If we don’t contain our CO2, global temperatures will reach a tipping point where any action then will be put beyond the capabilities of civilisation. This is the “Runaway Effect” and signs of its presence are out there. People have never faced the temperatures that they are going to face this century but the last time the planet was a few degrees warmer than now was 125 thousand years ago. So we know the planet can do it, we know that there’s nothing preventing the planet from being warmer. What has happened in science in 2007 has moved outside the range of anything we had in previous models for Climate Change. This tells us that effects like melting Arctic ice, the acidification of the oceans, loss of rainforests and melting permafrost are all feeding extra greenhouse gases back into the system. You know if you want to look at the immediate effects of Climate Change, we are living in a world of Climate Change right now; you go to the Arctic and that’s where it’s happening.
As ice starts to retreat because the oceans warm up a little bit, you get a positive feedback occurring, you get the ice retreats, you get less reflection, you get a dark ocean which is absorbing all the energy coming in from the sun and turning it into heat. Now in 2007 we saw the Arctic summer ice extent drop to 20% below the previous record which had been in 2005. What’s happened in 2007 has probably now moved outside the range of anything we had in our model, that tells you something that the positive feedback is going faster than we thought it might. Another of the effects we are concerned about is the rate of melting tundra permafrost. This is basically a massive, frozen peat bog containing billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas. Now for the first time it’s melting.
The permafrost is obviously starting to breakdown, it’s melting, we’re seeing change, we don’t have any precedent really for this that science can work from, we know there’s a lot of carbon in the permafrost, very old, it’s been there a very long time some of it is in the form of methane which is a very potent greenhouse gas. If these gases are released they could dramatically cut short the amount of time we have left to act. Another big store of carbon is the ocean itself. So far it has managed to soak up CO2 but there are signs this system is weakening. It’s growing more acidic, killing marine life and changing its basic chemical makeup. We will be shifting the oceans simply in terms of its chemistry into a different state than we’ve seen for a long, long time. The ocean’s chemistry is hidden from us but there is no ignoring the tracts of rainforest disappearing on a daily basis. When you get into the tropics I think we are seeing projections from our models that are quite worrying. If the Amazon forest really does dry out, as some models suggest, then the rainforest is probably unsustainable, at least on the area it currently occupies.
The bottom line is it’s still a huge risk factor, isn’t it? I mean if we can’t even tell you how the rainforest in the Amazon will survive, are you going to take the risk? I mean are you just going to go ahead anyway? The risk may make it happen worse than we think but what we already know is bad enough… Perhaps it’s because we take our relationship with the Earth for granted that we are so slow to act. Internationally we are beginning to wake up to the idea that our “business as usual attitude” will no longer work but we need to find ways to translate that into action. We’ve burnt half the oil and gas on the planet and burning the rest at the same rate doesn’t seem such a good idea. In fact in order to avert catastrophic disaster we need fast, immediate and sustained reduction in our emissions changing a life time of oil dependency habits. Is this even possible from where we are now? The whole issue can seem overwhelming, Climate Change can appear just too big to deal with and it’s natural to act with disbelief and denial but Climate Change isn’t something in the future, it’s here.
We may get to suffer storms and droughts but for hundreds of millions in the Third World, Climate Change means crop failure, starvation, flooding, economic migration and refugee camps. For us Climate Change may be a quality of life issue but it’s also now a human rights issue with the developing world paying the price for our lifestyle. We are already seeing devastating cyclones in the Far East, thousands and thousands of Bangladeshis killed there last November. It didn’t really make an awful lot of headlines in the papers. If it had been thousands and thousands of Americans that were killed, it would have made a much bigger impact in the papers and in the media. So we have this imbalance between the poorer people who are the most vulnerable and the rich world, who I suppose have the most money to adapt and to mitigate against the worst excesses of Climate Change. I think the debate will inevitably hot up, the science debate is becoming much more interesting and much more vibrant and it really is heating up. The debate on policy is also heating up.
I think this is very noticeable. There is a groundswell of feeling among people discussing policy measures We must never think it is too late; the thing is that we know that some further change is unavoidable so we have to set ourselves a strategy that will manage the unavoidable but to avoid the unmanageable, if you like. And if we allow temperatures to go too high, if we add too much greenhouse gas to the atmosphere then I fear that we are going to get into the unmanageable regime and we’re then going to be faced with a world that probably would not support the current population on the planet actually. I think there are many people making huge sacrifices already to combat Climate Change and I feel it’s admirable, I feel that they are making a big difference by their examples and they are showing that what they do has an effect.
I think it is colossally unjust that they should be making this effort when swathes of the population get off without even having to bother themselves one bit about the issue and are using this free atmosphere as if it was just theirs for the using. In a sense it challenges us because we can make nice statements about being nice to people in Africa, equity between different countries, sustainable futures for our children but the issue of Climate Change is going to challenge us to put our money where our mouth is. So the science debate is well and truly over and the public debate begins in earnest but we are still far from public opinion reaching the tipping point for action. So much of what we know about this subject is constantly changing and shifting like a moving target. As we enter 2008 we can expect more extreme weather events. By now we should be beyond talk and taking action to solve this problem. Only time will tell if we can do this and it’s only time we don’t have much of.
Even though we’ve made steps towards it, we are not really tackling the issue and there are many people who are in disbelief of any future problems and therefore they are being apathetic and that is not the right way to go. I think we’re closing the gate too late now, we should have been doing this years ago you know what I mean? We are trying to save and people are more interested in saving money I think at the moment. I think it is highly unlikely that we are going to fix anything. The whole world talks about it right, almost the whole world. I’m worried about the increased flooding, I’m worried about my kids’ future; I’m worried about temperatures, fires… There’s more and more forest fires every year and extreme weather conditions, that’s my main worry. Everyone has become more aware of their carbon footprint, food miles and all these kinds of issues but I think more definitely needs to be done. We now know from December’s meeting in Bali and the resulting commitment to urgently look for worldwide solutions that no nation can afford to stand on the sidelines of this issue any longer.