On the general subject of climate change, this assembly invites students to consider how easily we become sceptical, and the effect this might have on the world’s poorest people
Leader: Are you a sceptic?
Maybe you don’t even know what it means. Sceptics sound like this:
Reader 1: I don’t believe what you’re saying. You’ve got to show me the proof before I’ll change my mind.
Reader 2: I’ve got to suspend my judgement about that. Give me some time to commit myself.
Reader 3: Unless you can show me the evidence I won’t support you in your campaign.
Reader 4: Is it really as bad as that? It doesn’t appear like that to me.
Leader: A sceptic is someone who appears to always show doubt about the opinions of others. A sceptic will not follow the crowd or be easily swayed by the majority. A sceptic is an independent kind of person. There’s even an international ‘Skeptics Society’ [NB American spelling]. It was started in 1992 to promote scientific approaches to the world’s problems and resist the spread of pseudo- science. Members of the Skeptics Society insist on the need for evidence and say that any scientific claim must always be provisional because new evidence might easily lead to a different or revised conclusion.
Leader: There’s nothing wrong with being a sceptic if the motive is to ensure that governments and other organisations base their decisions on the best evidence. For instance, a sceptical concern is at the heart of the present enquiry into the Iraq War:
Reader 1: Were the US and Britain justified in going to war against Saddam Hussein because they had hard evidence that he was preparing to use weapons of mass destruction?
Reader 2: Sceptics, including the United Nations advisers, felt the evidence was not certain enough to justify the invasion at the time.
Leader: It’s the same with regard to climate change. In the past few months there have been allegations that the scientific proof supporting climate change is flawed. University researchers were accused of withholding and covering up information that contradicted the view that climate change was real, caused by humans and was potentially catastrophic. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was accused of exaggerating some of its claims. Climate change sceptics were quick to use such incidents to question the validity of all other evidence.
What’s been the consequence of such scepticism? On the one hand there’s been a noticeable rise in public doubt about the issue of climate change:
Reader 1: Can we trust what scientists are telling us?
Reader 2: Do we really need to take such drastic action recycling, cutting down waste and changing our habits?
Leader: Maybe you yourselves have begun to question some of these issues? On the other hand, those with a vested interest in keeping things as they are, such as some hydrocarbon fuel producers and meat producers, have exploited these doubts and attempted to paint a picture in which nothing, or very little, about the way we live needs to change. They try to suggest that climate change is an exaggeration, in order to protect their financial interests.
Does it really matter? Maybe we should wait and see; hedge our bets for a while?
The UK’s Secretary for Energy and Climate Change , Ed Milliband, certainly doesn’t think so. In a recent newspaper interview [http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/31/ed-miliband-climate-change-scepticism] he strongly argued that it was essential that we didn’t allow a few sceptical observations to obscure the overwhelming evidence that global warming is real, its main cause is human and the way to combat it is by reducing carbon omissions. In fact he described the sceptical voices as “profoundly dangerous”. Those are very strong words.
Do you feel in danger from the effects of climate change? Probably not. In the UK we feel more aware of the inconvenience of being asked to change our lifestyle; we hardly feel at risk. In fact there are many who say that it will be rather enjoyable to have hotter weather. It’s not the same for many of the world’s poorest people. They live in parts of the world that are more directly affected by extreme weather events. These range from drought in areas of Africa such as Kenya, flash flooding in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to the shrinking of glacial regions of the Arctic. When the climate begins to change for these people it becomes a matter of life and death as natural resources disappear or are destroyed. They have no resources to fall back on, no alternatives to pursue. They are suffering the effects of climate change right now. There are very few climate change sceptics in Kenya, India or the Arctic.
Response: So how do you feel about the issue of climate change? Are you convinced that there is a real problem that must be addressed now, in order to save your future?
Or are you a sceptic who sits back and says: “Convince me”?
Think of it another way: what are you being asked to do to combat climate change? You know the initiatives in place here in this school. [You may wish to remind students about guidance regarding reducing, recycling and waste disposal.] What do you do at home? Do you switch off electrical appliances and turn down the heating a couple of degrees? Do you do these things?
Or are you a sceptic who sits back and says: “Convince me”?
I don’t mind if you’re genuinely wrestling with the science and trying to understand. But can I suggest you don’t take too long. I make this request, not for myself, not even for your generation who will need to cope with the consequences in the future. Most of all I ask that you take up the challenge to do something to reduce carbon omissions and make careful use of the limited resources of our planet for the sake of those very poor people in our world who at this moment are living, and dying, as a consequence of climate changes that have already begun. They don’t have the luxury of time to consider.
Meanwhile, think about the words of this prayer. Make it your own if you wish.
Dear GodI acknowledge that you’ve given me intelligence to come to my own decisions.May I be clear-thinking and careful in my conclusions.May I think not only from my own perspective.May I have the empathy to think through the consequences for others also.And may I have the courage to act decisively on what I decide.
• The Skeptics Society
• Resources for teaching students about climate change
This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2010
About the author: Brian Radcliffe