What can we learn from The American President?

The American President

I love the American President. It’s a weakness of mine of which I am not proud. No. Not that one: the film.

The American President was an Oscar-nominated film made in 1995 starring Michael Douglas as the eponymous hero and Annette Bening as a lobbyist who comes to Washington to campaign for a 20% cut in US greenhouse gas emissions.

The film is unremarkable in many ways. But the fact that cutting greenhouse gas emissions was a mainstream idea 25 years ago (albeit in a light-hearted romantic comedy-drama) puts into perspective just how slowly political reality has changed.

Constant

During the period from the fictional 1995 American President to the present 2018 incumbent, one thing has remain constant: the science.

Since 1981, when James Hansen and colleagues wrote a landmark paper in Science, the complexity of our models of the Earth’s climate has increased dramatically.

And our understanding of the way our Climate System works has improved, increasing our confidence in future projections.

But the core science has barely changed. Indeed, it hasn’t changed that much since Svante Arrhenius’ insight back in 1896.

Climate Change: My part in its downfall

I have been speaking and writing about Climate Change since 2004 or so. I think I have spoken to a few thousand people directly, and I guess each web article has been read a few hundred times. So perhaps I have helped a little to ‘raise consciousness’.

But regular readers will have noticed that recently I haven’t written about Climate Change as often as I used to. The reason is that I am lost for words.

Back in 2004, (9 years the American President) I thought there was a genuine public education requirement. But now, I don’t believe any rational human on Earth seriously doubts the reality of Climate Change or its causes.

[But just in case: if there is a rational human out there who doubts the reality of Climate Change, please drop me a line: I am happy to discuss any questions you have.]

Political Science

I still believe that despite The American President (yes that one, not the film) and his supporters, humanity will act collectively and decisively on Climate Change. Eventually.

I expect this because ultimately I think we will collectively understand that the alternative is in nobody’s best interest.

The ‘Natural Sciences’ have identified the existence of Climate Change, worked out its causes, laid out clear paths for how to combat it, and estimated the consequences of inaction.

But the path to action involves what Charles Lane writing the Washington Post has called ‘Political Science’. He identified the impasse as arising from the fact that we are asking the rich world (us) to pay now to solve a problem which will (mainly) occur in the future.

  • If the spending is effective, then the worst aspects of Climate Change will be abated and that expenditure may then appear to be a waste – the disaster was averted!
  • But if it the spending is ineffective, then the worst aspects of Climate Change will be experienced anyway!

This (and many other difficulties) are real and they are readily exploited by people who are acting – frankly – in bad faith.

So I expect we will act, but too late to avoid bad consequences for communities world-wide. And the political path we will take to action is not at all clear to me.

Reasons to be hopeful

But there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. Renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels are now feasible in a large and growing number of sectors. And once the transition begins, I think it will move quickly.

The speed with which coal has been (and is is continuing to be) phased out in the UK has shocked and surprised me. You can check current grid generating mix at Gridwatch.

The chart below shows the last 12 months of generation on top and the previous 12 months below that. You can see that coal use has almost disappeared in summer and is now only used on the coldest darkest days.

This year UK Yearly generating mix

UK Yearly generating mix

UK Electricity Generating Mix for the last 12 months. Notice that coal generation – in black – is only significant for a few months of the year, and has declined this year (top) compared with last year (bottom)

Science is our greatest cause for hope.

Imagine if we were observing changes in climate and had no idea what was happening? We would be doomed to confusion and inaction. This has been the situation in which humanity has existed since the dawn of time.

But now, our collective scientific understanding  has allowed us quantify Climate Change, to discover its root cause, and to identify the practical steps we can take minimise the harm.

Humanity has never been in this position before. We have never previously known in advance the hand which nature will deal us.

So I see our inability to act collectively – as exemplified by the slowness of progress in the 23 years since the debut of the celluloid American President – as a temporary state.

I take hope from the fact that we when the political reality permits, science will guide us to the best available solution in the circumstances.

I just wish I could figure out what I can do to make that happen faster.

Links

On this site:

On Variable Variability

On IPCC web site

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