The Island of Doubt

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Eighteen years ago British journalist/historian James Burke wrote and starred in a TV documentary on climate change. After the Warming (downloadable version available at Google Video) was presented in the guise of a future historian’s review of the events leading up to a time, in 2050, when the world had come to grips with the consequences of global warming. I gave my copy to a friend in 1994, and have been trying to find another since. This week I finally did. And watching it now is positively eerie. And depressing.

Eerie because it begins by describing things like the “full-scale evacuation of New Orleans” and manages to anticipate the very nature of the debates and the politics that would come to dominate recent years. Depressing because Burke’s vision of the future now seems wildly optimistic.

Sure, some of the science he describes misses the mark. When he was writing in 1989, however, some scientists did actually believe that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouses gases could produce a temperature rise as high as 10 or 15 °F. That figure has now been revised to just 6 or 8. But since then we’ve also learned that the consequences of the lower range could be just as bad as what Burke foresaw almost two decades ago.

Not bad for a production team that included very few scientific advisers, according to the credits, at least. In fact, the only PhD I could nail down was one Mick Kelly of the University of East Anglia. That’s a powerhouse of climate change research, although it would seem Kelly hasn’t produced much in the way of research papers for the past decade.

Burke anticipated conflict in the Persian Gulf over oil, the imposition of inner-city road tolls (beginning in Europe), and the slow reaction of the industrialized world to take the matter seriously. He correctly identified the significance of the puzzle of the Younger Dryas event of 12000 years ago, in which a sudden influx of fresh water into the North Atlantic stalls the thermohaline conveyor and temporarily counters the warming that follows the most recent ice age. (See Gavin’s discussion of the issue just posted at Real Climate). And he nails the likely scale of sea level rise, foreseeing a stablization at just one meter of rise by 2050.

On the other hand, he glosses over the coming battle over reviving nuclear power, describing a scenario in which the entire world abandons the technology after a spate of accidents early in the 21st century; has half the Western world working from home and telecommuting by 2020, and would have us belief that a “Planetary Management Authority” could be overseeing carbon trading and emissions-tax distribution by 2000. His optimism is almost bizarre, from our point of view. But I suppose it’s not that wild, if you assume we only get our act together after a series of devastating droughts and environmental-refugee crises trigger a sea change in public opinion. Which is probably what it will take.

My favorite piece of prognostication, however, comes in a quick reference to the political context of the 1990s:

“Where they got it really wrong was the argument about whether or not the greenhouse effect was actually happening at the time. Which was irrelevant. The question was, what to do about the fact that scientific opinion thought that it would strike sooner or later. Still, for some people that wasn’t good enough reason to spend the money preparing for the eventuality. Even though they paid to insure their lives, their homes and the national defense against much less likely events.”

And a few minutes later, when discussing the fictional period leading up to global action, comes this marvelous piece of insight:

“Why did it take the international community those six years to make up its mind? Because most governments ignored the key fact that the scientists had no doubt that the greenhouse effect would happen. They just didn’t know exactly when and exactly how much. But to most of the world’s politicians, if you couldn’t identify and quantify a problem, you couldn’t do anything about it. So most of them sat on their hands. But to be fair, some action was taken. Reports were written.”

Reports were written. Like perhaps the one in this week’s edition of Science on uncertainty in climate science? Here’s the Live Science story on that particular report:

Allen and Roe caution that the uncertainty inherent to the measure of climate sensitivity doesn’t mean that the conclusions of climate science are uncertain. Scientists may not know the exact amount of warming that will occur, but they are certain that warming will, and is, occurring.

Looks like Burke was right on the money with that one. Except that he thought it would only take six years after the science was in to do something.

There’s a good quality copy available through a slow BitTorrent feed, or you can watch a low-res copy at Google Video. Either way, it’s worth the effort. Running time: 1:45.