Climate change: time for action

Today, protesters unite in 30 nations - this is what lies ahead if nothing is done



Warmer sea water means there is more energy to power hurricanes, and the computer-predicted increase in such "extreme events" with global warming seems to be coming true. Hurricane Epsilon, currently raging in the Atlantic, is the 26th named storm, and the 14th named hurricane of a record season in the US. These storms are getting more violent. An even more sobering glimpse of the future was given by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 which killed 11,000 people and left three million homeless in Honduras.


Although many of the effects of global warming will be felt by developing nations, rich countries will not escape. Acute heat episodes will become frequent and kill many. In the heatwave of August 2003 in western Europe - confidently attributed by scientists to climate change - 35,000 old people died, more than 18,000 in France. Heat will not be the only problem. The World Health Organisation fears that global warming, with its heavier rainfall, could lead to a major increase in insect-borne diseases in Britain and Europe such as malaria, Lyme disease and encephalitis, and has called for urgent government action to prevent it.


In the coming century, global sea levels are predicted to rise by up to three feet, threatening regions at or below sea level, such as Pacific islands, much of Bangladesh, the Nile delta in Egypt, the Netherlands, and even East Anglia and the Thames estuary in Britain. Storm surges - like that which drowned more than 300 people in eastern England and 1,800 people in the Netherlands in January 1953 - are likely to be much more frequent and catastrophic. The population of Bangladesh will double as its land surface halves.


Polar bears may be the first spectacular casualties as the ice of the Arctic Ocean, on which they depend to hunt seals, is rapidly melting and will probably all be gone by mid-century. But Britain itself is already feeling the problem: we are losing to rising temperatures not only the cod in the seas around our coasts, but also the small fish such as sandeels on which seabirds depend to feed their young. Last year in the Northern Isles, Orkney and Shetland, hundreds of thousands of birds such as guillemots and arctic terns failed to breed for lack of food.


Drought will be much more common. In the drylands, rain will be even less frequent, while some parts of the world that are temperate will become arid: central Spain may be desert-like by the mid-century. And it is not only rain that will fail. Glaciers are shrinking. Lima, with seven million people, depends for half the year on water from the Sullcon glacier in the Andes, which has retreated by 30 per cent. Himalayan glaciers which feed the river Indus, the source of much of Pakistan's water, are also shrinking.


The hundreds of millions of people living in the world's marginal agricultural lands, such as the countries of the Sahel region, already face a desperate daily struggle to grow food. All their energies are consumed in the effort to produce a harvest of a staple crop such as millet. As global temperatures rise, this struggle is likely to become impossible as more frequent and longer droughts make crop-growing unviable. In poor tropical regions, the increased storms predicted from climate change will be an added threat. The terrifying images of African famine are as nothing to what will come.


What's predicted is terrible enough. But it is what's not even on the radar that some scientists fear most of all - the possibility that global warming might bring about some sudden, extreme and devastating climatic phenomenon that we cannot yet even imagine. The climate is a complex system, and we know that complex systems, when subject to stress, can collapse - it happens on your office desk when your computer crashes - and the global climate is now being subjected to stresses that have never been put on it before. Last year's global warming disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow tried to show this with the northern hemisphere freezing solid in a matter of weeks. Most people dismissed it as far-fetched, but something just as catastrophic may be out there, not far in the future.

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