Getting warmer, but still a long way from our goal

The Kyoto Climate Talks
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The Independent Online
One of the greatest journalistic satisfactions is to find out you are right after making predictions in print, even when they are other people's predictions. But I have never known if I have been right in writing dozens and dozens of articles over the past nine years on the threat of global warming. Worse still, there is a chance I will not know for another dozen years, perhaps more. That is an uncomfortable feeling.

True, the climate seems to have started changing already due to humanity's intervention in the atmosphere. But we cannot be sure. Furthermore, the credible forecasters in this business (the climate scientists, as opposed to the greens or their opponents) tell us that we probably won't have significant, harmful change until a couple of decades or more into the next century - and that it will keep on changing after that.

But current science still allows the possibility that the changes will be minor and even benign on the whole. My nightmare is that 10 years from now no one talks or cares or negotiates about global warming. That it will be seen as a silly millennial fad, blotted out by genuine global environmental crises such as water shortages. Twenty-first century hindsight may find us having had our eyes on the wrong ball.

There was a bitterly cold snap soon after The Independent was launched in October 1986. That prompted my first story on climate change, speculating on the possibility of a new Ice Age. I had not even heard of man-made global warming, although a few hundred scientists and environmentalists scattered thinly around the world were already taking an interest. The idea of a new Ice Age was still in vogue at the time, for, in the normal, natural course of events one could come along sometime in the next few thousand years.

Soon afterwards I learnt how the emissions from burning coal, gas, oil and forests could trap heat in the atmosphere, and so began writing the odd global warming story. Then, at the end of 1989, Margaret Thatcher made a speech on climate change which put the issue on the political map. In the US, they had a freakishly hot summer and a rising young senator called Al Gore took an interest. By the end of 1990 the bandwagon was really rolling, and it was during that year that governments decided they should negotiate a climate change treaty through the United Nations.

They had one agreed in time for the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, but it was a mouse of a treaty. The Framework Convention on Climate Change gave a legal definition to the problem and asked developed countries to volunteer to stabilise their rising annual emissions at the 1990 level by 2000. The majority failed to hit this target; those that succeeded did so only by accident of economic decline or of policy changes unrelated to global warming.

Clearly another treaty was needed - one which really did stop greenhouse gas emissions rising with each passing year, accelerating the rate of climate change. That was what could and should have been negotiated in Kyoto. But it was already pretty clear, months before delegates from more than 150 countries arrived in Japan for 10 days of intense, against-the- clock negotiating, that this was not to be.

Meanwhile, the science of climate change has become stronger and deeper over the past seven years. The supercomputer models of global climate have simulated changing temperatures and rainfall more and more convincingly. Globally, the1990s have seen the warmest years since worldwide records began more than 100 years ago. And, though the uncertainties remain large, and will stay that way for years, an impressive scientific consensus has emerged. Climate change has begun or, to use the cautious, painstakingly negotiated words of the Science Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate."

I was at the meeting in Madrid two years ago when they came up with that phrase, and it honestly was a thrilling moment - although my excitement was admittedly intensified by being the only British journalist there.

To see opinion swing around through the 1990s has been fascinating, and often thrilling. This is a subject on which presidents and prime ministers have been phoning each other in the middle of the night over the past few days. An issue that was once the concern of only a few hundred people now engages millions who think that, even in spite of the uncertainties, we need to reduce the risk of catastrophe and start slowing climate change now.

Along with leading politicians, every kind of expert and lobbyist and pundit now has an angle on climate change: economists, biologists, geographers, media commentators. It has been fun to watch the doubters of the right wing think-tanks and the fossil fuel lobby shift their ground. First they said the science was baloney. Then they said the warming was so uncertain it was too early to act. Then they said that it would probably work out cheaper to do nothing about cutting emissions, and adapt to a changing climate when it came.

Seeing the failure to take decisive action in Kyoto over the past week, however, has not been at all thrilling. The contrast between ministerial rhetoric and the hard bargaining behind closed doors is an unattractive spectacle. Years ago, in the fairly early days of global warming, I guessed that nothing which really attacked the problem would be done until well into the next century. It was a gloomy bet, but a pretty safe one. When it comes to acting now to tackle an uncertain problem which lies years in the future, and when that action involves national interests and difficult changes, and when the problem is so global that most of the160 very different nations have to agree on what to do, decisiveness is hard to come by.

Kyoto is not the end of the road. Within a few years another treaty or an annexe will have been negotiated, and probably condemned for not doing enough. I just hope I make it compos mentis into my seventies, around 2030, enough time to find out for sure whether our predictions were far- sighted, or misconceived.

If we prove to be right, let's hope a few of the doubters are still alive so we can tell them this. To the executives of Exxon (Esso as they are known in Britain) and those of Mobil Oil, to the Australian Government, the Global Climate Coalition, the Republicans in the US Senate, the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain, and to all you others who did your best to stop a decent, effective treaty being negotiated in Kyoto: you self- interested, reckless fools.