I was surprised and honoured to be asked by Willem Buttinger to chair the Norfolk Climate Change Conference, especially as I have no credentials in climate science nor any history of climate change activism. He explained that I had been recommended because of my chairmanship of the Norfolk Cambridge Society Lectures and the society's Philosophy Group. I accepted because, as Willem had astutely concluded before he approached me, although I chose a career in the City, I am at heart a scientist, trained as a physicist and wedded to the rigorous pursuit and dissemination of truth. Given the potential consequences to life on our planet if we get things wrong, there is arguably no area where this matters more than in climate science.
Nowadays, most sane, lay people would not dream of doubting the consensus opinion of the world's leading scientists on the laws of physics, on the biochemistry of the human body, on the operation of antiviral drugs or on the movement of tectonic plates. That's because they realise they don't know enough for their opinions to have any value and because none of the work such scientists are doing is likely to affect, adversely, their comfortable lifestyles. Climate science is different. If the climate scientists are right, avoiding catastrophic global warming in future will require citizens in developed countries to curb drastically their energy consumption, until such time as most of the world's energy requirements can be met by renewables. Most people, understandably, don't want to have to do this. (I certainly don't and nor do most of my friends.) But nor do people wish to feel guilty about doing things that threaten all future life on our planet. So they clutch at straws, hoping climate scientists are wrong and shooting the messenger.
Climate science is undoubtedly extremely complicated, with myriad factors at work. But as with all matters on which I am not an expert, I am happy to believe the consensus opinion of those who most certainly are. Seeking expert opinion is how the world gets things right. Legal opinions are obtained from lawyers, not journalists; medical opinions from doctors, not taxi drivers; and briefings on the intentions and capabilities of other countries are obtained from intelligence agencies, not engineers. Indeed, not adopting such an approach would be regarded as madness. Of course climate scientists are not economists or politicians. They can tell us what is happening to our climate. They can tell us what they believe the cause is, based on research. They can build models based on their research that forecast what the effect of increases or reductions in greenhouse gases will have, over time. They can advise politicians on strategies to reduce climate change. But they are not generally experts in the art of the possible...what human beings can be persuaded to do, given how much they care. Or, on how fast the renewables industry could replace the oil industry, given the right incentives. The world therefore needs close teamwork between politicians, climate scientists, the renewables industry and the general public, in order to solve the problem of climate change.
It is perhaps worth remembering that the modern world is very different from all previous eras. What made it different was the advent of modern science. The scientific revolution not only vastly increased the extent of human knowledge but it changed how truth was defined. Truth ceased to be whatever the powerful believed, or said others should believe. Instead it became what dispassionate observation and experiment revealed. This is how climate science operates. The basics are not new. Simple demonstrations showing how greater concentrations of carbon dioxide increase the temperature of air exposed to infra-red radiation, were conducted in my sixth form chemistry lessons in the early 1960s! Some journalists, however, continue to express doubts, seeking out the opinions of mavericks, possibly in order to help sell newspapers or possibly to advance the interests of the oil industry.
The Norfolk Climate Change Conference is an opportunity to hear what a range of leading experts from different fields think about these and other matters. It is also an opportunity to reflect on what each of us can do, individually, to help solve the problem of climate change. Whether or not we can readily see how to reduce our personal energy consumption, we can certainly take the trouble to make politicians aware of how strongly we feel about the need to push climate change policies to the top of government agendas. Indeed, as citizens, we have a collective responsibility to do so and that is partly what this conference is about. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it has shown that huge change is possible very quickly, once politicians and the public believe the risks are great enough.
- Geoffrey Smart