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Sequential satellite images of the breaking up of the B15A iceberg in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica in 2003.  Images NASA.

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Now it is up to the world's political leaders to deliver more than hot air

The Independent, 3 February 2007

The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), unveiled in Paris yesterday, is humanity's loudest warning yet of the catastrophe that is threatening to overtake us.

The report makes the link between human behaviour and global warming explicit, and spells out the consequences in stark detail.

The public appetite for serious action is growing.  The scientific case for action is beyond doubt.

The tone of the report is significantly bleaker than in 2001.  It says a rise in temperature is now irreversible. A lag in the global climate system means that average temperatures will continue to rise by 0.1°C a decade, even if all sources of emissions were frozen today.

The IPCC report also identifies various "positive feedback" effects such as forests, oceans and the soil becoming less able to absorb carbon dioxide.

The ground underneath the climate change "sceptics" has disappeared.  All conclusions based on scientific evidence are provisional.  But this report is about as close to certainty as any scientific model is likely to get.  Even the US, which has long played up the uncertainties of climate change science, has begrudgingly signed up to its conclusions.

Reports from the IPCC due later this year will analyse the impact of climate change in further detail.  But we already know well enough what this will be.

Unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we will face a world of resurgent disease, famine and drought.  Water supplies will dry out; agriculture will fail; entire ecosystems will collapse and millions of environmental refugees will be created.  War and geopolitical collapse are likely to follow.

We also know what needs to be done.  There must be a global treaty on reducing emissions that will put a high price on carbon emissions and it must be enforced through taxation and fines. The problem is not one of information, but action.

Not enough is being done.  Negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto protocol have stalled.  Much has been made of President Bush's recent State of the Union speech in which he acknowledged the threat of climate change.  But the culture of denial still persists in the United States.

It has come to light that one of the world's largest oil companies, Exxon Mobil, is attempting to bribe scientists to pick holes in the IPCC's assessment.

And even President Bush's admission is not what it seems.  The solutions he has touted do not include a new global treaty, suggesting a lingering refusal to accept that global greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced only when the world reduces its fuel consumption.

When pressed to introduce radical measures, the politicians of the developed world usually argue that they can push their electorates only so far; that the pace of change is ultimately dictated by the public.  But how true is this?

In the UK, householders succeeded in cutting their carbon emissions by 4.6 percent in 2005.  But carbon emissions still rose overall, thanks mainly to increased aircraft emissions.  This suggests that while the public is prepared for tough measures, our government is lagging behind.

This pattern is being replicated abroad.  It is remarkable how many businesses are responding to public concerns over climate change by "going green".  Even a company as rapacious as Wal-Mart recognises that its customers want action.  Lee Scott, the retailer's chief executive, announced this week that "we see sustainability as mainstream".  Indeed it is.  We can safely assume that unless businesses saw a commercial imperative to go down this route they would not be doing it.

The public appetite for serious action is growing.  The scientific case for action is beyond doubt.  Unless the world's political leaders deliver more than just warm words this year, they are likely to go down in history as the men and women who failed to heed mankind's final warning.

Copyright © Independent News & Media. These articles were first published in The Independent 3/2/07.

Chatham Island shag
Typhoons in the Northern Pacific Ocean Image courtesy of NASA

Carbon dioxide rate is at highest level for 650,000 years

Steve Connor, Science Editor
3 February 2007

Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are at their highest levels for at least 650,000 years and this rise began with the birth of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, according to the IPCC.

Carbon dioxide is the principal greenhouse gas responsible for global warming and, in 2005, concentrations stood at 379 parts per million (ppm). This compares to a pre-industrial level of 278 ppm, and a range over the previous 650,000 years of between 180 and 300 ppm, the report says.

Present levels of carbon dioxide - which continue to rise inexorably each year - are unprecedented for the long period of geological history that scientists are able to analyse from gas trapped in the frozen bubbles of deep ice cores.

However, the IPCC points to a potentially more sinister development: the rate of increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is beginning to accelerate. Between 1960 and 2005 the average rate at which carbon dioxide concentrations increased was 1.4 ppm per year. But when the figures are analysed more closely, it becomes apparent that there has been a recent rise in this rate of increase to 1.9 ppm per year between 1995 and 2005.

It is too early to explain this accelerating increase but one fear is that it may indicate a change in the way the Earth is responding to global warming. In other words, climate feedbacks that accelerate the rate of change may have kicked in.

The IPPC's report points out that, as the planet gets warmer, the natural ability of the land and the oceans to absorb CO² from the atmosphere begins to get weaker.

It is estimated that about half of all the man-made emissions of carbon dioxide have been taken out of the air and absorbed by natural carbon "sinks" on the land and in the sea. Many computer models of the climate predict that as the Earth continues to get warmer, these sinks will become less able to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

This means that more CO² will be left in the air to exacerbate the greenhouse effect, so leading to further temperature rises and more global warming, which in turn will make the natural carbon sinks of the Earth even less efficient.

As the IPCC says: "Warming tends to reduce land and ocean uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing the fraction of man-made emissions that remain in the atmosphere."

This is just one of several "positive feedbacks" that could quickly accelerate the rate of global warming over the coming century. One isa warmer world is causing more evaporation from the oceans and a rise in water vapour - a powerful greenhouse gas - in the lower atmosphere. Another is sea ice and snow cover is shrinking at the poles and on mountains, leading to a further increase in local temperatures.

Copyright © 2007 TerraNature Trust. All rights reserved.

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