Tue, Dec 22, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Whither the response to climate change?

As recriminations erupt following the Copenhagen summit, experts sift through the ashes and ask what comes next

THE OBSERVER

THE OVERVIEW

A turning point in human nature

BY COLIN BLAKEMORE

Until this year, if you had said “Copenhagen” to the average scientist, they would probably have responded: “Bohr.” Niels, of that name, was the father of the Copenhagen School of quantum mechanics — a fairytale land in which things could be in two places at the same time, things changed when you looked at them, and cats could be both alive and dead.

Now, the significance of “Copenhagen” might have changed forever — like an electron that has been peeked at. The headlines are screaming about chaos and failure, disappearing island states say they have been betrayed, and even US President Barack Obama admits that a legally binding treaty will take “some time” to achieve. But, depending on the outcome of the political shenanigans, Copenhagen could still be a name as important for environmental science as it already is for physics.

However things turn out, Copenhagen deserves a different sort of credit, perhaps even more significant than a step toward saving the planet. Copenhagen might mark a turning point in human nature: when the global village acquired a global mind.

What we have just witnessed is delegates from 193 countries talking about making sacrifices, slowing development, constraining industry and taxing citizens in a collective bid to stifle climate change. Those nations included virtually every race, every religion, every style of government — from monarchy to dictatorship, from constitutional democracy to communism.

For the past 5,000 years, agreements between nations have been determined by military or economic power, by political ideology or religious dogma. What Copenhagen has established, even if the final agreement fudges and procrastinates, is that a new force is at work in international diplomacy. A force that does not speak in terms of faith and conviction, and that is not even absolutely certain about what it has to say. That force, of course, is science.

Globally, the average temperature has risen by about 0.7oC since pre-industrial times. That’s a statistically significant shift (as the boffins would say), but it is not this evidence that has driven the unprecedented move toward global cooperation in Copenhagen. Rather, it’s predictions of future events — events long after the terms of office of elected representatives and even the lifetimes of monarchs and dictators.

The developing nations are unhappy with the offer of financial compensation from the affluent powers. But the amounts over the coming decades are staggering. All of this, and the policies, laws and taxes that will be needed to implement a real agreement, have been driven by the opinions of people of no specific race, creed or politics and very little personal power — the scientists who have made the doomsday predictions.

What’s surprising about nations acting together to avert a common threat is that it runs counter to so much of what we know about human nature.

A simple interpretation of Copenhagen would say the delegates were motivated by altruism and shared concern, reflecting a dispassionate assessment of risk and rational decision-making. But neither humans nor other animals normally behave like that.

Assisting the survival of others who share your genes makes sense in evolutionary terms. When once asked whether he would give his life to save a drowning brother (who shares half his genetic makeup) the great British biologist J.B.S. Haldane replied: “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.”

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