Nature Studies: Here’s what you can do about climate change

Since 2000 we have seen four out of the five wettest years ever

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Nature has been at its most astonishingly severe in recent weeks. The Thames valley has been flooded to an unprecedented extent, the Somerset Levels seemingly a permanent lake, winds of more than 100mph ripping through communities in Wales and Northern England. Looking on all this, there may have been a thought flickering around the back of your mind, especially if you’ve been one of the victims: this is not normal.

It was certainly a thought that occurred to me over the weekend, as I watched the Thames water thundering through the arches of the bridge at Richmond, Surrey. A colossal mass was hurtling down the river at a speed I had never seen. It was like spring meltwater in a mountain torrent. Not normal at all. And here’s another thought which is doubtless already flickering around a few minds more: Is this is climate change coming in, then?

The short answer is that no one can say for certain. It’s difficult to link climate change to specific weather events. Perhaps, as a climate-sceptic like the former chancellor Lord Lawson would insist, it’s just winter.

But it’s all a bit off the scale, isn’t it? And the longer answer is, that researchers have been telling us for 15 years, since the first country-specific predictions of climate change impacts were produced by super-computer models, that for Britain, this is what global warming would look like: not so much sweltering – more like sodden.

A warming atmosphere carries more water and more energy, and more intense rainfall has always been right at the top of the future climate predicted for the British Isles, stuck as we are at the end of the conveyor belt of Atlantic depressions.

Events in the past decade have strongly borne this out: since 2000 we have seen four out of the five wettest years ever recorded in the UK, and you will no doubt recall some of them. Summer 2007, when Tewkesbury was an island – remember that? –  was the wettest summer ever witnessed, until summer 2012, which was even wetter. January 2014 was the wettest-ever January. June 2012 was the wettest-ever June. And so on.  Two years ago, in a report on all the risks from climate change facing Britain, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was specific: of several hundred threats analysed, the most severe was not drought, or old people dying in heatwaves, but flooding. And here we are two years on, with large parts of the country under water. We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

For those, then, who may for the first time be having that nagging thought, what if this climate change gubbins is real, after all?, and who may be posing the consequent question, well, is there anything we can do about it?, I will fill you in briefly on where the world is in its formal attempt to counter global warming, which has been going on for nearly 22 years, since the UN Climate Convention was agreed in 1992, but which has very much dropped out of the news.

There are three things to bear in mind. One is a date: November 2015. Another is a place: Paris. And the third is the name of a meeting: COP 21. A COP is a Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention, and this meeting, the 21st of these conferences, will be where the world tries to stitch together a new agreement to get climate change under control. 

It is intended to be a legally-binding accord under which nations will commit to cutting back the carbon emissions which are causing warming. Crucially, it will, for the first time, cover the three biggest CO2 emitters, China, the US and India, who between them emit nearly half the total.

The last meeting, COP 19 in Warsaw last November, was beset by squabbles between the rich developed world and the developing countries about who should do what; the next meeting, COP 20 in Lima, Peru, later this year, will be a stepping-stone which may be no better. But everything will hang on COP 21 in Paris in 21 months.

Britain in the past has taken a lead in the international climate negotiating process, but climate-sceptic elements in the Tory party may make this less likely. (Though in 2015, of course, we may have a different government.) So if you want to find out where your own MP stands, why not send him or her an email, and ask? Especially if you’re looking at the water lapping around your front step.

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