Is environmental damage in the eye of the beholder?

Is environmental damage in the eye of the beholder?

by Martin Livermore
article from Wednesday 23, May, 2018

OVER more than a decade the Scientific Alliance has tried to provide a voice of reason on some important matters, often being critical of mainstream environmentalism, but hopefully supported by evidence. When it comes to something as important (and divisive) as climate change, for example, there is a very fine line to tread in keeping people reading. Preaching to the converted is ultimately futile, but engaging with the undecided, lukewarm or agnostic can help to open minds.

The fact that such pieces have continued to be quite widely read I hope means that the balance is about right. Even with this in mind, it is difficult to get approval from fellow sceptics while not alienating those who subscribe more closely to mainstream views. For me, sceptics is a word that I see in a very positive sense, all those who claim to be scientists should act as professional sceptics.

There are others whose faith will never be shaken by reasoned criticism. They are best described as Deep Greens, and for them protecting species other than our own and minimising human influence on the environment has effectively become a religion. Moderate environmentalists will hopefully continue to influence policy more than such extremists.

The environmentalist movement is in essence a campaigning one, so strong and eye-catching messages are the norm. It is easy to forget when we hear a stream of what is wrong that, by and large, the environment is now much better cared for than a few decades ago. Many of the issues highlighted in the early days of Greenpeace have now been incorporated into mainstream public policy.

Admittedly, a number of wildlife species are under pressure, often still because of changes to how we manage landscapes. Evolving arable and livestock farming are perhaps the most important factors in this overall, but it is easy to forget that farming in any form has transformed landscapes worldwide. Forests have been cleared, but this has created habitat for a wide variety of other flora and fauna.

The fall in numbers of farmland birds is often highlighted as a problem, but we are in fact comparing current numbers with those nurtured more intensively by earlier forms of farming, not with the relatively low biodiversity levels in the ancient woodlands cleared by our ancestors to provide farmland.

The very concept of environmental damage is to an extent in the eye of the beholder. What we should more accurately talk about is environmental change. Whether or not we find such changes to our liking is a matter of choice, although this does presuppose that any changes do not wipe out other species or, say, create deserts.

Politicians continue to at least pay lip service to big environmental issues, the overarching one at present being climate change. However, it is difficult not to think that the international effort to control climate – including the Paris agreement – is losing momentum as the sheer difficulty of slashing emissions without compromising our way of life becomes increasingly apparent.

The rhetoric from both Greens and politicians will remain essentially unchanged, but climate change will continue to drop down the list of priorities for the great majority of voters. At some stage, a breakthrough in energy generation or storage technology may provide an economic and secure way to decarbonise economies, in which case societies will undoubtedly follow that route. Oil will not continue to be the mainstay of the global economy ad infinitum.

But, barring that, words will continue to speak louder than action. China and India will not compromise their economic growth in the name of reducing global emissions. Action in the USA during this presidential term will be largely from the private sector (and therefore necessarily economically viable) and even the EU cheerleaders will probably disappoint campaigners by the (voluntary) action they take under the Paris agreement. In a decade or two, whatever has been achieved will probably still be claimed as at least a partial triumph for environmental activism even if (as I think likely) temperatures continue to rise more slowly than the models predict.

Martin Livermore is director of the Scientific Alliance

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