Fiddling while the world burns

You might be forgiven for opening your Sunday newspaper and thinking the world was saved. The announcement from Bali that the international community had agreed a roadmap for negotiations on climate change appears to be a momentous event. On the face of it things look like they’re going in the right direction. Unfortunately, however, the agreement has a long way to go. Essentially the 12,000-strong contingent in Bali had a meeting to agree to have another meeting. There was no explicit statement on cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 as the European Union had hoped. Why? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just won a Nobel Prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change” (

Larsen B, 2002 (Antarctic Peninsula)
Their message couldn’t have been clearer: human activity is having a significant impact on the world’s climate and we risk catastrophic change if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at the current rate. Unfortunately, the world leaders in Bali got bogged down in the politics of negotiation with the result that the weakest possible statement was agreed. I guess this is better than nothing but do the negotiators really understand the science? There still seems to be a misconception that economic activity will not be sacrificed for the environment. If greenhouse gases continue to rise, we will end up spending ever more of our economic activity on patching up the environment (Stern Review). Surely the negotiators understand this? I do wonder. If they did surely there should have been a firm agreement with firm targets for greenhouse gas reductions.

The next meeting of this esteemed negotiating posse will be held in Copenhagen during 2009. The location is fitting. Copenhagen is the home of the Centre for Climate and Ice and their research gives a sobering view of the future that should wake up the most lethargic of negotiators. Here, a vast collection of ice cores have been collected and archived from the Greenland Ice Sheet; the ice cores stretch back year by year some 130,000 years. An important lesson from the past comes from the last warm period known as the Eemian which took place between 130,000 and 116,000 years ago. Because of the changing orbit of the Earth, the Arctic at this time received more heat from the Sun than today. In the central and north Greenland cores its been found that the ice layers from this period preserve snow that was laid down when it was 5°C warmer than now; overall the world average temperature was around 1°C warmer than today. Not only this, but the southern part of Greenland appears to have had little or no ice at this time. The result was a world sea level that was 4 to 6 metres higher than today, This has important lessons for the future. The European Union has set a target that the world’s average temperature must not warm by more than 2°C. This might not sound much but remember that it’s an average. When you consider the regional extremes in temperature and the jump in sea level that took place during the Eemian when the world was only around 1°C warmer, the importance of the European Union target is all too clear.

The need is an urgent one. We’re already seeing dramatic changes. The collapse of the Antarctic Larsen B ice shelf is a strong hint that today’s warming is out of the ordinary. But this is just an opening shot. As we’ve already seen, other dramatic changes are taking place: the Northwest Passage opened up in 2007 for the first time in what looks like 9,000 years; glaciers in the Andes and Europe are falling back to a size not seen for 5,000 years. Meanwhile, temperatures across the northern hemisphere are the highest they’ve been for at least 1,000 years. These aren’t natural changes that can be explained by natural processes. How many Larsen Bs, northwest Passages and glacier collapses do we need before our leaders wake up to the facts? We’ve got a serious problem, it’s here and it’s now. Let’s get a firm agreement on emissions and fast.

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