Are super-hurricanes destined to sweep across the Earth, banishing all but the hardiest life to the safety of the seas? Or will presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao lead civilisation to salvation at the Copenhagen summit? Is there nothing we can do to stop temperatures and sea levels rising dangerously? Or will technology and human ingenuity save the day?
The last few weeks have proved a rollercoaster ride for those of us concerned about avoiding catastrophic climate change. Our high hopes of progress at Copenhagen seemed dashed as governments downplayed the chances of a deal, then rose again as the United States and China announced broad agreement on how to fix things. It's left many of us feeling manipulated: by politicians, by the media, by pressure groups – by our own hopes and fears.
So what are we to make of things? How should we feel about the future? A quick trawl through recent environmental news might point us in the right direction.
There's plenty of bad news out there. We learn that the West Antarctica Ice Sheet is unstable, undermining optimistic assumptions made by bodies like the IPCC. The break up of the ice sheet could contribute to a rise in sea levels of more than 1.4 metres (55 inches) by the year 2100, inundating coastal cities and forcing millions to migrate. We learn of the atmospheric brown cloud caused by millions of cooking fires and its effect in melting glaciers and trapping CO2 – the cloud virtually guarantees temperature rises verging on the catastrophic this century. We hear emails hacked from a university environmental science department are being used to suggest academics are fooling the public and politicians about the extent of global warming, thus undermining negotiating positions ahead of Copenhagen. And we read of permafrost thawing in northern climes, releasing methane into the atmosphere.
But there's good news to counter all this negativity. The melting permafrost is making oil and gas extraction in Siberia more costly and more hazardous, meaning less fossil fuel can be burned and putting the 'peak moment' off a little. For all the huffing and puffing of climate deniers, communities are taking action to stop global warming: communities on Fox Island and the Danish island of Samso, for example. People in the cities of Sao Paulo, Ghent and Hasselt are being encouraged to go 'meat free' once a week, which will help a lot if Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang are right that 51% of greenhouse gases come from the meat industry. And in Lille there's a plan to power city buses through compost.
We hear that the oceans are an effective CO2 sink, but that the increased carbonic acid in seawater is causing shells to dissolve, causing species extinction up and down the food chain.
Which leaves us just where we started, unsure of what to make of things.
Perhaps we shouldn't get carried away with either side. Before we celebrate a new wind farm being built, we should ask when the conventional power station will be closed down. And whenever we lose hope following the latest prediction on how the world will be in 2050, we should remember the crazy predictions the experts of, say, the 1930s had for our own time. (By the way, the 'super-hurricanes' come from Johann Hari's excellent piece showing how things were on Earth the last time it warmed by 6ºC (11ºF) – a time of shellfish and pseudo-pigs.)
All in all, it leaves me not knowing what to think. Numbed by the barrage of information pointing to salvation or catastrophe, it's no wonder many people switch off.
But what about you? Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Have you switched off or are you as confused as I am?