Steve Connor: Climate change is like a disaster in slow motion

Comment

Share
Related Topics

There now seems to be a growing disconnection between the message that scientists are sending out about climate change and the corresponding reaction of politicians and the public. As the experts issue increasingly dire warnings about what could happen to the world's climate system if we don't do something about carbon dioxide emissions, politicians prevaricate, the public becomes more sceptical and we all continue to burn more fossil fuels.

The latest assessment by a team of 31 leading scientists from seven countries presents a bleak vision of the path upon which we are now firmly set. It is the worst-case scenario laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggesting average global temperature will rise by 5C or 6C by the end of the century.

Six degrees may not seem like much – it is the difference between one summer's day and another – but in terms of a global average it is catastrophic. The difference between now and the last ice age, for instance, was just a few degrees, and a 6C increase by 2100 would produce a dramatically different world to the one that humans have lived in since the end of the last ice age.

Global climate change is like a disaster in slow motion. It is as if our brains are not programmed to respond to a threat that could take decades to become real: a smoking gun without a bullet. Politicians have to respond to events on a much shorter timescale which is one of the reasons, perhaps, why the climate conference next month in Copenhagen has been such a difficult deadline for them to work to. Far easier to put it off until the next climate meeting in Mexico, or the one after that.

But as Professor Corinne Le Quéré and her 30 colleagues point out in their scientific paper published in Nature Geoscience, we do not have unlimited time. The longer we put aside action on carbon emissions, the more difficult it will be to keep within the "safe" increase of C above pre-industrial times. If by some miracle we manage to curb carbon dioxide emissions now and reach a peak in production in 2012, we will still need to reduce carbon emissions by 4 per cent per year to achieve the C target. If the peak happens in 2015, we will need to reduce carbon emissions by 5 per cent per year thereafter, and if the peak happens in 2020 the reduction will have to be an almost inconceivable 9 per cent annually.

So the longer we leave it, the harder it will become. That is the simple message to emerge from the scientists who know most about the hugely complicated system that is the Earth's climate. There are huge uncertainties, which are ruthlessly exploited by those who question the relationship between man-made fossil fuel emissions and global warming, or even dispute whether we are in fact experiencing any significant warming. The scientists involved in the present study know full well that these uncertainties may affect their predictions, although not to the extent that the climate sceptics would like us to think.

One of the greatest uncertainties concerns what would happen in a warmer world to the natural "carbon sinks" that absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. All the data suggests that these sinks are more likely to become less effective when temperatures rise. This could lead to potentially dangerous "positive feedbacks" whereby warming temperatures lead to increases in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which lead to even warmer temperatures.

According to Professor Le Quéré and her colleagues, the feedbacks in the carbon cycle have already kicked in. We are now at a dangerous threshold in terms of serious and potentially irreversible climate change. The scientists know it, the politicians should know it. We all need to know it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

£32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

£27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you a recent graduate loo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Irish referendum was the first on the issue of same-sex marriage anywhere in the world  

Don't be blinded by the Yes vote: Ireland is still oppressing its LGBT population

Siobhan Fenton
 

Daily catch-up: union bosses mobilise to try to prevent a Labour government

John Rentoul
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine