Floods, storms and droughts. Melting Arctic ice, shrinking glaciers, oceans turning to acid. The world’s top scientists warned last week that dangerous climate change is taking place today, not the day after tomorrow. You don’t believe it? Then, says Geoffrey Lean, read this…
06 February 2005
Rainfall in the South could drop by half
Apocalypse now: how mankind is sleepwalking to the end of the Earth
Leading article: The world cannot wait
Future historians, looking back from a much hotter and less hospitable
world, are likely to play special attention to the first few weeks of 2005.
As they puzzle over how a whole generation could have sleepwalked into
disaster – destroying the climate that has allowed human civilisation to
flourish over the past 11,000 years – they may well identify the past weeks
as the time when the last alarms sounded.
Last week, 200 of the world’s leading climate scientists – meeting at Tony
Blair’s request at the Met Office’s new headquarters at Exeter – issued the
most urgent warning to date that dangerous climate change is taking place,
and that time is running out.
Next week the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty that tries to control
global warming, comes into force after a seven-year delay. But it is clear
that the protocol does not go nearly far enough.
The alarms have been going off since the beginning of one of the warmest
Januaries on record. First, Dr Rajendra Pachauri – chairman of the official
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – told a UN conference in
Mauritius that the pollution which causes global warming has reached
(Please continue reading below…)
Then the biggest-ever study of climate change, based at Oxford University,
reported that it could prove to be twice as catastrophic as the IPCC’s worst
predictions. And an international task force – also reporting to Tony Blair,
and co-chaired by his close ally, Stephen Byers – concluded that we could
reach “the point of no return” in a decade.
Finally, the UK head of Shell, Lord Oxburgh, took time out – just before his
company reported record profits mainly achieved by selling oil, one of the
main causes of the problem – to warn that unless governments take urgent
action there “will be a disaster”.
But it was last week at the Met Office’s futuristic glass headquarters,
incongruously set in a dreary industrial estate on the outskirts of Exeter,
that it all came together. The conference had been called by the Prime
Minister to advise him on how to “avoid dangerous climate change”. He needed
help in persuading the world to prioritise the issue this year during
Britain’s presidencies of the EU and the G8 group of economic powers.
The conference opened with the Secretary of State for the Environment,
Margaret Beckett, warning that “a significant impact” from global warming
“is already inevitable”. It continued with presentations from top scientists
and economists from every continent. These showed that some dangerous
climate change was already taking place and that catastrophic events once
thought highly improbable were now seen as likely (see panel). Avoiding the
worst was technically simple and economically cheap, they said, provided
that governments could be persuaded to take immediate action.
About halfway through I realised that I had been here before. In the summer
of 1986 the world’s leading nuclear experts gathered in Vienna for an
inquest into the accident at Chernobyl. The head of the Russian delegation
showed a film shot from a helicopter, and we suddenly found ourselves gazing
down on the red-hot exposed reactor core.
It was all, of course, much less dramatic at Exeter. But as paper followed
learned paper, once again a group of world authorities were staring at a
crisis they had devoted their lives to trying to avoid.
I am willing to bet there were few in the room who did not sense their
children or grandchildren standing invisibly at their shoulders. The
conference formally concluded that climate change was “already occurring”
and that “in many cases the risks are more serious than previously thought”.
But the cautious scientific language scarcely does justice to the sense of
We learned that glaciers are shrinking around the world. Arctic sea ice has
lost almost half its thickness in recent decades. Natural disasters are
increasing rapidly around the world. Those caused by the weather – such as
droughts, storms, and floods – are rising three times faster than those –
such as earthquakes – that are not.
We learned that bird populations in the North Sea collapsed last year, after
the sand eels on which they feed left its warmer waters – and how the number
of scientific papers recording changes in ecosystems due to global warming
has escalated from 14 to more than a thousand in five years.
Worse, leading scientists warned of catastrophic changes that once they had
dismissed as “improbable”. The meeting was particularly alarmed by powerful
evidence, first reported in The Independent on Sunday last July, that the
oceans are slowly turning acid, threatening all marine life (see panel).
Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, presented
new evidence that the West Antarctic ice sheet is beginning to melt,
threatening eventually to raise sea levels by 15ft: 90 per cent of the
world’s people live near current sea levels. Recalling that the IPCC’s last
report had called Antarctica “a slumbering giant”, he said: “I would say
that this is now an awakened giant.”
Professor Mike Schlesinger, of the University of Illinois, reported that the
shutdown of the Gulf Stream, once seen as a “low probability event”, was now
45 per cent likely this century, and 70 per cent probable by 2200. If it
comes sooner rather than later it will be catastrophic for Britain and
northern Europe, giving us a climate like Labrador (which shares our
latitude) even as the rest of the world heats up: if it comes later it could
be beneficial, moderating the worst of the warming.
The experts at Exeter were virtually unanimous about the danger, mirroring
the attitude of the climate science community as a whole: humanity is to
blame. There were a few sceptics at Exeter, including Andrei Illarionov, an
adviser to Russia’s President Putin, who last year called the Kyoto Protocol
“an interstate Auschwitz”. But in truth it is much easier to find sceptics
among media pundits in London or neo-cons in Washington than among climate
scientists. Even the few contrarian climatalogists publish little research
to support their views, concentrating on questioning the work of others.
Now a new scientific consensus is emerging – that the warming must be kept
below an average increase of two degrees centigrade if catastrophe is to be
avoided. This almost certainly involves keeping concentrations of carbon
dioxide, the main cause of climate change, below 400 parts per million.
Unfortunately we are almost there, with concentrations exceeding 370ppm and
rising, but experts at the conference concluded that we could go briefly
above the danger level so long as we brought it down rapidly afterwards.
They added that this would involve the world reducing emissions by 50 per
cent by 2050 – and rich countries cutting theirs by 30 per cent by 2020.
Economists stressed there is little time for delay. If action is put off for
a decade, it will need to be twice as radical; if it has to wait 20 years,
it will cost between three and seven times as much.
The good news is that it can be done with existing technology, by cutting
energy waste, expanding the use of renewable sources, growing trees and
crops (which remove carbon dioxide from the air) to turn into fuel,
capturing the gas before it is released from power stations, and – maybe –
using more nuclear energy.
The better news is that it would not cost much: one estimate suggested the
cost would be about 1 per cent of Europe’s GNP spread over 20 years; another
suggested it meant postponing an expected fivefold increase in world wealth
by just two years. Many experts believe combatting global warming would
increase prosperity, by bringing in new technologies.
The big question is whether governments will act. President Bush’s
opposition to international action remains the greatest obstacle. Tony
Blair, by almost universal agreement, remains the leader with the best
chance of persuading him to change his mind.
But so far the Prime Minister has been more influenced by the President than
the other way round. He appears to be moving away from fighting for the
pollution reductions needed in favour of agreeing on a vague pledge to bring
in new technologies sometime in the future.
By then it will be too late. And our children and grandchildren will
wonder – as we do in surveying, for example, the drift into the First World
War – “how on earth could they be so blind?”
What could happen? Wars break out over diminishing water resources as
populations grow and rains fail.
How would this come about? Over 25 per cent more people than at present are
expected to live in countries where water is scarce in the future, and
global warming will make it worse.
How likely is it? Former UN chief Boutros Boutros-Ghali has long said that
the next Middle East war will be fought for water, not oil.
What could happen? Low-lying island such as the Maldives and Tuvalu – with
highest points only a few feet above sea-level – will disappear off the face
of the Earth.
How would this come about? As the world heats up, sea levels are rising,
partly because glaciers are melting, and partly because the water in the
oceans expands as it gets warmer.
How likely is it? Inevitable. Even if global warming stopped today, the seas
would continue to rise for centuries. Some small islands have already sunk
for ever. A year ago, Tuvalu was briefly submerged.
What could happen? London, New York, Tokyo, Bombay, many other cities and
vast areas of countries from Britain to Bangladesh disappear under tens of
feet of water, as the seas rise dramatically.
How would this come about? Ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica melt. The
Greenland ice sheet would raise sea levels by more than 20ft, the West
Antarctic ice sheet by another 15ft.
How likely is it? Scientists used to think it unlikely, but this year
reported that the melting of both ice caps had begun. It will take hundreds
of years, however, for the seas to rise that much.
What could happen? Global warming escalates to the point where the world’s
whole climate abruptly switches, turning it permanently into a much hotter
and less hospitable planet.
How would this come about? A process involving “positive feedback” causes
the warming to fuel itself, until it reaches a point that finally tips the
climate pattern over.
How likely is it? Abrupt flips have happened in the prehistoric past.
Scientists believe this is unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future, but
increasingly they are refusing to rule it out.
What could happen? Famously wet tropical forests, such as those in the
Amazon, go up in flames, destroying the world’s richest wildlife habitats
and releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide to speed global warming.
How would this come about? Britain’s Met Office predicted in 1999 that much
of the Amazon will dry out and die within 50 years, making it ready for
sparks – from humans or lightning – to set it ablaze.
How likely is it? Very, if the predictions turn out to be right. Already
there have been massive forest fires in Borneo and Amazonia, casting palls
of highly polluting smoke over vast areas.
THE BIG FREEZE
What could happen? Britain and northern Europe get much colder because the
Gulf Stream, which provides as much heat as the sun in winter, fails.
How would this come about? Melting polar ice sends fresh water into the
North Atlantic. The less salty water fails to generate the underwater
current which the Gulf Stream needs.
How likely is it? About
evens for a Gulf Steam failure this century, said scientists last week.
What could happen? Food production collapses in Africa, for example, as
rainfall dries up and droughts increase. As farmland turns to desert, people
flee in their millions in search of food.
How would this come about? Rainfall is expected to decrease by up to 60 per
cent in winter and 30 per cent in summer in southern Africa this century. By
some estimates, Zambia could lose almost all its farms.
How likely is it? Pretty likely unless the world tackles both global warming
and Africa’s decline. Scientists agree that droughts will increase in a
What could happen? The seas will gradually turn more and more acid. Coral
reefs, shellfish and plankton, on which all life depends, will die off. Much
of the life of the oceans will become extinct.
How would this come about? The oceans have absorbed half the carbon dioxide,
the main cause of global warming, so far emitted by humanity. This forms
dilute carbonic acid, which attacks corals and shells.
How likely is it? It is already starting. Scientists warn that the chemistry
of the oceans is changing in ways unprecedented for 20 million years. Some
predict that the world’s coral reefs will die within 35 years.
What could happen? Malaria – which kills two million people worldwide every
year – reaches Britain with foreign travellers, gets picked up by British
mosquitos and becomes endemic in the warmer climate.
How would this come about? Four of our 40 mosquito species can carry the
disease, and hundreds of travellers return with it annually. The insects
breed faster, and feed more, in warmer temperatures.
How likely is it? A Department of Health study has suggested it may happen
by 2050: the Environment Agency has mentioned 2020. Some experts say it is
miraculous that it has not happened already.
What could happen? Hurricanes, typhoons and violent storms proliferate, grow
even fiercer, and hit new areas. Last September’s repeated battering of
Florida and the Caribbean may be just a foretaste of what is to come, say
How would this come about? The storms gather their energy from warm seas,
and so, as oceans heat up, fiercer ones occur and threaten areas where at
present the seas are too cool for such weather.
How likely is it? Scientists are divided over whether storms will get more
frequent and whether the process has already begun.