IT'S A HARD RAIN GONNA FALL...

In the late 1950s industrial pollution emitted by western European countries and the Ukraine began poisoning lakes in Switzerland. By the late 1960 many of the lakes were incapable of supporting life as toxicity levels rose. Much of the pollution simply fell out of the sky with the rain. Acid rain, as it became known, causes immense damage to areas of thin top soil or to areas of rocky terrain such as mountainous regions.

Dozens of scientific studies were carried out into the Swiss situation, prompted by urgent warnings and complaints from the Swiss government.

What is deeply disturbing to this writer is the existence of the internationally compiled Global 2000 report, initiated during US President Carter's term. The report, which brought together dozens of nations and some of the world's most renown scientists, scientifically documented projected changes to global climate and other ecosystems as a direct result of human activity. In short, the authors of Global 2000 and all countries contributing to it were charged with evaluating the predicted effects of eco-change by the year 2000 and outlining measures that could counteract or reduce the damage.

The report also outlined a no-nonsense programme for tackling the problems head-on, warning of the irreversible serious consequences of inaction. The report was buried within two years of its completion. It required too much change and was too detrimental to profiteering industry.

The following item was published 1997.

 

CLIMATE CHANGE AND GLOBAL WARMING
It may be incongruous to describe climate change in any current environmental controversy. It is after all nothing new. The last Ice Age finally retreated from Britain perhaps only some 12,000 years ago and the North African coastal Plains, much of which are now desert, were the granaries of the Roman Empire. What is new is the speed of change and the risk that ecosystems will be unable to adapt at the same rate. The fears expressed by some members of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that southern Africa could face a 100-year drought and that it is the climate refugee rather than the political refugee who will characterise the 21st century, convey the scale of that risk. Even if there is overall adaptation, localised impacts could still be severe. Other members of the Panel have speculated, for example, that diversion of the Gulf Stream could give the United Kingdom a climate akin to that of Labrador. Seventy percent of the world's population could be threatened with severe water shortages within the next ten years.

 

The Phenomenon of Global Warming
Climate change is a comprehensive term for the changes arising from the phenomenon of global warming generated by the build up of what are known as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The best known is carbon dioxide (CO2), and the first area of controversy, which is essentially scientific, is the actual rate of change and the extent to which it is man made. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has scaled down some earlier predictions, currently estimates that warming is occurring at a speed of between 1°C and 3.5°C every century, rates which may sound modest but which at the higher end of the scale could raise sea levels by up to one metre in the same period.

Scientific opinion increasingly supports estimates within this range, but the argument is far from closed. Similarly, there is growing but not unanimous acceptance that global warming is being accelerated by greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil, with natural gas as a lesser but still important contributor. Although domestic households, industry, commerce and agriculture produce most greenhouse gas emissions, road transport is responsible for 21% and that proportion is increasing. The increasing level of car and lorry use are steadily outweighing improvements in the domestic and industrial sectors. Even the substantial gains of 50% or more in fuel efficiency over the last 20 years have been outweighed by longer journeys and the preference for more powerful models. The net result has been that CO2 emissions from road vehicles have increased by 70-80% throughout the European Union alone in the last 20 years. These trends may seem slightly remote to the ordinary citizen but in practice they are not. The potential of the ordinary family car to contribute to global warming, for example, may be assessed from the statistic that on average each one emits about a ton of carbon dioxide every year.

 

Rising Sea Levels.
Rising sea levels are a daunting threat not only to countries like Bangladesh, where more than 100 million people live on land barely above sea level, but also to those extensive areas of north western Europe like East Anglia, the Netherlands and the German coastal plain where the land drainage of centuries past has caused the soil to dry out and shrink, putting much land significantly below the present sea level.

Such anxieties were aired at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio in 1992, and led to the drafting of the Convention on Climate Change. The European Union for its part had earlier agreed after much argument to stabilise CO2 emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000.

The results of these initiatives, in themselves fairly undemanding, remain modest. It is widely predicted that the EU target will be missed by perhaps 8% despite the substantial contribution made in some countries, notably the UK, by the substitution of natural gas for coal to generate electricity, athough that change is controversial for other reasons. Some observers also fear that emissions will rise steeply in the next century as public opinion refuses to countenance the building of another generation of nuclear power stations and much reliance again has to be placed on coal, due to the under-development of alternative power sources.

The first conference of the parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change, held in Berlin in April 1995, likewise had only modest results. The reason is not far to seek—Greenhouse gas emissions are unlikely to be stabilised, let alone reduced, unless fuel use becomes more expensive, which in practice means taxation of energy generated from fossil fuel sources. Although such taxation has the potential to be popular as one facet of a movement away from taxing incomes and employment towards taxing resource consumption, which would help to reduce unemployment, it will be seen as a regressive additional burden unless it forms part of a comprehensive redistributive package. Moreover, it is feared by many in industry, particularly in fields such as chemicals where energy use is high, by governments such as those of Japan, the US and the United Kingdom which are apprehensive of the impact on their competitiveness, by developing countries who fear their development might be stifled, and by the oil producing countries who do not wish to see a reduction in the sales of what may be their sole significant export.

Taxation in some form is, however, almost certain to come because the challenge of climate change will not go away. Recent years have been the warmest for well over a century and both droughts and flooding have grown in frequency. Some, like the 1995, 1999, 2000 and 2001 and 2002 floods in Germany and the Netherlands, were extremely severe and could easily have become major disasters, if in fact they were not— the floods of 2002 have been categorised by some as a major scale disaster. February 1995 saw the breaking away of an Antarctic iceberg the size of Oxfordshire. The years between 1990 and 2002 have produced global flooding on a greater scale than through known history excluding the prehistoric catastrophes of the Bosphorous and Black seas.

 

Temperatures in 1997
The year 1997 was the world's hottest since global records began in the 1860s with air temperatures rising to 0.43C above the long-term annual average. Britain enjoyed its second warmest summer on record with temperatures 3C above the monthly average.

Although the average Briton might well instinctively react that such an increase for the traditional holiday month was a positive asset, the global reality is very different from the perspective of the Pacific and the Caribbean. Some twenty states including the Maldives, the Cook Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, the Seychelles, Antigua, Barbuda and the Federated States of Micronesia are at risk of becoming uninhabitable through the saline pollution of all water supplies or through simply being submerged. One of the leading members of the islands' lobbying body, the Association of Small Island States (Aosis), is the Marshall Islands with an average height above sea level of 6ft and a maximum height of 20ft but with a population of 56,000. It is projected that 80 per cent of the main island and its capital will be under water within a century, which has led to the preparation of a strategy of total evacuation and abandonment.

Precedent is not encouraging for the ready welcome of such refugees, and even if they do receive a welcome their national culture will almost certainly be lost. The possible host nations may also have problems of their own. Vulnerable coastal cities range from New Orleans in the United States to Hamburg and Venice in Europe, and Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo in Asia.

 

El Niño
El Niño, however, has provided the most dramatic recent expression of the destructive potential of global warming, although precise relationship with the wider global phenomenon is the subject of scientific argument. El Niño is a complex of storms and hurricanes routinely generated at five to six year intervals by the warming of the Pacific. An area of warm water comparative in size to the continent of Europe is displaced from off Indonesia towards the South American coast 3,000 miles away, and instead of provoking the familiar southeast Asian monsoon it brings torrential rain and floods the length of the western littoral of the Americas. Moreover its scale is such that it disrupts weather patterns as far away as Africa.

Although the phenomenon is ancient, it appears to be growing in frequency and intensity, fuelling speculation that global warming is aggravating it. The rise of 5'C in the surface water temperature of the Pacific in 1997 was expected to provoke rainfall 200 per cent of normal before Christmas and 300 per cent afterwards along the Pacific seaboard of the United States. In an apparently perverse contradiction, it can provoke compensating snowstorms and blizzards further inland.

The Impact of El Niño
The impact can be devastating. The 1983 visitation saw damage of 9 billion worldwide and the death of at least 1,200 people, with the Californian coast being amongst the areas worst affected. The Peruvian GDP was reduced by some five per cent. The consequences in 1997 promise to have been even more severe when the full impact can be assessed, as the extent of ocean warming was already the century's second largest by September. The Indonesian coffee crop could register a fall by 40 per cent through drought and the same lack of rain was leading in the autumn to localised starvation and the suspension of the copper industry in Papua New Guinea, where the rivers were too low for commercial use. The Australian wheat crop suffered severely and the Philippines were preparing for the emergency distribution of rice. Wheat producers on the other side of the world, in South Africa and Zimbabwe, similarly feared the impact of drought.

In literal realisation of the old adage that "it is an ill wind that blows nobody some good", agricultural areas in the American mid-West and on the eastern seaboard, and in East Africa, may benefit, but such considerations miss the gravity of the situation. Wealth transfers are comparatively straightforward within a single prosperous country such as the United States but are much less so between and within developing countries. A possible rise of 15 per cent in global food commodity prices could spell starvation and social unrest in less fortunate regions. Even more seriously in the longer term, there is the risk that the rate of change will exceed the rate at which flora and fauna can adapt, irreversibly accelerating the already crucially high rate of species loss.

 

The Kyoto Conference
It is not surprising against this overall background that the second conference of the 150 parties to the Convention on Climate Change, held in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997, was politically charged. The European Union, strongly supported by the Association of Small Island States, urged a target of a 15 per cent reduction in emissions of three key greenhouse gases by the year 2010 with Britain being ready to reduce its emissions by 20 per cent in any event.

America and Canada were initially unwilling to envisage any reduction at all, although America expected China and India to commit themselves to future reductions. China and the G7 group of developing nations, on the other hand, called for reductions of 35 per cent by the wealthier countries by the year 2020.

It is perhaps remarkable in these circumstances that any agreement was reached at all, even if it was dubbed second-rate. A protocol was neverheless adopted stipulating a binding target of a 5.2 per cent average reduction by the major industrialised countries on 1990 levels of emissions of a "basket" of six greenhouse gases by the years 2008-12. The different regions will, however, receive differential treatment, The EU will make a reduction of eight per cent as will most of the countries of central and eastern Europe, the United States one of 7 per cent, and Japan and Canada six per cent. New Zealand, Russia and the Ukraine will stabilise emissions at 1990 levels but Australia will be allowed an increase of eight per cent. No emission reductions are required of the developing countries, which some observers feared could delay American ratification. America did, however, gain acceptance of the controversial concept of "carbon trading" between developed and developing countries, which is on the one hand a politically realistic approach but on the other a disincentive to real domestic change - a case of do as I say, rather than do as I do.

Conclusion
The Kyoto Conference decisions represent a considerable advance on the non-binding undertakings entered into at Rio in 1992, but their adequacy is controversial. For those who still doubt the extent to which man is responsible for global warming. they are a gratuitous economic hurdle. For the much larger number who accept that humanity is accelerating a natural phenomenon, they are a very weak response. A reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases of 5.2 per cent on 1990 levels by the developed countries by 2008-12 has to be set against the estimate of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990 that a global reduction of 60 per cent in carbon dioxide emissions was required then, if the atmosphere was to enjoy a stable equilibrium.

Read Global 200 Revisited (pdf file)      web page


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