As well as the trap of believing that climate change is not certain enough to merit action, we must escape the trap of believing it is too late. The science just isn’t that certain. What, then, for those who (almost) said Copenhagen was our last hope?

Lovelock: It's already too late for mitigation

Of the big names discussing climate change, only one, to my knowledge, has announced that it is too late for mitigation, and that is James Lovelock, who’s most recent book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, argues that we must already look only to adaptation to preserve civilisation. Lovelock, the man behind Gaia theory, is smart and insightful has a good grasp of the facts but he comes from a point of view that some academics (Clapp and Dauvergne, 2005) term “bioenvironmentalist” – broadly speaking it means he puts non-interference in the planet first at all costs. Besides the bias that gives him he is also just one voice of many who put the point of no return at many different levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and we must recognise that this is an ongoing conversation. It will be a long time before despair is certain, just as it will be a long time since a safe future climate is assured.

Many others, however, have argued that the point of no return is now or very, very shortly, including NASA’s influential James Hansen, leading activist Mark Lynas and Guardian journalist George Monbiot. Monbiot led the proverbial charge at Copenhagen and all but made it clear he considered this mankind’s last stand. In one subsequent article he pondered “I wonder whether the government of Denmark, whose atrocious management of the conference contributed to its failure, would have tried harder if its people knew that in a few hundred years they won’t have a country any more” and in another concluded: “Goodbye Africa, goodbye south Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest; it was nice knowing you, not that we really cared. The governments which moved so swiftly to save the banks have bickered and filibustered while the biosphere burns.” Moreover in a recent article reflecting on the limits of achievements so far, despair seemed to be setting in to his rhetoric.

Monbiot: Managing the rhetoric carefully but risking crying "wolf" too often

I said earlier he “all but” claims this as mankind’s last stand. He wisely avoids saying anything that nails him too strongly to such a position, I suspect partly because he understands the science too well to believe that it is certainly too late now, but let this blog make it clear that the uncertainties in climate science make it impossible to make such statements with certainty at this stage. It may even already be too late to prevent a set of planet-warming positive feedbacks, or we may have more time than we think, but these are dangerous risks to be complacent about.

This truth puts Monbiot and the others in the position of gently backtracking from an implication that any one point is now or never. It will be hard call to make for them: for those less masterful in their prose every time they say it, it may be true and they may even believe it, but if they cry “wolf” at every conference or major bill passing then their credibility will go down. Making dramatic predictions at this stage make it harder in five years time when the next battles need to be won. No doubt there will continue to be cases of extreme weather, but these are always impossible to connect absolutely to the climate change, and the scientific community are rightly reserved about doing so (see the work of Roger Pielke Jr.): such an overstatement risks being pilloried.

As a result, the commentariat need to find new ways to persuade the public that the big agreements matter, without making claims they can’t stand by. Like the proverbial poker player, they mustn’t bet their whole hand each time.It’s a hard message to sell – “we need progress because it just might be too late this time, rather than last time or next time”. It will involve the language of risk management, another tough thing to get across when news headlines lend themselves to bold statements. Those are the challenges for talking about climate change when the big steps forward are promised.

Good hunting.