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Below a small article (slightly edited) I submitted to 'Planners' Newsletter', an e-mail forum
within Shell up until 2004.


Climate Change and the parable of the Boiled Frog

(by Evert Wesker, 10/8/2000)

The boiled frog

Many of us know the parable of the boiled frog. A frog dropped in water too hot to live in will quickly jump out of it. However, if you put a frog in cold water and warm it slowly it will stay in so long that, as soon as it finds out that the circumstances become hazardous, it is already in such a bad shape that it is no more able to escape from its hyperthermic demise.

Politicians are often quite similar in behaviour. They can respond to disasters quite well but are in general not good in anticipating actions to avert disasters. Let me give an example from The Netherlands. From about 1930 onwards water engineers warned that dykes along the estuaries in the SW of The Netherlands were too low. Their warnings were ignored. Then tragedy struck. A mid latitude storm, with a strong NW gale sending a 3-4 m storm surge into the estuaries of the SW of The Netherlands, caused widespread flooding on 1-2 February 1953, and 1850 people drowned. After this the decision was quickly made to build De Deltawerken, a massive system of storm surge barriers and strengthened (and higher) dykes. In the late 1950s and early 1960s this already was a multibillion Dollar project.

A more recent example of this nature is the attitude of Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa. This is a well educated politician, with relatively little of what I call ‘partisan small-mindedness’. In spite of this, he seems unwilling to accept the linkage between HIV infection and AIDS, an undisputed fact by a vast majority within the medical world, while South Africa is facing an impending human tragedy and an all out (demographic) disaster.

Human activity induced climate change

From these examples I jump further to the issue of ‘possible human activity induced climate change’. Here the issue is more remote. We are not yet able to quantify the consequences, but these could be dramatic (see my contribution to Planners’ Newsletter published in the February 2000 issue: "The climate at the end of the 20th century. Human influence without control?"). In this case there is not only unwillingness to consider the issue, there are even organised attempts to deny that it is an issue altogether.

As an exemple see http://www.uwsp.edu/geo/courses/geog100/globwarm-educ.htm, which contains a leaked memo from the American Petroleum Institute.

‘Not finding out the truth about the climate change issue’ and ‘raising doubts on it in order to be able to go on doing business as usual’ are the objectives of the API. From this a picture emerges which bears much resemblance to the tobacco industry, which has been denying correlations between smoking and lung cancer for a long time, even when the evidence was overwhelmingly present. It is striking that the non-US oil majors, Shell and BP, are no part of "The Global Climate Coalition". They have taken a different position in the Climate Change debate.

When do politicians act?

But then I come back to the question: What to do to make politicians act?

Organisations like Greenpeace try it with a ‘scare them to death’ strategy. This has a severe drawback. If the announced disasters do not occur (e.g. most of the major hurricanes stay out at sea) it can backfire on them. Secondly, one should be wary of making statements which may simply be wrong. E.g.: the statement that there is a correlation between the temperature on earth with the severity of mid-latitude storms, which get their energy from contrasting temperature air masses (baroclinic instability), may well be wrong.

This is why I am not talking about hurricanes, storms, etc. That is the ‘small summertime newspaper’ (in Holland we say ‘komkommertijd’) stuff. I am talking of sudden step changes in the climate, which are capable of moving precipitation patterns to different places of the World. Shifts which turn cereal and corn belts into semi-deserts in a couple of decades. These are, if they occur, just like the AIDS pandemic: disasters in slow motion (from the human time frame point of view), taking 20 years or more. (From a geological time frame point of view these are changes at lightning speed.)

And this is where the problem lies. It is rather naive to think that an average politician will act on a threat so far in the future, which at present can not yet be precisely substantiated. Many politicians do not have a time frame beyond the next election anyway. Here lies the challenge: how does one get these frogs, sitting in their warm water pools, moving? That will take leaders with a ‘Nelson Mandela-like tenure’. Why? Simply because average politicians proposing unpopular rules won’t be (re)elected. This is quite similar to a dilemma in the corporate world. A good long term strategy will be good for the bonus of your successor(s), while scoring in the short run (even possibly at the expense of the long term) is good for your own bonus. In politics it is not different.

New rules are needed

Anyway, whatever the size and importance of the national state in future, (new) rules will be needed to tackle the climate change issue; rules within a framework of international institutions. Rules which will encounter fierce opposition from various vested interests (like oil producing states and the above-mentioned API). It may take a while before some (essential) leaders with a ‘Nelson Mandela-like tenure’ emerge, capable of making and passing these rules.

In the meantime, the best that (meteo) scientists in this field can do is provide all information from their work to the public and keep their independence with respect to vested interests like the ones (the API) I mentioned above.

And the best what can be done (by engineers in industry), in my opinion, is to make feasible and sustainable energy options available on a large scale. Secondly ‘out of the box’ options like ‘don’t sell gasoline, but car miles’ (Lease out cars in such a way that the customer pays per mile driven, thus creating a big incentive to increase their fuel economy) might be considered. This idea was mentioned in an issue of the magazine Green Futures recently.