The threat of global warming has become real

Jul 20, 2001 02:00 AM

Five years ago, in a book about global warming, I posed the question "Can civilisation survive?" I genuinely did not know the answer; 1996 was the year before the world agreed to legally binding greenhouse emission targets in Kyoto, and the speed and extent of climate change was still uncertain.
Up to then science and the politics had progressed in tandem. The scientific theory had begun to harden and governments were working out how to turn the green rhetoric of the Earth Summit in Rio into binding agreements.
Climate science was developing backwards and forwards. New discoveries allowed calculations about what the atmosphere used to be like -- examined with the aid of ancient tree rings and ice cores taken from Greenland and the Antarctic. This information and current observations of rising temperatures and greenhouse gas levels were fed into computers to provide ever more sophisticated models of the future.
Politicians groped their way forward. At the Earth Summit in 1992 leaders of the developed world, including George Bush senior, then US president, had agreed to a voluntary scheme to keep greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. It did not work, partly because it was not legally binding so there was no enforcement, and partly because an economic boom in the US meant emissions from the world's largest economy grew rapidly.

The world spent five years preparing for the Kyoto conference in 1997, by which time it had become clear that an international, legally binding treaty was needed. The conference ended in shambles, but at the time it was claimed as a victory. The victory was that the US, the European Union, Japan and the rest of the developed world had agreed to legally binding targets to cut emissions to 1990 levels. Added together, all these countries had agreed to cut just over 5 % from their greenhouse gas emissions by around 2010.
At the time the few details left to be worked out were ignored in the euphoria. What mattered was that the world was tackling climate change, the political will was there. Three years later the new US President, George W. Bush -- ironically the son of the president who signed the original climate change convention with such a flourish in Rio, reneged on the deal to cut US emissions by 7 % by 2010.
After recovering from the shock, the other 169 countries that signed the Rio convention are meeting in Bonn to try to complete the deal that everyone believed was already done in Kyoto. As the politicians have fallen further into the mire and allowed narrow national interests to prevent agreement, elsewhere the world has been progressing.

The scientists, the other half of the equation, have made remarkable progress in predictions and in the certainty of their calculations. There cannot be another field in which experts from so many disciplines have reached such a measure of agreement.
They have not just looked at the temperatures and sea-level rise but such issues as rainfall, wind storms and droughts. The effects on water availability, abilityto grow crops, even such things as glacier melt providing summer water supply, have been minutely examined and calculated.
Tree growth, due to increased carbon dioxide, has been measured against losses caused by excess heat, or forest moving north as the tundra melts. On the whole, the picture is one of increasing and more uncontrollable disasters - almost unmitigated bad news for the poorest and already disadvantaged developing world, and not much better for anyone else.

Once scientists used to refer to the effects of global warming being bad for our grandchildren. Five years ago they began to talk about our children, and now we ourselves are seeing the effects. Last northern winter's floods in Britain were openly ascribed to a change in the weather caused by global warming.
Scientists are saying that this is only the beginning. It will get far worse quite quickly. To be on the safe side we should cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 80 % by the middle of the century to stabilise the climate before things get out of hand. It will get much warmer and the sea level will continue to rise for another 300 years or so because of the melting of the ice caps.
Meanwhile, the politicians in Bonn are squabbling about whether they can get emissions down by 5 % -- and that is without the US, which on its own is responsible for a quarter of all the world's excess greenhouse gases. While the world's leaders have been failing to lead there have been hopeful developments elsewhere.
In the early 1990s, when scientists and politicians were beginning to wake up to the problem, there were headlines about malaria returning to southern England as the temperature warmed, but no one really believed it. The brutal reality of some of the filthy weather that has become commonplace across Europe has changed the public's mind.

Even in the US, which in this sense is a backward country, the connection between the fires of last northern summer, other extreme weather events and global warming has become a topic of conversation. There has been widespread public debate about the wisdom of George W. Bush's repudiation of the Kyoto protocol.
But perhaps the brightest spot in a gloomy picture has been the extraordinary turnaround in the views of big business. With the exception of some US oil companies - with Exxon/Mobil top of the list - the business community is reacting rapidly to the threat of global warming. In the past five years companies such as Ford, BP and Shell have begun to pour billions into research in new technology. Wind power is now mainstream, solar is in rapid development, hybrid cars are on the road.
Cars that run on fuel cells, hydrogen and compressed air are no longer pipe dreams, but are close to mass production. Industry was looking to the Kyoto process and the steps that go beyond it -- targets of 20 % reduction of carbon dioxide by 2020 and more after that -- to push the new technologies forward. Some believe with the collapse of the talks of the past six months the momentum has been lost, but most believe the investment is already too great to be lost now.

So, despite the apparent lack of progress in international agreement and the abject failure of political will, there is an advance and there are champions in unlikely places. But this is not enough. If the scientists are right, then the human race is not running fast enough to escape the calamity it has created. When I asked that question about whether civilisation could survive, I did not know. Now I'm certain that on the evidence, and the appalling lack of political leadership, the answer has to be "no".
Drought, disaster, famine, failure of banks will plunge the world into economic turmoil before we have time to turn the climate juggernaut around. It won't be the end of the world, but it will be a very different place than it is now.

Source: The Age
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