Climate Change: It's getting hot in here

Public awareness of climate change is rising. Will 2006 be the year when politicians finally decide to take the issue seriously?
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2005 was the year in which concerns about the stability of the climate regularly made the headlines; 2006 may be the year when demands to do something about it finally become irresistible.

The past 12 months have seen big changes in the political - as well as the actual - climate. Perhaps the Rubicon was crossed when David Cameron was seen with Zac Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist, discussing the ins and outs of global warming. Once the party of big business and anti-regulation, the Tories seem set to outflank a struggling Labour on the issue.

What is so surprising is not just the shifting of the ideological landscape that this implies, but the fact that everyone agrees that it matters. Even as recently as the May general election, climate change barely made a headline. Now Cameron's re-invigorated Tories clearly see it as a vote-winner. Tony Blair, who did so much to put climate on the agenda, but then failed to deliver serious policies to address it, could lose out as a result.

The worldwide day of action on climate change, which took place on 3 December, was a sign of things to come. The London march - which The Independent on Sunday supported - attracted more than 10,000 people, small in comparison with the anti-war protests, but still an order of magnitude greater than anything that preceded it. Just as notable was the fact that protest marches were not limited to countries with established high-profile campaigns on the issue. From Seoul to Istanbul, people turned out as never before - often for the first such demonstration in their country.

The challenge of 2006 will be to translate this increased profile and popular mobilisation into serious pressure on politicians. Still smarting from the backward-looking fuel protests in 2000, UK ministers operate on the principle that any action on climate will, by definition, be unpopular. Hence the continued pandering to motorists, and the refusal to confront the continued growth of air travel, the most climate-unfriendly of all means of transport. Since Labour came to power in 1997, the real cost of motoring has fallen by 7 per cent, while bus fares have risen by 11 per cent and rail fares by 4 per cent. The number of cars on the road continues to grow inexorably.

Overall, UK greenhouse gas emissions are 6 per cent higher. Almost all the progress towards meeting our Kyoto targets has come about thanks to the historical accident of Margaret Thatcher and John Major's programme of closing coal-fired power stations in favour of gas - not something for which Tony Blair can claim credit.

Worse, the Government has caved in to the car lobby and begun to spend colossal amounts on road building. According to the transport campaign group Road Block, more than £3bn will be spent on widening the M1 to eight lanes, while another £1.5bn will be spent on widening the M25 to a Los Angeles-style 12 lanes. Spending on these two roads alone greatly exceedsthe amount the Government invests in its entire climate change programme, including its measly support for wind power and other renewables. These outdated priorities still permeate government thinking. In the Highways Agency press release about the M25, the Transport minister Stephen Ladyman sounded 20 years out of date. "New lanes will help to improve traffic flows," he said, despite all the evidence that building new roads simply encourages traffic growth and worsens the problems of congestion and pollution. The bulldozers will begin moving on both mega-projects in 2006.

Again, the challenge to climate campaigners is clear: the Government must no longer be able to hide behind climate-friendly rhetoric while entrenching patterns of social behaviour that make tackling global warming ever more intractable.

The Government is fond of reviews. It allows difficult decisions to be postponed indefinitely while placating demands for action with warm-sounding soundbites. Climate change is no different. Early in 2006, Margaret Beckett's long-delayed Climate Change Programme Review is due to report, while Gordon Brown's Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change will hand down its lofty decisions in the autumn. Ominously, its terms of reference include indecipherable expressions such as: "... examine the impact and effectiveness of national and international policies and arrangements in reducing net emissions in a cost-effective way and promoting a dynamic, equitable and sustainable global economy, including distributional effects and impacts on incentives for investment in cleaner technologies". Such gobbledegook, in which Mr Brown seems to specialise, gives little hope that the review might come up with anything even vaguely practical.

Ms Beckett's review was launched at the end of 2004 as a way - cynics might say - of distracting attention from the fact that the UK will miss its target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2010 by 20 per cent. Environmental NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and other "stakeholders" were invited to contribute suggestions, in theory showing how inclusive the Government is, but in practice simply adding to the raft of piecemeal and contradictory measures that already make up the climate change programme. More radical steps - such as the environmental writer and thinker Mayer Hillman's proposal for carbon rationing - remain in the political wilderness.

The most controversial review of all, however, is the Energy Review, led by the Energy minister Malcolm Wicks and also due to report some time this year. Despite Mr Wicks's protestations to the contrary, there is widespread agreement that the review is little more than a Trojan horse for the building of a new round of nuclear power stations - not least because of Mr Blair's heavy hints on the issue before the review was announced. Nuclear is now justified on the basis that it generates carbon-free electricity, perhaps the only persuasive argument for taking it seriously, given the multiple other drawbacks varying from radioactive waste to the sheer expense.

But perhaps the most worrying development in the renewed nuclear debate is its vitriolic nastiness. Exchanges between environmental groups and pro-nuclear advocates already resemble trench warfare, with each side betraying an almost religious commitment to its cause. Clearly, any affirmative decision on a new generation of nuclear power stations will split the climate change movement down the middle - with followers of the environmentalist James Lovelock and thoughtful pro-nuclear Tories such as John Gummer on one side, and the more established greens on the other. These are people who desperately need to be working together in a truly broad-based coalition, rather than aiming daggers at each other over which low-carbon technology they prefer. Moreover, in setting up the Energy Review, Mr Blair seems to have got things back to front.

Rather than settling on a target for cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and then trying to figure out how to meet it, he has done the opposite, asking the hapless Mr Wicks to decide between nuclear, wind, coal and gas without giving him any clear idea where we are supposed to be ending up. The only long-term climate target the Government has identified is its vague aspiration to see carbon cuts of 60 per cent by 2050, a target so far off that no minister will lose sleep over failing to meet it.

Margaret Beckett does deserve some credit, however, for helping to steer the Montreal climate talks to a successful conclusion. As a result, a new round of talks will be launched in May to begin tackling the thorny issue of how to involve developing countries in the Kyoto agreement.

Under Kyoto's Phase 1, only industrialised countries took on targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (which many will not meet, but that is another story) in recognition of the fact that, on a historical and per capita basis, the rich world has done the most to create the problem. But with the economies of India and China, in particular, growing at breakneck speed, their emissions too are soaring. Both countries have refused to contemplate mandatory targets, but an agreement just to talk at all is more than many observers were expecting.

One proposal likely to be on the table is "contraction and convergence", a kind of international rationing system where, as the global budget of fossil fuel emissions contracts towards sustainable levels, countries converge to per-capita emissions equality within it. Because all countries would be included in the framework, it would deal with the US objection that developing countries are excluded from taking on targets. And because developing countries will still be allowed to grow until equality is reached, it also addresses the concern of poor countries that they should not remain frozen in poverty as the price for tackling global warming. Colin Challen MP, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change, has introduced a Contraction and Convergence Bill to the Commons. No doubt some government lackey will talk it out as soon as he or she gets the chance - something else to keep an eye out for in 2006.

Montreal was also successful in cementing America's near-total diplomatic isolation on the climate change issue. When the US delegation staged a petulant walk-out during the final hours of the conference, it expected half the world to follow. No one did. Instead of shutting down Montreal, the Americans were shamed not only into returning to the conference floor, but also into agreeing to further negotiations this year.

There are also indications that the US will not be able to evade legal culpability for its emissions for much longer. The Inuit indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic have taken a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, accusing the US of destroying their lifestyle and future through climate change - dramatic signs of which are already evident across the Arctic region. If the commission rules in favour of the Inuit, the US could find itself in the dock at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. However, both agencies work within the framework of the American Convention on Human Rights, which the US has taken the precaution of not ratifying.

So, although a judgment against it would be largely symbolic, the legal action does raise the spectre of future damages claims against the US and its corporations - like those faced by tobacco companies - from people around the world who have suffered hardships as a result of global warming; damages claims which could eventually run into billions of dollars. The tiny Pacific island state of Tuvalu, which has already considered legal action, will be watching carefully. In Tuvalu's case, its physical existence is called into question by rising sea levels - and damages claims for the annihilation of an entire country could prove to be very expensive indeed.

Any legal movement by Tuvalu will also be given added weight by reports of other island peoples already being forced out of their homes by rising tides. In Vanuatu, 100 villagers have been moved inland due to high tides and coastal erosion, while in Papua New Guinea's Cartaret Islands, more than 2,000 people are likely to be evacuated to neighbouring Bougainville during 2006 because of similar flooding problems.

Another lesson of 2005 is that scientists can be wrong about climate change - though not in a way that provides any comfort to the dwindling band of sceptics. For several years, the consensus had been that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet would be a slow process, taking centuries or even millennia. But as Ian Howat, a Greenland expert, explains: "Current models treat the ice sheet like it's just an ice cube sitting up there melting, and we're finding out it's not that simple." Instead, thinning glaciers have been speeding up on the edges of Greenland, dumping more and more melting ice into the sea. Howat estimates that the changing dynamics could "easily cut in half the time it will take to destroy the Greenland ice sheet", suggesting that sea-level rise predictions for this century may well have been underestimated.

Increased melt from Greenland and the rapid disappearance of northern polar sea ice - which also surprised scientists by its extent in 2005 - both freshen the surface waters of the north Atlantic, where sinking cold water is the key driver of the Atlantic circulation, which includes the Gulf Stream. Computer models have long predicted that this freshwater "lid" on the Gulf Stream could cool down Scandinavia and Western Europe by several degrees, the apparently far-fetched scenario behind the disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. On its release, scientists queued up to rubbish its apparent abuse of greenhouse physics. But just a few weeks ago, evidence emerged that the Atlantic circulation is actually slowing down - several decades before anyone predicted. Although it is not yet enough to plunge the British Isles into a new ice age, a recent study suggests that further weakening of the Gulf Stream could lead to average winters becoming like 1962/63, when 10ft snowdrifts buried half the country for weeks on end.

Perhaps the biggest climate surprise of all during the past year was the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Meteorologists had warned for months that the Atlantic was likely to spawn an unusual number of severe storms (a prediction that has been repeated for 2006's hurricane season, which begins in June), but no one could have predicted the worst-case scenario of a near-direct hit by a category four monster on America's most vulnerable city.

Although greenhouse warming undoubtedly gave a boost to Katrina and the other hurricanes that formed this year, this will not help anyone predict where the next storm will be. A warming globe changes the climatological baseline, and it is next to impossible to predict where the next big flood, drought or storm will appear. Even as we shed guilty tears over the faraway victims of global warming, we could be next in the firing line. Who knows? Happy New Year.

Mark Lynas is the author of 'High Tide: How Climate Crisis is Engulfing our Planet', published by HarperPerennial. He is working on a book of climate projections for the 21st century, called 'Six Degrees'.