EVIDENCE : Hurricanes from the petrol pumps

Global warming is indeed to blame for the floods, says David Nicholson- Lord
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The Independent Online
This has been a good week for coincidences. Just as a Commons select committee was being warned that the Lloyd's of London insurance market was insolvent, much of northern Europe was dis-appearing under water. The earth's unstable climate, in short, was back on the agenda.

The flooding in Europe, the worst in some areas for a century, has raised a question by now depressingly familiar to climatologists. Is global warming - specifically the increased turbulence which, according to most models, will result from pumping gas into the atmosphere - to blame? The proper scientific answer is no. The reality is more complex.

Since scientists at the Toronto convention in 1988 suggested a 60 per cent cut in the world's emissions of greenhouse gases - mainly carbon dioxide - little has occurred to upset forecasts of a potentially catastrophic rise of up to 3C in global temperature by the second half of the next century.

Global temperatures continue to rise and the storms, floods, heatwaves and drought consistent with the greenhouse hypothesis still amaze us.

But it is impossible to point to one storm or flood as the consequence of global warming. It probably always will be. This does not prevent you from saying that the longer the turbulence lasts, the shorter the odds - and the greater the need to recalculate them.

The European floods may help in that recalculation. Next month the Climate Change Convention, launched at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and which commits its signatory nations to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, holds its first assessment meeting in Berlin. It will survey a world much changed since 1988.

First, there is widespread acknowledgement, particularly within the insurance industry, that "natural" disasters are increasingly man-made and that global warming is high on the list of suspects: the huge reinsurance bill resulting from storms such as Hurricane Hugo are at least partly responsible for the Lloyd's debacle. Second, most climatologists agree that nothing like enough is being done to curb carbon emissions. And third, the cost benefit assessment of global warming has changed dramatically.

Governments have trodden lightly in trying to curb our appetite for fossil fuels. Voters, it was argued, would not put up with dearer petrol; industrial competitiveness would be damaged. But with the bill for a single hurricane, Andrew in 1992, running at £10bn, such arguments look increasingly threadbare. One recent study concluded that measures to halt global warming would cost 2 per cent of US gross domestic product, but that failure to halt it would cost between 6 per cent and 20 per cent of GDP.

Equally important, policies to curb global warming make growing political as well as economic sense. They create jobs, for example - in anything from planting trees (which soak up carbon) to wind and solar power and energy conservation. In the US the netemployment gain has been put at 3 million jobs. EU estimates suggest that taxes on pollution, instead of taxes on labour, would create 2.7 million new jobs. Merely insulating homes in Britain would generate 50,000 jobs a year.

The row over VAT on fuel gave the impression that energy efficiency means higher fuel bills and not much else. With a Government bent on boosting Treasury receipts at the expense of pensioners this was a reasonable conclusion to draw, but it was the wrong one. Cutting our carbon emissions is not only emerging as the safest and cheapest option for the future. It also means more and better work - not least improving homes instead of mopping them up after the damage.