From the Editors
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has now published
the final version of its latest report. Before it appeared, we were led by
the media to expect major changes from the earlier version. Some saw this
as scientists having to withdraw exaggerated predictions, while others claimed
that the report was being watered down through political pressure. In the
event, while a few details have been altered, the basic message is the same
as before. There is an overwhelming consensus is that the earth is getting
warmer and that the chief cause is human activity, especially our profligate
use of fossil fuels. It is already too late to prevent some serious consequences,
especially in some Third World countries, but if we do not start to act now, the effects
will be that much worse.
Almost the only estimate
in the draft that has been significantly altered is the rise in sea level,
which is now expected to be about half that predicted before. This is the
first time that an important prediction on global warming has been revised
downwards. Generally, as the models improve, the predictions go up. In particular,
the key estimate, the expected increase in average temperature, keeps rising.
As the report is going to be taken as the definitive statement on
climate change for some time to come, it is important to understand that the
‘I’ in IPCC stands, not for international, but for intergovernmental. The
report is based on the work of scientists from many countries, but nothing
could be published that had not been agreed by governments, notably the USA and China, that were anxious to see it watered down.
Fortunately, the science is sufficiently widely known that governments
could hardly demand major changes not supported by the evidence
(Global Warming Is Happening,
SiS 31). They might simply have
refused to sign the report, but the lesson of the Kyoto Protocol is that this tactic too
would have failed: the rest of the world would have gone ahead without them.
While the substance of the report remains the same, there were some
significant changes in wording, mostly to soften the message. For “very likely”, read “almost certain”;
and estimates of the effects of global warming are bound to be very conservative.
But the message is clear enough, and it is getting through. Even
George Bush and the management of Exxon have given up claiming
that climate change isn’t happening. Instead, they are trying to play down
the urgency of the situation and argue instead for measures such as more efficient
automobile engines and technological fixes like mirrors in orbit around the
Earth, anything that will provide an excuse for business as usual.
So there really has been little or no climb-down as hyped by the
‘climate change sceptics’, the official deniers. In the UK, Channel 4 screened a ‘documentary’ The Great Climate Change Swindle by Martin
Durkin, purporting to show that climate change has more to do with sunspots than with carbon
emissions. It met a storm of criticism. Many people pointed out, for example,
that the graphs shown were either out of date or just plain wrong. Durkin’s response was to complain
of censorship, a bit rich coming from someone given 90 minutes of prime time
British TV to make his case.
Similar, though less extreme misreporting has come from other parts
of the media. For instance, the London Sunday Telegraph
carried an article with the headline, “UN downgrades man’s impact on the climate”.
The first paragraph declared: “Mankind has had less effect on
global warming than previously supposed, a United Nations report on climate change will claim next year.” It
is only further down the article that we were told why the human
effect on the climate has been less than expected: serious air pollution has
caused more radiation to be reflected. But
that means our effect on climate change in future is likely to be more than
we would expect from past experience, not less.
The debate over climate change has been won, but only up to a point.
Those with a vested interest in business as usual have not given
up; they have only changed their tactics, and are now insisting instead that
it is neither as serious or as imminent as the climate scientists tell us,
and that the cost of acting now is far too high.
As the Stern Report
Economics of Climate Change SiS
33) clearly demonstrated, however
great the cost of action, the cost of doing nothing is much greater. The challenge
is to convince governments of that, and to get them to put in place the necessary
measures and binding international agreements. When even the Canadian province
of Ontario refuses to take measures to comply with Kyoto because that would
put it at a disadvantage relative to another Canadian province – Alberta -
that shows how difficult international cooperation is going to be. It will
take real statesmanship.
Obviously, the rich
countries will have to contribute more than our proportionate share, to help pay for adapting to climate
change and to help third world countries move directly to low emissions technologies
that are generally more expensive in the short term. In addition, because
our per capita carbon emissions are higher than the world average,
we will have to make bigger cuts. Stern estimated the cost of mitigating climate
change at 1 per cent of global GDP, about a third of the annual growth. That
is not going to have a serious effect on the standard of living of those of
us who are already a lot better off than most of humanity.
One important warning
that has not been sufficiently stressed in the Stern report or by anyone else
is the cost of committing the world to doing the wrong things, as made clear
in ISIS’ report Which Energy?. Our dwindling
resources must be wisely and promptly invested to create a genuinely sustainable post fossil
fuel economy. Time and energy are fast running out, not to mention
the depleted water tables in the world’s major food baskets, which is turning
once productive land into desert. The IPCC’s recommendation of large-scale
expansion of biofuels produced from bioenergy crops, including genetically
modified crops, is a recipe for certain disaster (Biofuels: Biodevastation,
Hunger & False Carbon Credits, SiS
33). Still more ominous
is oil giant BP’s recent buyout of our top universities at bargain-basement
prices to do precisely that (full
story starting p 4). This mad rush to the world’s end must be