one is number five. Every report is more detailed about the man-made nature of climate change, but essentially it’s more of the same.
A great deal was known about increasing temperatures, sea level rise, melting ice sheets and extreme weather when decision-makers met in 2009. And yet they couldn’t agree on any meaningful action. So this is not just about a lack of understanding. There is something noble about the IPCC’s unshakeable faith in the transformative power of knowledge. But then why have the last four assessment reports not have had any tangible effect? Some attribute this to political stalemate, and this may indeed be part of the explanation. Nevertheless, it seems to me that our collective failure to tackle climate change is not just due to political deadlock or insufficient knowledge. There must be something else going on.
And that something else has a lot to do with the way we are wired as humans. We often prefer denial to confronting our problems. We often shirk from responsibility for our share of the mess and hope that others will do the clean-up. We have an immoral tendency to weasel out when we feel that the bill will be footed by distant future generations. And we are loth to accept as true something that might jeopardise our cherished way of life. Therefore, some of us are more than willing to listen to charlatans telling us what we like to hear, for example that climate change is a hoax and that we should think positively and all will be well.
But some people are simply not willing to give up the fight. The stakes are too high for that, and while the belief in the transformative power of knowledge may be heroic we don’t have anything better. The climate scientists at the IPCC cannot be praised enough for holding on against all odds.