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Nature Studies

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Climate change can't be stopped. So adapt to it

Watching global warming negotiations in a Caribbean beach resort when the news from Britain is of deep snow at the very beginning of winter has an incongruous feel about it, to say the least, and it strikes me forcibly, here in Cancun, Mexico, where the UN is holding its latest climate conference, that the number of Britons considering this climate change gubbins to be all a load of old cobblers must, in the last week, have risen appreciably.

I have every sympathy. It seems entirely natural to believe the evidence of your own eyes. I only do not concur because I have learnt the difference between climate and weather – weather's what happens this week, climate's what happens this century – and also because, having now covered the issue in detail for more than twenty years, I am inclined to take a longer view.

I think that putting it forward here, in a column whose principal focus is the natural world, may be excused, as the natural world is just as much at risk as human society from what, should they come to pass, will be savagely destabilising temperature rises. So looking back at home and its early winter whiteout, my sense is that, in so far as it may affect people's views of climate change at all, it merely adds to their confusion; for confusion has been one of the principal legacies of Copenhagen, the previous UN climate conference last December, which crashed and burned.

The failure in Denmark did something just as significant as halting progress towards an agreement on cutting carbon emissions: it exploded the narrative. The "story" of climate change, that it was real and coming, that it was man-made, and that although it was an enormous threat, it could be coped with if only people would put their heads together, had held unchallenged sway for two decades, since the issue first arose.

Now, helped by the pre-Copenhagen offensive from the climate sceptics which resulted in the "climategate" stolen emails affair, and the uncovering of mistakes in the UN's official climate report, people generally do not know what to think; if the world community can't agree on a common position, where are the rest of us? And encountering unusually cold weather, when we are being told, as by the World Meteorological Organisation yesterday, that this is the warmest year ever, gives intuitive force to the doubts.

Yet if the narrative has been shot to pieces, the facts still squat there, bloodymindedly immoveable. We know there is a natural "greenhouse effect" whereby certain trace gases in the atmosphere keep the earth much warmer than it would otherwise be – the science has been well understood for over a century – and that the second most important of these is carbon dioxide, CO2. (The most important is water vapour.)

We know that we are hugely increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by burning oil, gas and coal at an ever-increasing rate – it has been precisely measured since 1958 and has gone in that time from 315 parts per million by volume to 390 ppmv now, an increase of 24 per cent. It is climbing steadily higher.

Take a moment to reflect. Do we really believe that this will have no effect? That this change will be cost-free? If you blow air into a tyre, will it not inflate?

The climate sceptics have had their moment in the sun with the torpedoing of the previous narrative, but they have not succeeded in replacing it with their own – which is that the whole idea is a fraud, a conspiracy on various levels. Some people might think that, but my strong sense is that many more are bemused, and simply do not know what to think.

So here's a helping hand. What do you think really clever people think – people who aren't climate scientists, and who aren't climate sceptics, but who need to know, purely pragmatically (as for multimillion-dollar investment decisions) where the truth really lies? You can find out by looking at last week's edition of The Economist, which some people probably consider Britain's cleverest magazine. (They certainly think so themselves.)

Last week The Economist ran a cover story entitled "Living With Climate Change" which struck me as one of the most notable things I have read about global warming all year. The magazine has no truck with climate scepticism – the future is far too important for nonsense. But neither does it embrace the old narrative, which is that it's real, but if we fight it we can stop it.

Instead, it sets out, quite coldly, a new, third position: it's real, but after Copenhagen, it can't be stopped. With all the world's efforts, here in Cancun, concentrating on halting the warming at a rise of two degrees, widely considered the danger threshold, the magazine quotes Britain's most distinguished climate scientist, Professor Bob Watson, former head of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as saying that the two degree target is "a wishful dream". And then it sets out in detail how we should begin to adapt to what's now inevitably coming.

Make of it what you will. But hey, if you're confused, that's where the smart money is: it's real, it's happening, and we're not going to stop it. And snow in early December won't make a blind bit of difference to that.

An end to abundance – but not to nostalgia

Many thanks to all the people who emailed about the end of abundance in the natural world. The greater part of them were babyboomers, and it's a new realisation, to me at least, that those who grew up in the Fifties and Sixties had other kinds of special experiences in their youth besides sex and drugs and rock'n'roll.