Will the Sky Fall in? Global Warming-An Alternative View

Article excerpt


Peter Mitchell (2008) has recently suggested in this journal that the world is facing a 'catastrophe' due to anthropogenic climate warming. Mitchell divides his commentary into two parts, and asks two key questions: what is the role of the archaeological community and individual archaeologists in this impending catastrophe and, how will this affect our day-to-day practice? I support most points in the second part (see Rowland 2008) but offer some alternative perspectives to issues raised in the first section of Mitchell's paper. There is a multiplicity of dimensions to the debate about 'global warming' (also referred to as 'enhanced greenhouse warming', 'human-induced climate change' or 'anthropogenic warming'), including the socio-political milieu, the climate science itself and resulting government policies and guidelines. Archaeologists/anthropologists have a role to play in each of these areas; in particular the longue duree of the archaeological record can provide some fresh insights, a point on which both Mitchell and I agree. Where I differ from Mitchell is that I see a need to refocus the debate toward issues of sustainability and away from the current over-emphasis on global warming.

The socio-political milieu

In the fable 'The Sky is Falling', an acorn falls on Chicken Little's head, who decides to tell the king, also persuading others along the way of a looming disaster (Thomhill 2002). The generation of fear has been used by many societies to promote political, religious and environmental causes. In recent forms it has transformed into a sometimes near-hysterical belief that some sort of disaster is almost always imminent (Bourke 2005; Booker & North 2007; Gardner 2008) coupled to a view that nearly everything turns out better than anticipated (Wilkinson 2007). Recent fears included those of nuclear obliteration or communist domination and the Y2K bug, but a more likely scenario is that a density dependent disease might kill millions worldwide (Roberts 2008).

Booker and North (2007) demonstrate that most 'scares' follow a predictable pattern. A threat to human welfare is exaggerated beyond uncertain scientific evidence in collaboration with the media. A tipping point then occurs when politicians marshal the machinery of government in a disproportionate regulatory response which is difficult to alter until contrary scientific evidence becomes overwhelming. The global warming debate has many characteristics of these earlier 'fear campaigns'. There is no dispute that climates have changed in the past and will continue to do so in the future. In fact global climate stasis would be unique. Debate will continue, however, on the extent of human impact on climate change. Hulme (2008) has demonstrated how language itself has generated a climate of fear about climate. There is therefore a need to develop a more nuanced approach to the socio-political milieu in which the debate is occurring before using the label 'catastrophe'. This applies also to climate science itself.

Those in denial, who it might be said are motivated more by conviction than evidence, and sceptics, who are more concerned with aspects of the science, have contributed strong views to the global warming debate. Some scientists over-reacted to criticism but others now seem to be offering a more considered response. For example, while the evidence for warming has progressed since the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007), there is now an open recognition of weaknesses in the data and the need for further studies (Stott etal. 2010). It is also satisfying to note that media and political foci have shifted in recent months to population issues (e.g. the Rudd government in Australia for the first time appointed a population minister in April 2010), though at this stage the debate remains unsophisticated with much emphasis on 'boat people' with racial overtones. …