6 July 2012
We certainly live in interesting times. We have a very clear scientific consensus that we are experiencing anthropogenic climate change. This means that Homo sapiens did it (rather than volcanoes or solar flares) and it is the result of c200 years of burning fossil fuels. The scientific consensus is solid and is as good as it gets in a world used to controversy, denial and lobbying by fossil fuel interest groups. The predictions around what this means always sound biblical in that they range over floods, storms, droughts, temperature extremes but reality has the last word and many of these predictions are already happening and this is described in the Guardian article (Suzanne Goldberg, 3rd July). It is now commonplace to be told that very unusual events are becoming quite common and that 1 in 100 year floods are happening at a much greater frequency than expected and that temperatures are higher than recorded before or June was the wettest on record and so on.
High quality scientific analysis has shown that climate change dangers including severe weather events are growing in number and in a highly influential scientific paper Johan Rockström and his colleagues in Stockholm have shown that in climate terms we have already exceeded “planetary boundaries” and are now in a danger zone that threatens the global environment and incurs very severe risks (Note 1).
The global insurance company Munich RE tracks severe weather events and natural disasters and has commented as follows:
"We need to look no further than this past year for evidence showing that climate change is real and continuing. The year 2010 sets the trend towards ever warmer years and ever decreasing ice cover in the Arctic Ocean. Globally it was one of the warmest years since records began 130 years ago. Data collected by Munich Re also show that (after 2007) 2010 brought the second-highest number of loss related weather catastrophes since 1980, when our data series began" (Note 2)
Severe weather events are only one part of the climate change story and important though these events are they should be assessed together with the threat to hundreds of millions of low income people who live in parts of the world threatened by sea level rise, the threat to biodiversity and the loss of coral reefs. Climate change is bad for social justice as well as the environment.
Science does not have the capacity to link specific severe weather events in a direct cause and effect manner with climate change but there are two reasons why we should react to these warning signals and deal with climate change threats:
1 Adopting a legal tool we should take a view on the balance of probabilities and use our judgement to conclude that there is more than enough evidence to be confident that climate change is actually happening and is associated with an increase in the frequency and severity of these weather events. Dealing with climate change (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) gives us a realistic chance of reducing the severity and frequency of these events
2 It’s a win-win situation. Dealing with climate change as a serious problem necessitating co-ordinated interventions across energy, transport, agriculture, industry, housing and planning is more than capable of producing healthier environments e.g. much reduced air pollution as a co-benefit from reducing GHG. Reducing energy use in homes which reduces GHG emissions will reduce energy bills and eliminate fuel poverty. Reducing GHG in the transport sector will necessitate huge improvements in public transport and the re-design of cities to make walking and cycling really enjoyable, safe and friendly. All climate change strategies have widespread and equitable societal benefits.
The not so well hidden secret that lies behind climate change and severe weather events and all the other very damaging consequences of accelerating climate damage is that it is relatively easy to adopt serious GHG reduction strategies that stand a very good chance of heading the problem off at the pass. Climate change is not difficult to deal with and we can produce low carbon or zero carbon futures for transport, housing, cities, regions and energy generation and all of these bring very large co-benefits and reduced risks (e.g. avoiding the risks associated with fracking and nuclear power). They are also fiscally superior when compared to mega projects like power stations, airports, high speed rail, motorway widening and bypasses. These low carbon/zero carbon futures are already being implemented in many places around the world though not in Britain. The city of Freiburg in southern Germany is doing it and the State of Baden-Wuerttemberg, also in southern Germany, has adopted a 90% reduction target in greenhouse gases demonstrating that scientific analysis can be translated into determined public policy implementation (Note 3). There are no financial, technical or organisational problems to hold up dramatic progress; the only obstacle is lack of political will and green politicians at every level are working very hard to inject the right amount of will into the DNA of government. The only thing we have to lose is the increasing frequency and severity of weather events.
Note 1 Ekman, B., Rockstrom, J. and Wijkman, A. (2009) Grasping the Climate Crisis, Stockholm: Tällberg Foundation. Online. Available HTTP:<http://www.tallbergfoundation.org/MOREACTIVITIES/GlobalStudies/Publications/Graspingtheclimatecrisis/tabid/555/Default.aspx Rockstrom,
J., Steffen, et al (2009) ‘Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity’, Ecology and Society, 14, 2:32. Online. Available HTTP:<http://www.stockholmresilience.org/download/18.8615c78125078c8d3380002197/ES-2009-3180.pdf
Note 2 Munich RE (2011) “We have nothing to lose”. Topics Geo 2010http://www.munichre.com/publications/302-06735_en.pdf
Note 3 A full description of how low carbon/zero carbon futures can be designed and implemented can be found in Whitelegg, J (2012) Quality of Life and Public Management: redefining development in the local environment, Routledgehttp://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415509558/