Mankind Is Sleepwalking
To The End Of The Earth
storms and droughts.
Melting Arctic ice, shrinking glaciers, oceans turning
The world's top scientists warned last week
that dangerous climate change is taking place today,
not the day after tomorrow.
don't believe it? Then, read this...
Geoffrey Lean, February 6, 2005
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.
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.
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
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 "dangerous" levels.
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.
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".
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.
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
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
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
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 the meeting.
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.
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.
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).
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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?"
could happen? Wars break out over diminishing water resources
as populations grow and rains fail.
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.
is it? Former UN chief Boutros Boutros-Ghali has long said that
the next Middle East war will be fought for water, not oil.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
could happen? Britain and northern Europe get much colder because
the Gulf Stream, which provides as much heat as the sun in winter,
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.
is it? About evens for a Gulf Steam failure this century, said
scientists last week.
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.
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
is it? Pretty likely unless the world tackles both global warming
and Africa's decline. Scientists agree that droughts will increase
in a warmer world.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 scientists.
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.
is it? Scientists are divided over whether storms will get more
frequent and whether the process has already begun.