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A matter of degrees

Just how does one cope with teaching environmental science these days?  Itís about the most disorientating, topsy-turvy subject that one can find, crazier than Dali, more pessimistic than Dostoevsky, more over-sold than Pepsi. Itís a kind of an Alice-in-Wonderland world, where nothing is as it seems, and the Cheshire Cat tries out a different grin every day. University of Leicester geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, finds the subject not just a case of hot air...  

Paradoxes abound. On the one hand, anything with an environmental label is perceived as a label, a bandwagon, and an excuse to indulge in the softest of sciences:  to simultaneously procure ten credits for, and salve the conscience of, gullible young tree-huggers who already have half an eye open for a nice job in the City. The environmental label is the sine qua non of a successful module, degree or grant application. And everyone has to play the game, and everyone becomes progressively more cynical.

ButÖ soft science? Any half-decent attempt to understand how solid earth, oceans, life and atmosphere interact to produce our earthly home involves a conceptual and analytical rigour that can make your eyes water.  A googleplex of data, marshalled by an army of scientists, has produced a consensus. This consensus states that we, the people, are collectively changing the composition of the atmosphere, and that this will, over a century or so, turn our planetary thermostat up by a few degrees. And that a warmer planet will be a more dangerous planet for us all. 

Now, can one be as rigorous as you like and still produce what is, simply, moonshine?  Letís call this the presidential viewpoint, espoused by Giants of Industry and by environmental dissenters such as Bjorn Lomborg. Look, they say, people are living longer, healthier lives than their grandparents did.  The quality of river waters and air is improving. New, more energy-efficient technologies will come in. Weíll cope, and thrive Ė but will cope and thrive less well if a brake is put upon business and employment by signing up to any Kyoto treaty or like nonsense.  

Five years or so ago, one could still sit nicely on the fence, and treat the subject in a properly abstract fashion. Weigh the pros and the cons of the evidence. Be suitably even-handed about the sceptical, business-as-usual school of thought. Tell the class that, in all likelihood, it would not be them, but their children or grandchildren that would discover whether global warming was a real, man-made phenomenon, or just another natural climatic blip.

Five (rather than fifty) years on, though, global warming seems not just a future possibility, a bit of science fiction which may or may not be come real.  Itís real and itís here. Now. And we made it. And itís only just begun. No less a figure than Sir David King, chief scientific advisor to the British Government has said so, in an article in the very scientifically upmarket US journal Science,which one could be forgiven for thinking was directly aimed at the Presidential viewpoint.

Does it matter?

Well, here we might think of the sheer numbers of us. It took Homo sapiens about one hundred and fifty thousand years to amass to a population of a billion, a milestone reached sometime during my great-grandfatherís childhood. Weíre now six billion and a bit.  The last billion has been added, almost casually, in the last dozen years. Weíll add another three - or perhaps it might be five - billion by mid-century. Goodness knows how weíll feed everybody then (we can only just manage now), because there doesnít seem to be another Green Revolution in sight, GM crops or no GM crops.

If itís now probable, rather than merely possible, that temperatures will rise by a several degrees this century, then agriculture will likely fall into some disarray, to make this task yet more challenging. Now, itís been said that civilization is only two square meals away from barbarism. Considering how grouchy I can get if lunch is late, this might be a fair approximation of the truth.    

And if the worldís icecaps continue to melt away (and they seem already to have started), sea level will rise, inexorably. Even a one-metre rise Ė the smallest of small change by be geological standards Ė will likely displace one hundred million people or so. Where are they going to go? And, on past form, will human communities generously share out the declining resources of food and living space?

So there could be troubled times ahead, as a direct result of humankindís carbon spree.  Yet, yetÖ given this, what, one could be forgiven for asking, is the reaction of organised society? How are we each, individually, encouraged to keep that carbon underground?

Letís take an example. Iíve drafted part of this on a bus. Itís the only remaining bus service between Nottingham and Leicester, two of biggest neighbouring cities in the English Midlands. Iím very fond of it. Itís a bit like the Knight Bus in the Harry Potter books. You have to, by magical means, divine its infrequent schedule (four times a day) and complicated itinerary (through all the villages). The small handful of people who have developed these supernatural skills soon get to be on first name terms with each other and discuss the weather, as we amble along quiet country roads. When we hit the main road, though, we join a speeding metal stream of nose-to-tail automobiles, most of which have only the one person cocooned within them. 

Another example: a few days ago, I went from Nottingham to just outside London. The day return rail ticket cost one hundred and two pounds. Had I used my car, or had I flown (the most carbon-intensive means of all), it would have cost me maybe a quarter of that, or less. Given the present and likely future trajectory of our climate, this organisation of micro-economic incentives can be regarded, technically, as stark staring bonkers. 

Still, there is an upside. The Pentagon and Hollywood have recently got the message that Something is Up with climate. They have produced bloodcurdling reports ( and blockbuster films (The Day after Tomorrow) respectively, predicting megadeath and destruction. Trouble is, they both predict that our developing greenhouse will hasten not a hothouse world, Jurassic-style, but rather the next Ice Age, and in the next few years at that. According to most climate scientists, that particular scenario is somewhere in the grey area between severe unlikelihood and nonsense. Yes, a comparable phenomenon has indeed been recognized (water from melting ice acting as a brake on north Atlantic circulation). But its effects wonít, on current understanding, be so great or so rapid, and anyway these effects will be overwhelmed by the globally rising heat.

Confused?  But just before giving up this whole Environmental business as a bad job with no prospect of understanding or vestige of a solution, you might see that thereís a thread running through. 

The thread isnít the staggering complexity of the Earthís life support systems. Given sackloads more data and a few dozen more supercomputers strung together, we might just begin to cope with that. No, itís the infinite, and infinitely shifting human perceptions of, and reactions to, this drama now unfolding. Now hereís something that we can, pedagogically speaking, get our teeth into.

Itís got everything:  business, politics, economics, love and hate, rich and poor, science and art, and also, for comic relief, a soupcon or two of sheer gormless stupidity.  You can develop fancy academic models of human behaviour. The frog-in-the-beaker-of water-being heated analogy, for instance (frog put into hot water straight away would jump out;  frog in heating water stays put until Ö. itís too late). Itís multidisciplinary, and crosses the arts/humanities divide. It just needs a fancy title. How about psychoclimatics, say? Thatís got a nice ring to it.

Time to cash in, devise the 20-credit module, pull in the students, write the textbook (with an eye on the popular science spin-off: definite Pulitzer potential there, one would think). Only, only, just one thing stays my hand, and delays this cornucopia. Just what Ö precisely what Ö. are our Learning Outcomes going to be?

Jan Zalasiewicz, Department of Geology

* This article first appeared in The Guardian

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