The scientific briefing with Miranda Addey
It was the polar bears what done it. Last month the Bush administration finally acknowledged climate change and global warming, no longer able to ignore the polar bear’s plight. The Department of Interior classified the statuesque creature as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. In theory this means the US government must not only find a recovery plan for it, but are also forbidden from “enacting, funding or authorising [actions which] adversely modify the animal’s critical habitats”.
Good news for fighters against climate change, and the battle has an ally in a new UN report, the biggest and most comprehensive of its kind. Compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change it states that there is an over 90% chance that humans have caused climate change, an extreme and dire warning of the consequence of our actions on the world. It says that the process is irreversible and will go on for centuries.
The panel comprises over 2,500 scientists from over 30 countries: not a body to be ignored. It estimates that by 2100 the world will have increased in temperature by between 1.8° C and 4°C. It may not seem much, but the report elaborates on what this means, and it’s not a world you would want for your children. Best case scenario: millions left without water, a third of all species extinct and many places become deserts. Worst case scenario: melting ice caps displacing millions of people and wide scale migration as southern Europe becomes desert. Half of all species become extinct and agriculture collapses in Australia. If temperatures reach the higher end of the increase, life as we know it will fall apart. Food supplies will run out and south and east Asian societies will collapse. Eventually humanity will be extinct apart from a few outposts near the poles. Deserts will stretch across the globe, and the oceans will be stagnant. A bleak future.
With the release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth last December these ideas are anything but new. The fight against this challenge to humanity certainly has supporters. The Stern Report, by economist Sir Nicholas Stern, provides an extra angle on the UN’s report, outlining the benefits of using low carbon technology and refuting the idea that humans are blameless. Unlike the UN report it highlights ways of combating this change, saying that although we cannot hope to affect the next 40 or 50 years, what we do now will have a significant impact in the future.
So how can people possibly argue against all these experts? Can they still say this isn’t happening or that we are not the cause? Yet the deniers are out there, not least some of my fellow physicists. When I brought it up around the physics table there proceeded a long argument as to whether it is human-caused or actually happening at all. Channel 4 has commissioned a show entitled ‘The Great Global Warning Swindle’ which says that man-made climate change “is a lie, the biggest scam of modern times”. Strong words: but is there any truth in this claim?
The main argument is the discrepancies between predicted increases in temperatures and that observed by satellites and weather balloon instruments. This has been refuted by scientists of NOAA, who state that the instruments were in error, not the climate change models. Another argument is that climate change is not man-made, but even if this were true we are feeling the dangerous consequences. It is far more likely that humans are speeding up whatever natural changes are occurring, ending – either naturally and slowly, or induced and quickly – with our ecology being exterminated. The UN report also highlights rising CO2 levels, the quickest rise in the past 800,000 years. The report also goes some way to discrediting the idea that solar activity is the cause of the perceived increase in temperatures.
The greatest challenge to combating climate change is the very essence of the way we live, notably energy sources and the carbon emissions prevalent in our daily routines. The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement calling for cuts in greenhouse emissions and green trading. Many countries have not ratified it, most notably the US. A follow up plan was due for development but stalled in its early stages. Will the new report force countries to commit?
On a more personal note there are initiatives to help us play our part, including carbon foot-printing and Facebook groups started with this in mind. Did you participate a couple of weeks ago when thousands simultaneously switched out their entire electricity supply for five minutes?
Whatever the solution to this devastating trend, Bush’s idea of giant mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays seems desperate. In the face of this crucial struggle, surely prevention is better than cure? Or is it too late?