THE THREAT OF CLIMATE CHANGE (Michael Meacher, 2002)
Meacher, Minister of State for the Environment in the British Government from
1997 to 2003,
wrote about the threat of climate change in the Guardian newspaper on the 16th
of May, 2002.
In that article, he identifies the real worries
about climate change: that "the impact of climate change ... could be sharper
and faster than was previously thought", that "the process of climate change may
turn out to be ... unpredictable and unstable, with potentially catastrophic
consequences in the long run", and that "If we do not act quickly to minimise
... runaway feedback effects, we run the risk of making this planet, our home,
uninhabitable". Notice the 'U' word "uninhabitable".
This is where the real threat lies!
Now read on ...
The global warning Bush must heed
THE US HAS TO REJOIN THE CLIMATE TALKS IF DISASTER IS TO BE
Thursday May 16, 2002
The latest scientific evidence already
suggests that the impact of climate change on the UK could be sharper and faster
than was previously thought.
Already 1.8m residential properties in
England and Wales are currently at risk from flooding, as are 1.4m hectares of
agricultural land. And if we don't build climate change into our flood defence
plans, we can expect a 65% increase in river flooding and a four-fold increase
in coastal flooding in the second half of this century.
But what is not realised is that the
process of climate change may turn out to be much more unpredictable and
unstable, with potentially catastrophic consequences in the long run. Many
people imagine that temperatures will rise slowly but evenly, so that Britain
will gradually take on the same warm temperatures as the Côte d'Azur -
Manchester on the Riviera. It may well turn out to be disastrously different.
That is why I am so disappointed that this week the US refused
to reconsider coming back into the climate talks for 10 years. The need for
action is urgent. The acknowledgment that there is a problem is welcome but the
response is not adequate. There are two strong reasons for doubting the
comforting US picture that there's plenty of time to deal with the problem. One
is that climate change may be not steady but abrupt; the other is that the
pressures we inflict on the climate may trigger wholly unexpected developments
from feedback effects.For the past 400,000 years, for which data exist from
drillings in the Antarctic ice sheets, the Earth's ecosystem as measured by
atmospheric carbon levels has been relatively stable throughout the ice age
cycles. However, the present emission of carbon is already too high for the
planet's self-regulation to cope, so it is frightening to think what might be
the effects if global carbon emissions increased multifold during the next
century or two.Abrupt climate change occurs suddenly when the climate system
is forced to cross some threshold into a new regime, creating widespread havoc
and destruction. Ecosystems could break down suddenly, decimating wildlife and
allowing diseases such as cholera, malaria, dengue and yellow fever to spread
out of control. Grasslands could dry out and turn into dustbowls, whilst forests
are extinguished in huge fires.But is such an apocalyptic scenario likely to happen? The US
National Academy of Sciences recently noted that abrupt changes in climate, the
effects of which may be very long lasting, have occurred several times in the
past 100,000 years. Given that the burning of fossil fuels is expected to double
the carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere this century (unless the world
takes decisive action to stop it), scientists predict drastic effects.The UN intergovernmental panel on climate change, underpinned
by thousands of scientists worldwide, has forecast that global average
temperatures will rise by between 1.4 to 5.8 degrees centigrade by 2100. That
may not sound much. But it is worth remembering that the last ice age, when much
of the northern hemisphere was buried under an ice-pack thousands of feet thick,
was triggered by a fall in temperature of only some five degrees centigrade. The
UN study predicts that a temperature rise of up to 5.8 degrees could melt the
glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet, cause a seawater rise which could submerge
island nations and low-lying countries, generate massive forest dieback, and
accelerate species extinctions. But even this has now been challenged as too
limited as it used static models which excluded the feedback between climate and
biosphere.The Hadley Centre of the UK Met Office has now tried to
correct this with a three-dimensional carbon-climate model. This shows that as
feedbacks kick in, perhaps as little as 20 years from now, the Amazon forest
begins to die back as it warms and dries out.Even this more alarming model still does not contain the full
range of possible feedbacks. It omits, for example, the release of methane from
melting permafrost as well as oceanic deposits of methane hydrates. It omits,
too, the climatic effects of human-induced land use changes, in particular
deforestation and massive displacement of people through agribusiness.
But the findings are stark enough to warn us clearly about the
consequences if we do not fundamentally alter our social and economic behaviour.
We do not have much time and we do not have any serious option. If we do not act
quickly to minimise these runaway feedback effects, we run the risk of making
this planet, our home, uninhabitable.
Michael Meacher is environment minister and MP for Oldham West and Royton.