The most critical day yet for the world's climate

Rainforests will dry up; the polar icecap will melt. The latest predictions for global warming are the direst yet
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The Independent Online

Remember, remember the eighth of November. For last Wednesday may well prove to be the most critical day yet for the world's climate.

Remember, remember the eighth of November. For last Wednesday may well prove to be the most critical day yet for the world's climate.

The day saw both the publication of the most alarming report yet on global warming, and the greatest threat so far to the world's attempts to tackle it.

The report, by the Met Office's authoritative Hadley Centre, revealed research suggesting that the world will warm up far faster, with even more devastating effects, than the direst official reports had predicted.

Meanwhile the inconclusive result of the US presidential election has made it almost impossible that the world's nations will be able to reach agreement on implementing the international treaty on tackling climate change at negotiations opening in The Hague tomorrow.

And what we do know of the election outcome suggests that whoever wins - polluting Bush or "green" Gore - America will refuse to join the treaty and, thus, probably kill it off.

Even before Wednesday's report, the outlook for the world's climate was grim. Global warming, authoritative reports predicted, would bring worse flooding to Britain, deserts to southern Spain and drought to the US Mid-West, the world's bread-basket, which helps to feed 100 countries.

The Great Barrier Reef and other reefs all over the world would die. The Alps would change shape as glaciers melted. Tropical diseases would spread to Western Europe. Island nations and much of Bangladesh, Egypt and coastal China would disappear beneath the waves.

But the new research makes even that look mild. For the first time, the Met Office scientists have calculated how the world itself will reinforce global warming, greatly speeding it up. For, they have discovered, as soils warm up, they will themselves release carbon dioxide - the main cause of the climate change - to join the gas emitted by pollution. And as vegetation dies in the heat even more carbon dioxide will be emitted. As a result, the scientists say, climate change will accelerate, becoming more than 10 times faster over the next century than it has been up to now. The Amazonian rainforest will turn into dry savannah, they say; the North Pole icecap shrink - in 80 years - to a couple of large floes.

Their broad conclusions are endorsed by a massive draft report which has just been sent to the world's governments by the official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which brings together the work of 3,000 of the world's top experts in the field.

This marks a significant moment in the scientific debate. The attention of governments (particularly those that want any excuse to avoid action) has centred on a noisy dispute between the great majority of scientists, who believe that global warming is taking place, and a few dissidents who deny it. But there has been a much more significant , if unnoticed, division - between the majority on the panel and a large minority who believed that the earth would heat up much faster than officially predicted.

Now both debates are being resolved. The sceptics are gradually capitulating. And the panel is accepting that the pessimists look like being right.

You might think that in the face of such an increasing scientific consensus - and its dire conclusions - that the world's governments would be rushing to outdo each other to beat back the global warming threat. Think again. Even before last week's US elections, they were mostly competing to see how much they could drag their feet.

So far only one weak, non-binding treaty - agreed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit - is in force. Under it, rich nations are supposed to stabilise their carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels. In fact the US has increased them by more than 10 per cent, the supposedly green Norway and Canada by nearly 15 per cent and Australia by more than 20 per cent.

Only the EU is achieving the target and that is largely down to big reductions in Britain and Germany. But even these are the fortuitous by-products of other policies - closing coal mines in Britain and abandoning inefficient industry and power stations in the former East Germany.

Thanks mainly to efforts by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Michael Meacher, the Environment minister, backed by some top-level lobbying by Tony Blair, the world agreed a tougher treaty three years ago in Kyoto. It is only a first small step, which would cut emissions by 5.2 per cent instead of the 60 per cent scientists say is needed. But it has not yet come into force, and is now in grave danger.

Britain and Germany, again, have led the way, doing more than their share and introducing positive clean-up policies. But most other governments have sought to avoid their commitments, exploiting - and working to widen - every possible loophole and concession in the text.

The talks opening tomorrow are, says Michael Zammit Cutajar, the treaty's executive secretary, a "make or break attempt" to firm it up. If they fail, many industrialised countries may well walk away from it, leaving it to die.

Even under Bill Clinton, the US has done more than any nation, with the possible exception of the Opec countries, to undermine the treaty.

George W Bush has openly opposed the Kyoto treaty. So perhaps we should hope that Al Gore, avowedly the greenest of world political figures, makes it. Perhaps. But the Vice-President has done little to act on his beliefs over the past eight years. As the two candidates look desperately towards Florida, is it too much to hope that they will remember that the state could be one of the first places to disappear under the rising seas?