The challenge of global climate change

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
12 August 2003

Western Europe in July and August 2003 has experienced some of the highest temperatures ever recorded. Records have been broken in Germany, France, Britain, and Croatia. Portugal has experienced major forest fires, people have died of heatstroke in Italy, and in France the Beaujolais wine harvest began this week, comfortably beating the 110-year old record for an early harvest.

In North America, especially in Canada, forest fires have also been a major problem. British Columbia has been the worst affected province, losing large tracts of commercial timber in a region already seriously affected by pine beetle infestations. The pine beetle problem is actually much worse than that of the forest fires but the irony is that it is also climate-related – the lack of severe winters in recent years has meant that more beetles have survived through to the following summers.

One effect of the recent northern hemisphere heatwaves has been to make people think seriously once again about climate change, at a time of further evidence that such a phenomenon is already with us – and on a global scale. For while the European media has concentrated on domestic problems, severe weather events have had a much greater human impact in the tropics. In India, this year’s pre-monsoon temperatures were around 49° centigrade and are believed to have killed 1,500 people.

The lesson of Chateau Huddersfield

Detailed assessments using a wide range of methods can now provide a reasonably accurate picture of average regional and global temperatures over the last 2,000 years.

The results show that the last quarter-century has seen an increasingly rapid growth in temperatures, to a point which exceeds the warm medieval period in Europe. Some climate sceptics point to that period, when there were vineyards as far north as the English Midlands, as proof that climate change is cyclical. Recent research suggests otherwise: there may have been major regional “warm eras” in the past, but the current global trend is striking and on a much larger scale than in earlier centuries. Moreover, it is this pattern of global climate change that is really new.

Incidentally, and on a personal note, my family has lived for many years on a smallholding with a couple of hectares of land on the fringes of the Pennine hills near Huddersfield in the north of England. Four years ago, I planted a small vineyard and should get the first harvest this autumn – Chateau Huddersfield perhaps! Well before that, I will be picking sweet corn grown in the open, not under glass. Neither of these would have been possible twenty years ago. Climate change is happening.

In its own way, though, this anecdote is indicative of wider attitudes. In many of the more northerly parts of the northern hemisphere, people actually welcome climate change as likely to make their lives more pleasant – a powerful inducement to inaction for politicians in those countries responsible for the worst of the greenhouse gas emissions. In southern Europe the attitude is rather different, and politicians and campaigners there are becoming desperate for action.

The reasons for this, explored in an earlier article in this series, are rooted in two factors. The first is obvious: poorer countries have a far lower capacity to cope with the effects of the severe weather events that are an associated feature of climate change. Most people affected by hurricanes in the United States will be covered by insurance and will have ready shelter and comprehensive emergency services, whereas people in Central America or south Asia will have little of these protections, so death tolls will be far higher and storm damage more difficult to counter.

The second and much wider factor, though, is that climate change now seems to be having a substantially greater impact on the tropics then was previously thought. Specifically, it is expected to have a profound impact on rainfall patterns, with much more of the rainfall that now underpins agriculture in the humid tropics instead falling on the oceans and in polar regions – and correspondingly less on the tropical land masses.

The implications of this trend are massive. If the tropical land-masses that produce food for the majority of all the world’s people start to dry out, it means that food production will fall and people will become desperate. These are already some of the poorest regions of the world, and little of the investment needed to provide either irrigation or food imports will be available. The end result will be further impoverishment, instability and immense migratory pressures with a huge global impact.

A revolution in attitudes

The impacts of global climate change in poorer areas of the world are therefore hugely significant both in reality and in prospect. There has been no lack of warnings. Meteorologists and climatologists tend to be cautious in their statements, reluctant to make predictions without copious evidence, but one of the significant features of the last couple of years has been the way in which some of the leaders in the field have become more explicit in their projections.

The former chief executive of the UK’s Meteorological Office, Sir John Houghton, recently put it this way:

“As a climate scientist who has worked on this issue for several decades, first as head of the Met Office, and then as co-chair of scientific assessment for the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change, the impacts of global warming are such that I have no hesitation in describing it as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’.” (Guardian, 28 July 2003)

Countering climate change requires three major actions. First, a very rapid reduction in the production of greenhouse gases in the industrial world. The reduction needs to be of the order of 60% achieved within a decade. Second, extensive aid to developing states to ensure that their material progress is accomplished without a deleterious climatic impact. Third, urgent action to assist developing states in ameliorating the current negative influence of climate change.

It seems simple in these bald terms, but these measures would actually represent a veritable revolution in political attitudes and the world economy – one that will not be achieved without a profound change in attitudes.

Thinking for the long term

There are some signs of progress. There have been limited moves towards energy conservation and the increased use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Fuel cell technology may greatly improve energy storage capabilities. But current plans under the Kyoto agreement involve a European Union targeted reduction of 8% and a UK target of 12.5%, whereas the United States – the biggest global pollutant – has simply withdrawn from the whole Kyoto process, and Russia has delayed ratifying the agreement. The action now underway pales into insignificance compared with the scale of what is required.

What could make a difference, and what is needed over the next two to five years is political leadership of the highest order. Difficult decisions have to be taken that will carry considerable short-term costs, but they have to be taken in this decade to prevent quite extraordinary problems over the next two to three decades – problems that will affect the entire world and will add greatly to current socio-economic divisions and insecurity.

It is just possible that this year’s experience in Europe might be enough for people to register the longer-term predicament that faces them. It is certainly an experience that could be used wisely by political leaders to convince people of the need for sustained and radical action. Such imaginative leadership would be immensely welcome in itself; it would also have a significance that is far greater for the future of humanity even than winning the proclaimed “war on terror”.

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