Recipe for disaster

Post-Copenhagen, it's clear that logic alone won't save us, writes Kevin Fong

December 31, 2009

Here we go again. On the last Saturday before Christmas, doing battle with the hordes on Oxford Street, I found myself pausing next to my trusty friend, the three-for-two book pile in Waterstone's. Patting it admiringly, I thought that this might have to be the year to do it all in a one-stop-bookshop and turn up at my in-laws looking like a mobile library for gift-wrapped texts.

It was all going so well, and then I began to stall. Gift buying, even in this target-rich environment, needs focus. The first mistake, then, was the decision to download a bunch of podcasts about the Copenhagen fiasco (to keep me company while I shopped), an event that seemed to less resemble an international climate summit than it did the Edinburgh Fringe. The punchlines to many of the gags are still slightly lost on me.

Account after account of unfulfilled climate-policy ambition pumping through my headphones started to interfere with the critical gift-decision process. I found myself hoarding armfuls of books about the end of the world - hardly the sort of reading that goes well with mulled wine and mince pies. So I recalibrated my sights, got the celebrity chefs in my crosshairs and moved off with new purpose.

One podcaster, when asked who he thought the villains of Copenhagen were, stated emphatically that it was the Danish police, at whose hands he had suffered a bit of a duffing up. (Now, I'm big enough to admit that my wholly inadequate knowledge of geography left me, momentarily, wondering what Danish policemen were doing in Copenhagen in the first place. That's the problem with having studied astrophysics - great in four dimensions, rubbish in three.)

It was all getting too much; the constant stream of disappointment in my ears was forcing me off mission - onward I strode to join Jamie, Nigella and their celeb-chef author mates. But in among the neatly stacked pyramids, I found a book by a lesser-known chef with a recipe for Turducken: a turkey stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with a duck, with the suggestion that the whole thing is best prepared by the method of deep frying.

I couldn't help thinking that when archaeologists of the far-flung future pick over the remains of our civilisation, this - along with the Jedward single - will be seen as evidence of the Caligulan depths to which we had descended at the start of the 21st century.

So my take-home message from COP15 is simply this: we're screwed. Those who choose not to recognise anthropogenic global warming for the potentially catastrophic threat it is won the day. And all they really need to do to continue to win out is chuck enough garbled chaff into the air to cloud the issue and provoke indecision among governments until it is too late.

This, I've come to realise, isn't about the strength of the scientific evidence itself, of which there appears to be plenty enough to convince me. It's about people not liking being told what to do or what to think; it's about how bad our politicians are at fostering trust and how challenged scientists are when it comes to communicating scientific fact; it's about how awful we are as a species at understanding long-term risk, and how the global trend towards goldfish-like media attention spans frustrates our attempts to deliver complex and detailed arguments.

In this context, it is folly to hope that inductive reasoning and Occam's razor are all we need to win the day. Neither is it useful to adopt the attitude that failure to understand the power and beauty of the scientific method is emblematic of one's status as a complete frikking idiot. This is Earth, not Vulcan; it's going to take more than logic alone.

The Christmas list on this one is long: it includes proper leadership and statesmanship, functional international climate-change summits and a properly funded science and engineering base capable of tackling the issues and communicating them more effectively. In short, it's going to take more, a whole heap more, than we collectively already do. A recession, as Gordon Brown once said, is no time to slow down our investment in science. And as generous as the Government has so far been, it really needs to dig deep again. Sadly, with the recent news of research council budget shortages and science programme closures, I hear no sleigh bells ring. The science we do is the science we need; it is a necessity not a luxury, now and for the future. One day, someone in the Treasury will understand that.

I have hoped and continue to hope that a significant head of state somewhere might someday have the balls to get up and identify this for what it is; to put their money where their mouth is and challenge their nation, and therefore the world, to meet this, the greatest challenge that faces us. Copenhagen saw every significant head of state comprehensively fumble that opportunity.

On to the next podcast and more of the same. At Christmas, the season of hope among other things, I was struggling to find inspiration among the cookery books. So I turned my attention instead to the section on travel; to find something uplifting to read, something filled with more promise, perhaps something about Mexico ...

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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