Whoever said global warming was dead?

October 18th, 2010 by Martin Rees and Anthony Giddens

Our core scientific findings remain intact.  But there are opportunities in that inconvenient truth.

This year there have been outbreaks of extreme weather in many regions of the world.  No one can say with certainty that events such as the flooding in Pakistan, the unprecedented weather episodes in some parts of the US, the heat wave and drought in Russia, or the floods and landslides in northern China, were influenced by climate change.  Yet they constitute a stark warning.  Extreme weather events will grow in frequency and intensity as the world warms.

The Rocquaine Bay sea wall on Guernsey's west coast collapsed during the storm of 10 March 2008 (click image to expand)

No binding agreements were reached at the Copenhagen climate change summit last December.  Leaked e-mails between scientists at the University of East Anglia, claimed by critics to show manipulation of data, received a great deal of attention – as did errors found in the volumes produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Many newspapers, especially on the Right, have carried headlines that global warming has either stopped or is no longer a problem.

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that the core scientific findings about humanly induced climate change and the dangers it poses remain intact.  The most important fact is based on uncontroversial measurements: the C02 concentration in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for at least the past half-million years.  It has risen by 30 percent since the start of the industrial era, mainly because of the burning of fossil fuels.  If the world continues to depend on fossil fuels to the extent it does today C02 will reach double pre-industrial levels within the next half-century.  This build-up is triggering long-term warming, the physical reasons for which are well known and demonstrable in the laboratory.

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the USA show that 2010 is set to be the warmest year globally since its records began in 1880.  June 2010 was the 304th consecutive month with a land and ocean temperature above the 20th century average.  A report produced by NOAA last year analysed findings from some 50 independent records monitoring temperature change, involving ten separate indices. All ten indicators showed a clear pattern of warming over the past half-century.

A renewed drive is demanded to wake the world form its torpor.  The catastrophic events noted above should provide the stimulus.  The floods in Pakistan have left some 20 million people homeless.  Pakistan cannot be left to founder -world leaders should accelerate the current discussions to provide large-scale funding for poorer countries to develop the infrastructure to cope with future weather shocks.

The USA and China are far and away the biggest polluters in the world, contributing well over 40 percent of global emissions.  The EU is pursuing progressive policies in containing the carbon emissions of its member states.  Yet whatever the rest of the world does, if the USA and China do not alter their policies there is little or no hope of containing climate change.  The USA has four percent of the world’s population but churns out a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions.

A stretched Hummer in Capitola, California (click image to expand)

With or without federal legislation, the USA must assume a greater leadership role to curb climate change.  President Obama should reassert that containing climate change is one of his Administration’s highest priorities.

China’s leaders show increasing awareness of how vulnerable their country is to climate change, and are investing in renewable technologies and nuclear power on a substantial scale.  However, its carbon emissions are steadily increasing.  China has the right and the need to develop, but its leadership should formulate plans that show how the country intends to move away from its high-carbon path and then open them up for international scrutiny.

Above all a renewed impetus to international collaboration is required.  The meetings of the United Nations in Cancún this December carry little promise of initiating policies on the scale needed.  The USA, China, and the EU and other large states such as Brazil and India, with due attention paid to the interests of smaller nations, should work together to try to introduce a greater sense of urgency into the process.

Finally, limiting carbon emissions will not happen solely through regulation and target setting.  Innovation – social, economic and technological – will be central.  Enlightened business leaders should step up their attempts to this end.  The rewards, after all, are huge.  The actions needed to counter this threat – the transition to a lifestyle dependent on clean and efficient energy – will create new economic opportunities.

This article was published originally in The Times on Wednesday 13 October 2010.

Lord Rees of Ludlow is Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and President of the Royal Society.  Lord Giddens is former director of the LSE, a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and author of The Politics of Climate Change.

  1. No Comments

Have your say