, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp 117-149
Date: 28 Apr 2006

On Development, Demography and Climate Change: The End of the World as We Know it?

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This paper comments on the issue of global warming and climate change, in an attempt to provide fresh perspective. Essentially, five main arguments are made. First, that the process of modern economic development has been based on the burning of fossil fuels, and that this will continue to apply for the foreseeable future. Second, that in large part due to momentum in economic and demographic processes, it is inevitable that there will be a major rise in atmospheric CO2 during the present century. Third, that available data on global temperatures suggest strongly that the coming warming will be appreciably faster than anything that humanity has experienced during historical times. Moreover, especially in a system that is being forced, the chance of an abrupt change in climate happening must be rated as fair. Fourth, that while it is impossible to attach precise probabilities to different scenarios, the range of plausible unpleasant climate outcomes seems at least as great as the range of more manageable ones. The consequences of future climate change may be considerable; indeed, they could be almost inconceivable—with several negative changes occurring simultaneously and to cumulative adverse effect. There is an urgent need to improve ways of thinking about what could happen. Fifth, the paper maintains that the human response to other difficult ‘long’ threats—such as that posed by HIV/AIDS—reveals a broadly analogous sequence of social reactions (e.g. denial, avoidance, recrimination) to that which is unfolding with respect to carbon emissions and climate change. Therefore the view expressed here is that major behavioral change to limit world carbon emissions is unlikely in the foreseeable future, and that the broad sway of future events is probably now set to run its course.

This paper is a personal assessment of what is occurring with respect to the subject of global warming and climate change. Nevertheless it is an attempt to examine the topic objectively. The paper tries to concentrate on the essentials—from both the social and the environmental sciences—and, quite deliberately, it presents basic data on the subject for the reader's own consideration. The paper's subtitle is taken from a television program broadcast in January 2005 as part of UK Channel Four's War on Terra season. I thank Tim Forsyth, Chris Wilson, and especially Brian O'Neill for their help and advice. However, and most certainly, the usual disclaimer applies.