Much to my surprise, I love America. We spend a lot of time in Britain bitching
about America, Americans, Americanisms and of course the American administration.
It’s very easy. But whenever I come here, I find some things very comfortable
– familiar, even. Part of it is the universal acceptance of things we
try to fight in the UK. Bad TV constantly in the background in bars and airport
waiting lounges. Overly enthusiastic customer care in shops and hotels. Massive
corporate chains, cars and food portions. All these things are just part of
America. No one seems to prickle when they walk into a Starbucks. It’s
I also like the belief that it’s my god-given right to be whomever I
want, do whatever I want, change the world, fuck the world, create my own world.
Whenever I come here I return to Britain inspired, fired up, ready to follow
my dreams, do the impossible, be that person and create that job. Back in Britain,
it’s good to be comfortable, secure, following an accepted path. It’s
good to be content with who you are, where you are. There is merit in that too.
Britain has its advantages. A good cup of tea is common, delicious and properly
made, scallops are served with the orange bit as well as the white, marmite
is a sensible spread for toast, museums and art galleries are usually free,
it is relatively easy to see a doctor and not be charged for it and the majority
of the population is suspicious of, and a little uncomfortable around, overt
nationalism. In addition, Christianity is not referred to either as the Truth
or a worrying extreme right wing movement and there’s no problem with
Darwin being buried in Westminster Abbey.
On the flip side, our shops close around the end of the working day and sometimes
never open at all on a Sunday. Late night licensing has only just been introduced
but many pubs still ring the bell at 11pm. And brunch, frankly, is a disaster.
Why have Brits not woken up to the profitable luxury that is brunch? Last Sunday
I had a divine crab and avocado benedict at my friend’s restaurant
but it needn’t be so fancy: good coffee, juice, various egg dishes, pancakes
or waffles, and plenty of time for refills and hangover recovery are, I think,
the main ingredients.
I did laugh during brunch though when my friend’s six year old daughter
pointed to her plate and asked, “Mama, are these potatoes organic? I hope
so cos otherwise we’d be eating Darth Tater”. Visit StoreWars
for clarity on this, it’s worth it. The day before, in the same town,
we went to see a Truckers Parade. Only in the US can I imagine having so much
fun watching multiple lorries driving past decorated to the nines with fairy
lights, Rudolphs, flashing candy canes and extra large Santas ho ho ho-ing.
I like the diversity of this country: the organic-food movement coexisting with
On a more challenging note, I have found myself caught between two visions
of America, and the world, that are impossible to reconcile. The primary reason
for my visit to the States is the annual meeting of the American
Geophysical Union in San Francisco. This is a huge and well respected affair:
twelve thousand people, disciplines ranging across all the geosciences, five
days of simultaneous poster and oral sessions from 8am to 5pm. The thing that
strikes me is that while the debate on the street still seems to be “is
climate change happening,” not once do I hear that asked inside. To these
scientists, the critical questions now are how climate change will come about,
what the implications are and what processes might be implemented that could
make the change slightly gentler. What changes are we already observing, what
are the models predicting, how accurate are they and what areas need particular
Some of these discussions happen in fields close to my own but most range
into places that interest me greatly but travel beyond my full comprehension.
The conference includes geophysicists, atmospheric scientists, climatologists,
chemists, biologists, physicists, geologists and mathematicians to name a few.
Hot topics include simulations which use super-computers to model everything
from molecular processes to the entire global climate. There are also results
from field experiments taking place everywhere from the tropics to the poles,
and covering land, forest, ice, ocean, desert and cities. Big picture, tiny
picture, theoretical, experimental, diverse interdisciplinary studies: each
one dedicated to understanding one particular aspect of the world a little better.
If I manage to follow the introductory slide and conclusions of a talk outside
my field then I walk away having learnt something. I trust that other experts
in the room will challenge the presenter if any of his or her arguments are
fundamentally flawed. It interests me to discover what the salient points are,
where the areas of debate still lie, and what the different disciplines are
concerned by. I realise that I trust the scientific method and I trust the people
presenting this material even if I don’t entirely understand their work.
Perhaps it’s because I received a scientific training. I prefer to think
that it’s because that training showed me how the scientific method works
and I have been convinced by many of its merits. I believe that this method
is, on the whole, applied ethically and responsibly across all of the disciplines
I have been listening to. And so, ultimately, I have been convinced that climate
change is a reality we will face during the next few generations. In some hot
spots around the world such as the antarctic peninsula and the arctic, we appear
to be observing its effects already.
The scientific community is convinced of the reality of human-induced climate
change. We do not know how it will manifest itself, as the world is an extremely
complex place with many interactions and feedback processes that we don’t
understand. This is what the current science is focusing on, this is where debate
lies and these are the aspects where experts disagree. It is the nature of scientific
interrogation to debate and question, and hence all the more convincing that
the overwhelming majority of the scientific population agrees that climate change
is a reality. (This isn’t that uncommon though: gravity and evolution
are generally accepted theories these days too.) The question, “how am
I supposed to know what to think when the scientists themselves seem to disagree?”
drives me up the wall. Of course they disagree, but it’s the detail, not
the general trend, that is being argued about. That’s how we find stuff
So, what is my challenge? Well, I am wondering: What more scientific results
could be discovered that would make any substantial change to public opinion
or policy? Although I see the validity in more science being done, including
more extensive simulations of climate change that in turn require more field
data, it seems to me that the real work now has to be in public education and
Do we need to explain the scientific method better? Do we need to explain climate
change better? It would be a start if we could get the main points across, and
increase the public trust in science in general. Without public concern, policies
won’t be changed, as the timescale for effect is much longer than a goverment
term. Without policy change, the climate system will be pushed extremely hard
and extremely quickly and none of us can say for sure what the result will be.
What we can say is that no one has yet come up with a model that predicts that
all will be just fine.
Part of what I love about America is its boldness. Part of what I hate is its
belligerence. How can scientific argument turn things around so we make bold
steps in a different direction?