'If we fail to act, we will end up with a different planet'

A A A

One of the world's leading experts on climate change has warned that the Earth is being turned into a "different planet" because of the continuing increase in man-made emissions of greenhouse gases.

In an interview with The Independent, Jim Hansen, who was one of the first scientists to warn of climate change in scientific testimony to the US Congress in 1988, claimed that we have less than 10 years to begin to curb carbon dioxide emissions before global warming runs out of control and changes the landscape forever.

Last year, Dr Hansen, director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, part of Columbia University in New York, complained that Nasa public relations officials appointed by the Bush administration had tried to gag him by limiting his access to the media. But in talking to this newspaper he was outspoken, warning that there are already worrying signs that global warming is beginning to trigger dangerous "positive feedbacks" within the climate, which can accelerate the rate of climate change.

Dr Hansen said: "We just cannot burn all the fossil fuels in the ground. If we do, we will end up with a different planet. I mean a planet with no ice in the Arctic, and a planet where warming is so large that it's going to have a large effect in terms of sea level rises and the extinction of species."

Positive feedbacks in the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere are already starting. One is the loss of sea ice, which means less sunlight and heat is reflected back into space, making the Arctic even warmer. Another is the release of methane from the frozen tundra. Methane gas is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, Dr Hansen said.

"The greatest concern is that positive feedbacks at high latitudes do in fact seem to be coming into play. We can't just let those feedbacks get out of control or we will have passed a tipping point," he said.

"If we go another 10 years, by 2015, at the current rate of growth of CO2 emissions, which is about 2 per cent per year, the emissions in 2015 will be 35 per cent larger than they were in 2000. But if we want to get on a scenario that keeps global temperature in the range that it's been in for the last million years, we would need to decrease the emissions by something of the order of 25 per cent by the middle of the century, and by something like 75 per cent by the end of the century."

The continuing rise in carbon dioxide emissions and average global temperatures is on schedule to cause the eventual collapse of the ice sheets on both Greenland and the west Antarctic, with a catastrophic rise in sea levels.

"If we follow business as usual, and we don't get off this course where year by year we're getting larger and larger emissions of CO2, then we'll have large sea-level rises this century and I think that will become more apparent over the next decade or two," Dr Hansen said.

"The last time it was 3C warmer, sea levels were 25 metres higher, plus or minus 10 metres. You'd not get that in one century, but you could get several metres in one century," he said.

"Half the people in the world live within 15 miles of a coastline. A large fraction of the major cities are on coastlines. And the problem is that once you get the process started and well on the way, it's impossible to prevent it. That's why we need to address the issue before it gets out of control."

Many species of animals and plants are not going to cope with rising temperatures, which are causing isotherms - lines of equal temperature - to travel polewards at the rate of 50km a decade, compared with the average rate of species migration of 6km per decade.

"Those species at high latitudes have no place to go to. Many of them will be in trouble. They will effectively be pushed off the planet," Dr Hansen said.

Dr Hansen, who last year received the WWF Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal, said that although he is now free to speak out, many other US government scientists feel gagged.

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people
News
people
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes