Climate change is perhaps the most important issue of our time and undoubtedly involves complex science, geopolitical implications and subtle moral and ethical arguments. Owing to its inherently interdisciplinary nature, it is impossible for any one person to be an expert in all the relevant fields. So Rule 9 of being a PI applies here: the more difficult something is to understand, the easier it is to pretend to others that you understand it.
Climate change will be brought up in conversation in one of two contexts: (1) someone decides they are a denier after reading an article by Freemon Dyson, Bjorn Lomborg or some other twonk; or (2) someone argues that we should be doing more to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Luckily a very small amount of factoids will cover you in both instances.
First off you need to get used to mentioning the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and their Fourth Assessment Report (2007). Rule 7 of being a PI is that acronyms are worth double the value of actual words; but Rule 7 subsection 7.2 notes that further expanding the acronym if someone asks you what it means, is worth double that value again. Don’t read the report but tell people you have and that it contains all the information they need to learn more about climate change — don’t worry, you won’t get caught out because they won’t read it either. Rule 18 of being a PI is one of my favourites and is relevant here: it’s not who’s read the most things, but who’s heard of the most things that should be read.
The tricky bit is memorising the following technical phrases which can be jumbled around a bit and if deployed will exude the sweet, false odour of erudition: solar forcing (the sun getting hotter or something), aberrant volcanic activity (volcanoes pumping bad gasses into the air) — actually that’s about it. Then you can just say that all the factors which are known to have affected the climate in the past can be ruled out today, leaving only human industrial activity and our production of CO2 and other gasses like methane (always say “and other gasses, like methane” even if you don’t know any others). Then explain that simply cutting emissions is futile and that we need larger interventions (throw in “carbon sequestration” and “geo-engineering”). This will show that you are gravely concerned, but it will also absolve you from actually doing anything unpleasant like protesting about emissions targets.
This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.